Articles > Food & Drink
Washington Dining: JFK Knew Good Food
His tastes changed Washington dining—and some of 1965’s best restaurants are still going strong
Speaking with the authority that came from his years here as a US senator, President John F. Kennedy described Washington as "a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm."
The city in 1961 also had a reputation as a culinary backwater. In Eating in America, Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont gave dining in the District of the 1950s and '60s short shrift: "Aside from one or two seafood restaurants and such political sideshows as the Occidental, where politicians' pictures plaster the walls, there is little to report about Washington."
Kennedy knew something about good food. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy—a former ambassador to England and an investor in the legendary Le Pavillon in Manhattan—had introduced young Jack to French cuisine and wines. When JFK set out to win the presidency, there were no bologna sandwiches on the campaign plane. The in-flight meals for Kennedy and his staff were provided by chef Fred Decre, an alumnus of the kitchen at Le Pavillon who had opened Manhattan's acclaimed La Caravelle. A typical Decre menu would start with vichyssoise, move on to a main course of chicken breasts with a Champagne-and-cream sauce, and end with a chocolate mousse or a caramel custard.
It is hard to believe that JFK's opponents did not use his refined tastes against him. His rival, Vice President Richard Nixon, had more populist tastes: One of his favorite snacks was cottage cheese sprinkled with Lawry's Seasoned Salt. In some politicians, an affection for French cuisine might have been considered effete. But Kennedy was a war hero who enjoyed sailing and touch football—he was a guy's guy with Hollywood connections, so when he professed his fondness for French food, Washingtonians headed to the nearest bistro to learn all about it.
Although presidents before and after Kennedy had an interest in dining, none promoted food the way Kennedy did. He transformed the old kitchen in the White House living quarters into a professional facility with commercial ranges and a restaurant-grade refrigerator, and he told the press corps that he was giving as much thought to the selection of a new White House chef as to his Cabinet appointments.
Today the First Lady usually hires and fires White House chefs; in 1961 the President selected René Verdon, a prominent Manhattan French chef, and announced his hiring at a press conference. The appointment made headlines and sparked a renaissance of French restaurants in Washington. First among them was Rive Gauche, at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, whose kitchen was headed by Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle and whose service was directed by Jean-Michel Farret, both of whom would become important players in Washington's restaurant revolution.
Among the other restaurants that catered to Washington's new interest in French dining was Sans Souci—a bi-level dining room where the Washington Post's resident humorist, Art Buchwald, presided at his own table and where the cuisine was so ordinary that diners knew the safest choice for lunch was a salad and a small steak. In the same tier was La Salle du Bois, located on Washington's restaurant row of the 1960s, which spanned M Street between 18th and 19th.
For less-expensive French dining—main courses priced between $1.75 and $3.75—the leading choice was Chez François. It specialized in the hearty dishes from chef/owner François Haeringer's native Alsace: platters of sauerkraut braised in wine and stock and covered with a garnish of sausages, salt pork, and smoked pork loin.
Chez François was praised for providing excellent food at very fair prices but criticized for its all-female floor staff, which was thought to provide a lesser level of service than male servers. More than 50 years after the original Chez François opened near the White House, L'Auberge Chez François in Great Falls continues to be one of the toughest reservations to book, in part because of the tradition of wonderful service.
Two other notable French restaurants were Le Bistro and Chez Camille—both offered good cooking at fair prices. Le Bistro became a hot spot shortly after it opened when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy paid a lunchtime visit to its townhouse premises at 1827 M Street. For Francophiles, its choice dish was a splendid rabbit stew, but there were enough steaks and chops and chicken on the menu to satisfy less-adventurous eaters.
Chez Camille was a raffish bistro near 14th and L streets, just around the corner from a striptease joint called the Merry-Land Club. Proprietor and host Camille Richaudeau was a caricature of the overbearing bistro proprietor. A squat, paunchy presence, Monsieur Camille was a tyrant in his dining room. Because no one not born and raised in France could know anything about French food or wine, he told customers what to eat and drink. The food was quite good—particularly the daily specials inspired by classic dishes from regional cuisines—but many of the wines, particularly reds served at blood temperature, were so damaged as to be undrinkable. Rejecting a wine would spark Monsieur Camille's ire. As many diners loved Camille for his eccentricities as loathed him, and they kept his dining room full.
The dividing line between the French restaurants and the steak-and-whiskey places was drawn by establishments that offered "Continental cuisine," a term that suggests a dressy dining room with tuxedoed waiters and a kitchen offering the sort of food that hotels were serving when some of the best cuisine in cities was to be found in the dining rooms of the best hotels.
In 1965, the best hotel dining in Washington was at the Madison Hotel's Montpelier Restaurant, which had a wine list that would make a contemporary connoisseur wish for a time machine. With either a filet with bearnaise sauce or the capon breast that was the house specialty, one had the choice of some of the greatest Bordeaux vintages of the 20th century: Chateâu Haut-Brion 1937 at $18 and the legendary Chateâu Mouton Rothschild 1928 for $24.
