Senate Dining Room: Where the elite meet

Next to the White House Mess or wherever Alan Greenspan takes his meals these days, it’s the most exclusive dining room in Washington.

Surrounded by instantly recognizable faces such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), those lucky souls invited to breakfast or lunch in the Senate Dining Room can be assured of rubbing elbows with some of Washington’s top newsmakers, many of whom have been, are, or soon will be in the headlines or on the Sunday talk shows.

Take Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for example. Last month, as I sat at a nearby table with a Senate staffer, McCain was having lunch with Deborah McGregor, a reporter for the Financial Times of London. McGregor, who was preparing a “Lunch with the FT” profile of McCain for the peach-colored newspaper’s weekend edition, reported that when she sought his advice on what to order, McCain replied, “It’s all awful.”

Fortunately for the reputation of Don Perez, executive chef of the Capitol, McCain wasn’t serious, as McGregor discovered after she ordered the grilled Atlantic salmon.

“Luckily, the food is not as bad as McCain would have it,” she wrote at the end of June, even though he chose “to apply liberal doses of salt and pepper” to his tuna sandwich on white toast. (For the record, McCain told McGregor that he’d still like to be president but that he “doesn’t envisage a scenario where it would be a possibility,” as he finishes another book, his version of Profiles in Courage, and prepares to run for a fourth Senate term next year.)

The bill for their lunch, by the way, illustrates why this is one of Washington’s better dining bargains. Their piscatorial entrees, with a bowl of chocolate ice cream for McCain and iced tea and sparkling water, came to $32.20 with tip (that’s 27.90 in euros), or about $16 per person, which is dirt cheap by local restaurant standards.

Senate Dining Room
United States Capitol

(202) 224-4100
Hours: Monday through Friday — breakfast, 8 a.m.-10:30 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. or whenever Senate is in session, until 9 p.m. if necessary.
Prices: Moderate; breakfast from $5 to $8, lunch entrees from $10.95 to $23.

Rating: 4 Domes

Food: 8 Ambiance: 10
Service: 9 Price/Value: 9

Ratings: Based on one-to-10 scale for food, service, ambiance and price/value; up to five domes based on reviewer’s judgment.

At two subsequent lunches, I found the prices, as well as the food, service and, above all, the power-drenched ambiance as appealing as they were when I last reviewed this restaurant, in June 1998 — when, incidentally, I spotted McCain huddled with former White House National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. Obviously, McCain is a regular; most senators eat here fairly often, or in the senators-only private dining room across the hall.

At the time, I wrote that the Senate Dining Room “is one of those places where you don’t notice, or really care, how good or bad the food is [because] what you eat is strictly secondary to whom you see or speak to in a restaurant literally filled with some of Washington’s top power brokers.”

That’s still true, and although the food is overshadowed by the clientele, it’s almost as good as you’ll find in many of Washington’s top restaurants, and considerably cheaper to boot.

Take, for instance, the lunch I shared with Jill Kozeny, communications director for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), on June 26, which was a Thursday, when the restaurant features foods from different states. This was Iowa day, so I figured that Kozeny, a native Iowan, and I, who grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota only three miles from the Iowa border, were qualified to pass judgment on the food.

She ordered the chicken potpie ($14.95), but it was apparently a popular choice since it was sold out by 1:30, so she settled for the glazed bacon and scallop salad with shitake mushrooms, baby carrots and plum tomatoes ($14.95). I assume the bacon came from an Iowa hog, perhaps one of those her boss raises on his farm, although the scallops obviously weren’t from the Corn State. But she was very pleased with her meal and gave it high marks.

I ordered the grilled beef medallions ($16.95), served with shitake mushroom sauce atop a bed of creamy polenta. The beef was fork-tender and cooked to medium-rare perfection, and the mushroom sauce and polenta complemented it nicely. It was a dish that deserved a unanimous vote.

One week earlier, Features Editor Jeff Dufour and I tried the Wisconsin-day menu, starting with a bowl of the famous Senate Bean Soup ($4.50) and moving on to Sheboygan-style grilled bratwurst with onions, German potato salad and sauerkraut ($12.95), meatloaf with mashed potatoes ($12.25) and an order of down-home macaroni and cheese ($3.95). It was all delicious and sure tasted like Wisconsin.

Executive Chef Perez knows his cooking. He trained at the former Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown D.C. and under Michelin-starred chef Gerard Pangaud at his restaurant on McPherson Square, and at Le Cordon Bleu in London. He describes his style of cooking as “progressive American,” with an emphasis on local fresh seasonal produce, meat and seafood.

“I try to take the high road with no shortcuts,” said the 42-year-old Perez, who is also in charge of the only other restaurant on the Senate side of the Capitol, the senators’ private dining room. “I look for the freshest seasonal ingredients. Quality and service are what keep them coming back.”

Senators and their staffs, Senate officers and visiting dignitaries can eat at the Senate Dining Room, as well as senators’ constituents if they have a letter from a senator. For visiting firefighters, it’s the highlight of any trip to the nation’s capital.

And it’s a real treat for those who are able to dine here on a regular basis.

From pilot to the Hill

Robert Savidge isn’t your typical restaurant manager, and wouldn’t be even if he weren’t in charge of a restaurant that’s anything but typical.

Savidge, who oversees the two Senate Dining Rooms in the Capitol, is an Air Force veteran who doubles as a corporate jet pilot in his spare time. Among his clients are such luminaries as World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

The 48-year-old Florida native has been involved in hospitality all his life. A former executive chef and standards watchdog for the Marriott Corp. and owner of a food-service company for country clubs in Florida, he and his wife also ran a country inn in Vermont.

He stumbled onto his present job almost by accident in 1994 when he answered a newspaper ad for a general manager of the Senate restaurants while operating his company in Florida.

Savidge points out that the Senate restaurant operation isn’t subsidized by the Senate and has to show a profit like any commercial restaurant. “Senators pay the going price for their meals,” he notes.

The Senate Dining Room is open only to those authorized by the Rules Committee, such as senators, their spouses, children and guests, staffers, Senate officers , foreign dignitaries and senators’ constituents with a letter from their senator.

They’re seated after 1:30 p.m. If there’s room, others who aren’t officially authorized can often gain admission “because we need the revenue,” Savidge says.
Albert Eisele

Tags Chuck Grassley Hillary Clinton John McCain

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