Two Continental restaurants, the Jockey Club and Paul Young's, became fixtures of the Washington social scene after being booked for private dinners celebrating Kennedy's inauguration. Located in the Fairfax Hotel—the boyhood home of Al Gore—at 2100 Massachusetts Avenue, the Jockey Club gave itself airs of being the local version of Manhattan's 21 Club. Paul Young's, across from the Mayflower Hotel, was Duke Zeibert's with good manners and a wine list.
The sudden popularity of French restaurants in the capital gave rise to the saying that French cuisine was the regional cooking of Washington, and its best restaurant was the French ambassador's residence. But red meat and strong drink did not lose their popularity during the French invasion.
In 1965 the Palm was seven years away from broiling its first steak in DC, and Duke Zeibert's, which had opened in 1950 at the corner of 17th and L, was the heart of Washington, a social scrum of politicians, lobbyists, businessmen, sports figures, and journalists. If you merited a table in the front dining room at lunch, it was a tacit acknowledgement that you were among the best in your respective field.
There was a lot of good-natured joking about the food at Duke's, but it was actually good if you stuck to the basics, which meant the gigantic crab cakes, Friday's special of beef stew, and the best prime rib and New York strip steaks in town.
Above all there was Duke, as genuine a fan of the celebrities he hosted as any of the people who stand outside Sardi's on Broadway, autograph books at the ready. At any Redskins home game, you could look up at team president Edward Bennett Williams's box and see Duke. At Monday lunch, he would be on the floor of his front room, welcoming a senator, congratulating a businessman on a major deal, and sharing the gossip du jour with a columnist.
In 1965, as today, Washington had no shortage of steakhouses. Blackie's House of Beef, at 22nd and M streets, had opened in the 1940s featuring wagon wheels in its front windows and a logo of a cowboy roping a steer. It hosted a radio show in the evenings that attracted visiting show-biz personalities who left autographed publicity photographs. Blackie's collection of framed celebrity photos almost rivaled the Occidental's.
Roast beef was the house specialty at Costin's Sirloin Room in the National Press Building, as it was at Tom Sarris' Orleans House in Rosslyn, which opened in 1957 and still flourishes.
Then, as now, the best choice for a steak on Capitol Hill was the Monocle. For steaks and chops cooked on a hickory-fired grill, you'd make a reservation at the Embers, on 19th Street just about where Sam & Harry's is today. Today our top steakhouses are all imports: the Palm and Bobby Van's from New York, the Prime Rib from Baltimore, and Morton's from Chicago. In 1965 the only imported meat-and-potatoes palace was a branch of Kansas City's Golden Ox. Encouraged by Washington's reputation as a beefeater's town, it opened on L Street in 1962.
The restaurants Washingtonians favored for seafood in the 1960s were among the oldest in the area. The elder statesman was Harvey's, which had opened in a converted blacksmith's shop at 11th and C streets as an oyster-and-beer shop in 1858. In 1965, Harvey's occupied a three-story building at the corner of Connecticut and L. From its earliest days, Harvey's was an American original: Unlike its early-20th-century competitors—the Willard Hotel, Bartholdi's Cafe, and Cafe Lafayette—all of which offered French menus inspired by Delmonico's Steak House in Manhattan, Harvey's served American fare. Patrons came to relish regional recipes using local products such as terrapin soup, crabmeat Norfolk, scalloped oysters, broiled rockfish, and in the spring, filet of shad baked on a wooden plank.
Although not quite as venerable as Harvey's, Hammel's, which opened for business in the first decade of the 20th century, also featured fish cooked on wooden planks, although its specialty was not shad but planked rockfish. On Capitol Hill, the fish house of choice was Wearley's, which had opened at 516 North Capitol Street in the late 1800s and whose specialties were oyster preparations and Maryland crab dishes.
Forty years later, the only significant survivor among the seafood restaurants is Crisfield, a Silver Spring institution that opened in 1945. In the shadow of a railroad overpass that spans Georgia Avenue, its cinder-block-and-tile setting and its blond-wood-topped dining counter have remained unchanged for 60 years. More important, Crisfield's simple Eastern Shore seafood dishes have remained true to their original recipes. Of all the restaurants that were in business in 1965, none serves as accurate a taste of the past as Crisfield.
Another notable aspect of Washington dining, the upscale saloon, traces its origins back to the Kennedy years. Until May 1962, when President Kennedy signed a bill that legalized serving liquor at stand-up bars, public drinking in Washington was governed by strict rules meant to inhibit rowdy behavior: Bars could serve beer or wines only to patrons seated on stools; to be served liquor, one had to be seated at a table in the restaurant's dining room or cocktail lounge. If a patron wanted to socialize with friends at another table, his drink had to be carried there by a waiter.
With the stroke of a pen, the President launched the age of the upscale saloon in Washington. Inspired by P.J. Clarke's in Manhattan, Stuart Davidson opened Clyde's on M Street in Georgetown in 1963. Agreeing with Davidson's belief that it is "more fun to eat in a saloon than it is to drink in a restaurant," Washingtonians beat a path to Clyde's door. And while Clyde's was the city's liveliest singles bar, it didn't attract only the young: A table in the skylighted atrium room at the rear was one of the choicest dinner reservations in town, and each night congressmen, senators, and the beautiful people of the time would jostle past the packed front bar to reach the tables in back. Forty years ago, Clyde's was a magnet for local cafe society, the Cafe Milano of its time.
Washington diners of the mid-1960s doted on the solid pleasures of German restaurants, as they had since the first years of the 20th century, when the Occidental and Loerber's, both on Pennsylvania Avenue, featured platters of wursts and sauerkraut, sauerbraten with potato dumplings, and crisp-crusted schnitzels, all accompanied by steins of German draught beer.
In those days, Washingtonians did not think of herring drowned in sour cream, a main course of smoked pork loin, a pair of feathery potato dumplings, and apple strudel slathered with whipped cream as guilty pleasures. German food had kept the Occidental and Loerber's in business for 60 years and still had enough appeal to support such upstarts as Old Europe, Restaurant 823 on 15th Street, and the Bavarian, a small place where government workers lightened their day with a quick plate of wursts and a half liter of German beer. That Old Europe, on Wisconsin Avenue, is the last survivor of this genial crew reflects the fact that German restaurants are an endangered species on the American dining scene.
Not a single example of the upscale, authentic Italian restaurants that rule contemporary Washington existed here in 1965. You didn't go to an Italian restaurant for a first course of house-made fettuccine tossed with fresh porcini mushrooms, garlic, and parsley, followed with a main course of rabbit legs braised in Barolo and served over creamy polenta; you went to your favorite checkered-tablecloth Italian-American restaurant and enjoyed an antipasto salad of iceberg lettuce covered with slices of cold cuts and cheeses before tucking into a plate of precooked spaghetti awash in tomato sauce. A savvy diner might choose a main course of manicotti, eggplant parmigiana, or veal scallopine Marsala. The check for you and your date, including a palatable wine and tip, would be under $20.
There was a standing joke among the regulars at Duke Zeibert's bar during the 1960s and 1970s about Tony's, a small Italian-American restaurant nearby on L Street: The Duke's regular would get a table at Tony's and, after looking at the menu, ask the proprietor, "Hey Tony, is the clam sauce fresh today?" To which the reply was, "Of course it is—I opened the can myself this morning."
In a rare foray outside of their favored French restaurants, President Kennedy and his brother Robert visited Mama's Original Italian Kitchen at 14th and P streets in 1963. Owned by Margarita "Mama" DeSantis Castro, the restaurant got itself into trouble for serving alcoholic beverages after hours. It was just the sort of place that Jack and Bobby—and their friend Frank Sinatra—would love: In one bust in 1970, Mama Castro's husband, Ernest, and 21 patrons were arrested when ABC undercover agents were served Scotch in coffee cups with their pizza at 3 AM, violating the 2 AM curfew on serving liquor in the District.
In 1965 the Roma was the patriarch of Washington's Italian-American circuit, opening in 1920 at 3419 Connecticut Avenue. Forty-five years later, it was still providing competition for newer arrivals, such as Luigi's downtown on 19th Street, A.V. Ristorante Italiano, near the corner of New York Avenue and Sixth Street, Marrocco's at 1911 Pennsylvania Avenue, Anna Maria's Italian Restaurant, which still operates at 1737 Connecticut Avenue, and the Trieste, near George Washington University, which had a picture of the patron saint of Italian restaurants, Frank Sinatra, on the wall.
With the exception of A.V. Ristorante, which could produce a reasonably authentic Italian meal if a diner entrusted the selection of dishes to the restaurant's owner, Augusto Vasaio, the quality of Italian cooking in mid-1960s Washington was grim: More often than not, an appetizer of roasted peppers came out of a can, as did the cannellini beans. Whether your choice of pasta was spaghetti, linguine, penne, or rigatoni, it had been cooked by the kitchen staff who worked the lunch service and warmed when you ordered it at dinner. And those pounded-too-thin veal scallopine were sometimes precooked and set to languish in a pan until ordered, then drowned in tomato sauce or white wine.
In 1965 "Szechuan" and "Hunan" were not part of the local restaurant vocabulary. There were three kinds of Chinese restaurants here: Chinese-American, Cantonese, and northern Chinese, sometimes called Mandarin or Peking-style cuisine. Some Chinese-American restaurants took that designation literally, offering menus that devoted the left-hand page to chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young, and sweet-and-sour pork and the right-hand page to steak, pork chops, fried chicken, and roast turkey. The most popular of these, the Lotus and the Casino Royal, both on 14th Street, offered floor shows as an added draw.
Because most of the Chinese in Washington came here from southern China, the restaurants in Chinatown were Cantonese. Their kitchens cooked many dishes two ways, depending on who ordered them: When a Chinese customer ordered chow mein—which means fried noodles in Chinese—he got a plate of thin, pan-fried noodles topped with meat or seafood lightly coated with sauce; when an Occidental ordered chow mein, the result was a plate of short, deep-fried noodles inundated with a cornstarch-thickened sauce in which swam the meat or seafood selected.
The top Chinatown restaurants were China Inn, the oldest in the neighborhood, and Tai Tung, a much newer addition to H Street's stir-fry corridor. China Inn was popular with both Chinese and Occidental diners, but if you were non-Chinese and wanted authentic dishes, you had to ask for the Chinese menu, which had English translations of its set specialties; seasonal specials were written only in Chinese, which owners Bill and Irene Yee were happy to translate. Tai Tung had a large Chinese clientele and a floor staff that was not particularly helpful to Occidentals who wanted authentic Cantonese dishes.
"Cantonese" became synonymous with "Chinese-American," which boosted the popularity of the fairly new northern-Chinese restaurants that offered long menus of then-unfamiliar dishes as well as the opportunity to enjoy Peking duck.
Yenching Palace, which opened in 1955 in Chinatown, was the first local Chinese restaurant to offer Peking duck without advance notice, and for years it was considered one of Washington's top Chinese kitchens. Its reputation—and its connections—were such that in 1971 it served as the unofficial dining room for the Chinese diplomats who came to Washington to negotiate normalizing relations between the People's Republic and the United States. All that remains as a reminder of Yenching Palace's storied years is the glistening black façade across which the restaurant's name is scripted in neon. Behind the façade, a very ordinary neighborhood Chinese restaurant awaits.
Long gone but verdant in memory are the two Peking restaurants, the downtown location and the branch on Connecticut Avenue just south of Chevy Chase Circle. In a 1966 article on Washington restaurants, New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne, an acknowledged scholar of Chinese cuisine, cited the two Pekings as among the very best in the District.
Compared with the rich tapestry of ethnic cuisines available today, the choice of exotic dining in 1965 Washington was very limited. The cuisines we now take for granted—Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Burmese, Korean, and Turkish—were nowhere to be found. It would be seven years before we could sample a menu of Thai cuisine—at the Thai Room, which opened in 1972 at Connecticut and Nebraska avenues. At Genghis Khan, a pan-Asian restaurant at 1805 Connecticut Avenue, one could sample several Thai dishes, as well as a few Indian curries, along with a selection of familiar dishes from China and Japan.
There was no sushi bar at Tokyo Sukiyaki, a tiny restaurant at 1736 Connecticut Avenue, but diners could go there and sit on the floor and look nervously over an assortment of raw seafood. The tempura was better prepared than any fried shrimp platter in town, and the sukiyaki was prepared at tableside by a kimonoed waitress—that defined exotic dining at the time. •
On M Street between 18th and 19th, the Astor was a diamond in the rough. It was Greek, it was garish in its blue-and-white color scheme, it featured belly dancers in the upstairs dining room, and it served the most delicious food at starving-student prices that you could find outside an Eastern Orthodox church bazaar.
More than 30 years before tapas made Jaleo a Washington hot spot, El Bodegon, at 1637 R Street, offered an assortment of Spain's traditional drinking snacks in its small tapas bar, where hams hung from the rafters. The tapas were the best part of El Bodegon: The bar had a Spanish feel to it; the classics—potato omelet, fried squid, shrimp with garlic, and croquettes—were all good. But seats at the tapas bar were always available. Chairs in El Bodegon's upstairs and downstairs dining rooms never went begging. In the 1960s, this was an evening of adventurous dining: mounds of precooked paella, held on a steam table and scooped into steel paella pans when ordered, and "Continental" versions of such Madrid tourist-trap fare as chicken sautéed with garlic, veal scallops with sherry sauce, and a mixed seafood stew called zarzuela de mariscos, all accompanied by a mini-flamenco troupe that made up in decibels what it lacked in talent.
Indian dining in Washington was so rudimentary that not a single restaurant that offered tandoori chicken on its menu had a tandoor—an urn-shaped, charcoal-fired clay oven—in its kitchen. Until Jagdish "Jack" Katyal opened Tandoor in Georgetown in the late 1970s, Indian restaurants here cooked their "tandoori chicken" in conventional ovens. Such was the case at Taj Mahal, the only Indian restaurant of that period open today. Its second-story premises at 1327 Connecticut Avenue are a bit threadbare, but at least today's waiters will entertain requests for spicy or extra-spicy curries. Forty years ago, similar requests fell on deaf ears.
When The Washingtonian published its first issue in October 1965, local restaurants mostly served the steak-and-whiskey crowd that had been here since Prohibition and the courtiers of Camelot, who still paid allegiance to the French and Continental tastes of their late president. The French chefs who would gain recognition with their own restaurants—Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle at Jean-Pierre, Robert Greault at Le Bagatelle, and Jacques Blanc at Le Provencal—were working here but were relatively unknown.
Lyndon Johnson was a giant of a political leader but as president had no influence on dining. He and the First Lady replaced the Kennedys' chef, René Verdon, with Henry Haller, a nicely neutral Swiss. Johnson had stopped by Harvey's for a meal so the "restaurant of presidents" could claim an unbroken string of presidential visits since Abraham Lincoln.
Otherwise Johnson kept to the White House, where he entertained guests at Texas-size cookouts on the White House lawn. He served up steaks from Texas that were great in size and taste as well as his beloved Pedernales River Chili. Some credit LBJ with giving California wines international recognition by directing that only American wines be served at our embassies.
In October 1965 Johnson had been president for two years, but not a single steakhouse from Texas had opened a branch in Washington. When he left office in 1969, expatriates from the Lone Star state were still waiting for a Texas steakhouse to call their own. They still are.
Is it possible to go to a restaurant that has been open for 40 years and get a taste of the food Washingtonians ate in the 1960s?
About a dozen restaurants that were open in 1965, when The Washingtonian first published, are open today. The menus of several remain much as they were 40 years ago, and so does the decor.
Some restaurants remain in name only. The original Clyde's in Georgetown, which opened in 1963, barely resembles the raffish singles saloon it once was. And except for the oversize saloon burger and its oversweetened chili, its menu is more that of a Modern American restaurant than of a Washington saloon.
I could not find a Chinese or Indian restaurant from the 1960s worthy of review. The cooking at Taj Mahal, the area's oldest Indian restaurant, is better than it was 40 years ago, but it suffers by comparison with what is being served today at Heritage India, Bombay Palace, Passage to India, and other top Indian kitchens.
With one exception, the products available to today's restaurateur are superior to those of 40 years ago. The exception is beef, whose grading standards were changed by the Department of Agriculture in 1976 to reduce the amount of marbling—interior fat—required for a USDA Prime grade. Less fat means a less-rich flavor.
Given changing tastes, it is an achievement that the six restaurants reviewed here continue to flourish. And they do so customer by customer: None of them has been reviewed in years, and only one, the Monocle, appears in the latest edition of the local Zagat survey.
These restaurants initially succeeded because of the families of their owners and of their patrons: Sons and daughters took over the restaurants from their parents, and dining at a favorite restaurant became a generational tradition. The mixture of young, old, and middle-age diners that you see at these restaurants is a good indication that they will be around a lot longer.
Prices cited represent a three-course meal for two with a moderate bottle of wine or suitable beverage plus tax and tip.
Enjoying the Real Thing: Regional Fare Done Right
Crisfield Seafood Restaurant (8012 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-589-1306. Dinner for two, $79). Even in the 1970s and 1980s, when Crisfield was acknowledged to serve the best seafood dishes in the area, people complained about the cinder-block decor that had remained unchanged since 1945.
The looks of the place also gave rise to complaints about Crisfield's prices, deemed high for such plain surroundings. But there seldom were complaints about Crisfield's excellent Eastern Shore fare, which was so good because the Landis family was willing to pay top dollar for the best local seafood. Considering the cost of its ingredients, Crisfield's prices were—and still are—very reasonable.
Between May and August, do not expect to start a meal with oysters on the half-shell—the restaurant serves only local oysters, and only during the months that have an "r." Other good ways to begin are with spiced shrimp or with a cup of Eastern Shore clam chowder. The menu says the spiced shrimp cocktail has seven shrimp, but the countermen regularly include two or three extra.
Crisfield's clam chowder tastes of the essence of clams because it is made with the meat and liquor of just-shucked clams. The result is a remarkable flavor you can't achieve using canned minced clams and bottled clam juice. Once you've tasted it, it's hard to resist beginning every meal at Crisfield with its marvelous chowder. Do not be tempted by the seafood bisque, one of the kitchen's rare failures. At a Sunday lunch, it was underflavored and so overthickened that it could have held a spoon erect.
Crisfield's best-selling main course is its baked shrimp stuffed with crab. To newcomers, the portion of three butterflied jumbo shrimp, each mounded with a small portion of crumb-topped crab, may look like an appetizer. But the dish's natural richness makes it a very satisfying meal.
Shrimp stuffed with crab may be the bestseller, but Crisfield's version of crab imperial—Maryland's greatest seafood delicacy—is its finest achievement. It was created by Lillian Landis, matriarch of the family that has owned the restaurant since its inception. The original crab imperial, created in the late 19th century at a Baltimore restaurant called Thompson's Sea Girt House, was a gratin of backfin lumps with a diced mixture of onions, green bell pepper, and pimiento, all bound in a thick cream sauce. Landis once told The Washingtonian that she found the original version too heavy, that the other ingredients interfered with the gently sweet flavor of the crab.
Her recipe has backfin lumps lightly bound with Hellmann's mayonnaise and flecked with finely minced green bell pepper and an almost invisible dice of onion. It's no longer served in a cleaned crab shell but in a disposable aluminum-foil facsimile of one. It tastes every bit as good as it did in the real one.
Diners spoiled by the jumbo-lump crab cakes served in Washington's best restaurants will be disappointed by Crisfield's crab cakes. The recipe dates back to the 1940s, when it was traditional to mix a lesser grade of crab with fillers to make cakes, reserving the backfin lumps for imperials, gratins, Norfolks, and cocktails. The cakes are expertly fried, but their meek flavor and croquette-like texture are disappointing.
The impeccably fried perch filets are excellent, as is another regional specialty, flounder stuffed with crab. And if you can visit Crisfield without ordering seafood, the kitchen offers authentic Maryland fried chicken, cooked to order in a cast-iron pan. Preparation takes 25 minutes, but have some spiced shrimp and a cup of clam chowder and the wait won't seem long for the best fried chicken you are likely to find in any local restaurant.
The wonderful countermen who were here in 1965—Ned, Georgie, and Captain Huck, pros who treated diners to a speed-shucking contest whenever clams were needed for a batch of chowder—are gone, as is the late Mrs. Landis, the formidable matron to whom you paid your check at the front counter. Outside of that, the only noticeable change at Crisfield is that it now accepts credit cards.
In Rosslyn, the House That Roast Beef Built
Tom Sarris' Orleans House (1213 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn; 703-524-2929. Dinner for two, $83). There is no better time machine than Tom Sarris' Orleans House. The operating principle is that if you offer a roast-beef dinner whose reasonable price includes an all-you-can-eat salad bar, they will come.
They have been coming to Tom Sarris' since 1957, and there's no end in sight.
The multilevel dining areas resemble wrought-iron balconies in New Orleans's French Quarter, and there is a salad bar shaped like a riverboat. But nothing can overshadow the prime-rib carving station. Thanks to its heat lamps—augmented by some theatrical lighting—it glows. Glistening under the heat lamps are several whole prime ribs, which the carvers slice quickly. The performance cries out, "Forget the menu—this is what you're here for!"
The roast beef is served in three sizes, for $15.95, $18.95, and $22.95; each includes as many trips to the salad bar as one wishes plus what the menu describes as "roasted potatoes." On recent visits, the potatoes seemed more boiled than roasted, so it is worth the extra $1.25 to get a good baked Idaho potato.
At these prices, you can't expect the top-prime, dry-aged roast beef served at the Prime Rib, the Palm, and Smith & Wollensky. But in flavor and tenderness, the roast beef at Tom Sarris' is a good cut above the best you can buy at the supermarket.
In lieu of a wine list, it offers a card of six red wines; the most agreeable is a Turning Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the labels produced by Ernest and Julio Gallo. At $24 a bottle, it's just fine. Besides, if Tom Sarris' Orleans House created a wine selection to appeal to contemporary tastes, it would not be the time warp it is now.
Italian-American—Spicy, Eccentric, and Good
A.V. Ristorante Italiano (607 New York Ave., NW; 202-737-0550. Dinner for two, $88). This is the house that Augusto Vasaio built. A native of Pescara, a coastal village in the Italian region of Abruzzo, he opened A.V. Ristorante Italiano in 1949 and introduced Washingtonians to the pleasures of pizza bianca—a thin disk of pizza dough baked with a topping of finely minced garlic, dried oregano, and dried hot-pepper flakes. It was a savory flatbread meant to be eaten with appetizers and main courses. As a first course, a shared pizza bianca could be further topped with fontina cheese and anchovies.
At A.V.'s in 1965, patrons were presented with a long menu. Part of the restaurant's eccentric charm was that on any given night a third of the items were unavailable.
Back then there were two kinds of A.V. regulars. First were the parties that sat 6 to 12 at a table and feasted on antipasto salad and stuffed artichokes and pizza bianca, then tackled platters of tomato-sauced spaghetti or linguine garnished with assorted meats or a combination of seafoods.
Then there were those who knew that the way to enjoy the kitchen at its best was to ask Augusto Vasaio what he would suggest. If there were newcomers at the table, Don Augusto would be gentle, suggesting stewed squid followed by a bone-in rib-roast of veal that his brother Franco had just cooked. For longtime regulars, he might present a meal of four courses of squid prepared in different ways or make baked lamb's heads the centerpiece of a feast for 12.
Vasaio was a very good cook, though his amiable brother Franco did the heavy lifting. In 1976 The Washingtonian organized a pasta competition featuring the chefs of the leading Italian restaurants and, for the sake of nostalgia, Augusto Vasaio. The contest was held at Tiberio Ristorante on K Street, then one of the city's most expensive restaurants.
In their starched white jackets, Washington's top Italian chefs awaited the arrival of the last contestant, Vasaio. In a gray suit and a plaid flannel shirt open at the collar, A.V. arrived carrying a few utensils and the ingredients for his dish, linguine with a mixed-seafood sauce from Pescara. While his linguine was cooking, he sautéed his seafood in olive oil with garlic, dried flakes of hot-pepper, and tomato. When instinct told him that the pasta and sauce were simultaneously ready, he plated the dish in one of A.V.'s family-size platters and had it delivered to the judges. Then he packed his utensils and headed back to host dinner at A.V. When the judges' votes were tallied, Vasaio was the winner.
Vasaio's son, Augusto, and stepson, Johnny DiBari, have been running A.V. for more than 20 years since its founder's demise. Augusto, who headed the kitchen during some of the years his father was imposing his will on the dining room, is now the person one consults for advice about the best dishes of the day—and the one who will honor a request that the pasta be cooked al dente rather than precooked and reheated as it would be otherwise.
Because of its proximity to Capitol Hill, A.V. has long counted senators and congressmen among its regulars. At a lunch in August, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia emerged with members of his staff from the back of the restaurant, where the group had enjoyed an assortment of pizzas. Scalia also drops by to lunch with fellow justice Clarence Thomas.
A meal at A.V. inspired by memories of Augusto Vasaio might begin with cannellini beans stewed with onion and escarole sautéed with garlic, both enjoyed with bites of pizza bianca. It would be nice to include a plate of roasted peppers with anchovies, but at the height of the local pepper season, A.V.'s peppers had the slightly bitter flavor of roasted peppers out of a can.
Instead of having the meat and pasta together in the Italian-American style, Augusto would suggest that you have a half order of pasta after the antipasto, followed by meat or seafood as a main course.
The best pasta courses sampled recently at A.V. were linguine with shrimp Fra Diavolo, impressive for its large shrimp and fearlessly spicy tomato sauce, and linguine with wonderfully tender baby calamari in a spicy sauce. Choice main courses included a whole broiled rockfish recommended by Augusto Vasaio. A cautionary note: If you order a whole fish at A.V., be prepared to bone the fish yourself.
A.V.'s signature veal roast is no longer the bone-in cut of a veal rib roast served in 1965 but a flavorsome boned shoulder whose generous slices are moistened with a pan sauce flavored with Marsala. As the weather turns cooler, look for one of the treasures on A.V.'s list of daily specials, the rabbit cacciatore. Stewed in white wine and garnished with garlic cloves and served in a portion large enough to satisfy two, it is a wonderfully rustic dish that Johnny DiBari says Justice Scalia orders when he can resist the temptation of A.V.'s pizza.
A Reliable Old Friend Survives on Capitol Hill
The Monocle (107 D St., NE; 202-546-4488. Dinner for two, $144). Before the opening of the Monocle in 1960, there were no white-tablecloth restaurants on Capitol Hill. Senators and congressmen who wanted a change from their in-house dining rooms and cafeterias would repair to Wearley's on North Capitol Street, known for its cooked oyster specialties and Maryland crab dishes. The Monocle was such a hit that owner Connie Valanos nearly doubled its seating capacity in 1967.
The Monocle is a handsome restaurant whose exposed brick walls are accented with signed photographs of members of Congress.
Most of the food is simple and reliably good. The kitchen falters only when it indulges in pretensions of Modern American cooking, such as presenting its crab cakes on a plate glazed with a red-bell-pepper coulis that interferes with the sweet flavor of the crab. And vegetable garnishes are used to add color to the dish rather than to complement the flavor of its main ingredient.
One of two salads provides a good beginning to a meal here. The Greek salad is offered as a main course on the lunch menu, but a first-course portion is yours for the asking. It substitutes baby lettuce leaves for romaine but otherwise is the familiar composition of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, feta cheese, and anchovies, elevated by a wonderfully fruity olive oil. A less rustic combination—reminiscent of a salad popular among French restaurants here in the 1960s—is a toss of watercress, endive, diced tomato, and chunks of Roquefort, lightly dressed with a classic vinaigrette. It tastes as good as it looks.
A skewer of lightly seared yet perfectly moist shrimp was profitably served on a dollop of leek sauce, but its trio of small shrimp was skimpy. An outright disappointment was a seafood bisque that was light and creamy but had no focus—except an excess of salt—among its flavors.
Among the main courses, three meat dishes were all excellent. Perfectly sautéed to the "pink" requested, the calf's liver was moist, tender, and naturally sweet. Liver this good deserved a smooth potato purée rather than the lumpy mashed potatoes served with it.
Thoroughly cooked without a trace of pink at its bone, a thick pork rib-chop was properly moist and had the rich flavor of old-fashioned, fat-marbled pork rather than the blandness of today's lean pork.
The most pleasant surprise was a strapping portion of Certified Angus Beef rib-eye steak served on the bone. It had a depth of flavor and a tenderness not previously encountered in a Certified Angus steak. The handsome slab of beef is not the equivalent of the bone-in rib steaks served at such steakhouses as Bobby Van's, the Prime Rib, or Smith & Wollensky, but it is far superior to anything you are likely to encounter at other local restaurants.
Simply grilled or roasted meats offer a good background against which to display red wines. The Monocle offers an extensive, well-selected wine list that is a pleasure to explore. Its bottles, great and small, are offered at some of the fairest prices you are likely to find in local restaurants.
The Original Pizza Place—Still Packing Them In
Luigi's (1132 19th St., NW; 202-331-7574. Dinner for two, $95). The first Italian restaurant in the District was the Roma, which opened in 1920 at 3419 Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park. In 1922, with the opening of Ciro's Famous Village Restaurant at 1304 G Street, downtown DC got its first tastes of meat-stuffed ravioli with tomato sauce and veal cutlet alla Parmigiana.
With both those restaurants distant memories, Luigi's, which opened in 1943, is the city's oldest Italian restaurant. It was one of the first local restaurants to serve pizza, which was little known outside of New York and did not begin to become popular until the end of World War II. When GIs returned from Naples with a taste for pizza, Luigi's was waiting to serve them.
Venerable Italian-American restaurants like Luigi's owe their longevity in part to family tradition—that of the owners and that of their patrons. Critics may deride precooked spaghetti with an excess of tomato sauce (with more garlic than is good for it) and breaded veal cutlets armored with melted cheese and swamped in tomato sauce, but if it is the kind of Italian-American cooking you first encountered, it is likely to retain its appeal.
Which helps explain why Luigi's, located within blocks of such acclaimed Italian restaurants as i Ricchi, Teatro Goldoni, and Galileo, is the likeliest to be packed at both lunch and dinner.
When it comes to pizza, the first-impressions rule also influences lifetime tastes. So it is that Luigi's pizza, whose undercooked crust has a crackerlike flavor and is overloaded with cheese, is one of the most popular items on the menu.
The antipasti sampled on recent visits to Luigi's were uninspired—marinated red peppers whose olive oil, capers, and garlic could not mask their tinny taste, and an old-fashioned Italian-American antipasto undone by its institutional coldcuts and cheese. It is probably better to start a meal at Luigi's with a half order of pasta. •
One thing to remember about ordering pasta, whether spaghetti, linguine, penne, or rigatoni, at Luigi's or any other Italian-American restaurant: Ask that it be cooked al dente. Otherwise, you will be served precooked pasta. Sometimes it takes two tries to get your pasta cooked al dente. After you refuse the first dish of precooked pasta, the waitress will return from the kitchen to tell you that your pasta will take "nine to ten minutes" to cook. Quite right.
Luigi's serves classic Italian-American ravioli with a well-seasoned meat stuffing and nicely sauced with crushed tomatoes. It also makes an attractive Linguine alla Luciana with fresh-flavored squid in a spicy tomato sauce that has been briefly cooked to preserve the natural sweetness of the tomatoes. Linguine with white clam sauce, a Neapolitan classic often butchered at Italian-American restaurants, is very good at Luigi's, lightly sauced and garnished with tiny clams in their shells. The only outright failure encountered was a half order of spaghetti with the house meat sauce, which was acrid from its excess of dried herbs and overcooked to a rust-red color.
Among main courses, a monkfish alla pizzaiola was overwhelmed by an overly salty tomato sauce garnished with capers and kalamata olives. An order of scallopine alla Marsala, an Italian-American standard, was ruined by an excess of minced garlic.
The most successful main course was another Italian-American standard, veal scallopine alla Parmigiana. The thick veal cutlet's flavor was surprisingly rich, striking a meaty note between its topping of melted mozzarella and its fresh-tasting tomato sauce.
In a city where authentic Italian restaurants dominate the fine-dining scene and its best pizzas are baked in wood-fired ovens, that the 62-year-old Luigi still draws full houses suggests that there is a legion of Washington diners with an enduring fondness for the Italian-American cooking they fell in love with when they were young.
Schnitzel, Wursts, and Old-Fashioned Comfort
Old Europe (2434 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-7600. Dinner for two, $123). Old Europe is a reminder of a time when calories didn't count. Operating in the same location since 1948, it is the oldest remaining link to the German influence on the capital's dining tastes.
Old Europe exists in a state of suspended animation, basking in the patina of its 57 years while maintaining a neatness that sets an example for restaurants in their infancy. The only noticeable change in the wood-paneled dining room whose walls are covered with canvases depicting Alpine scenes is that its 100-year-old cuckoo clock is usually silent.
The standards are consistently well prepared at Old Europe, which makes it a destination restaurant when one has a craving for a schnitzel; sauerbraten with potato dumplings and red cabbage; or a trio of outstanding wursts made by a master sausage-maker in Baltimore and garnished with a fragrant mound of sauerkraut. For the hardiest of appetites, there is the roasted fresh pork hock.
But what keeps Old Europe sprightly beyond its years is its round of annual festivals. Right now it is Oktoberfest. If you need a reason to return to Old Europe, the Butcher's Platter is reason enough: Although it is no longer served on a wooden cutting board, this plate of sausages, a slice of smoked pork loin, and an exquisite liver dumpling, garnished with a helping of sauerkraut, remains the best Oktoberfest platter in the area.
After the kegs of Oktoberfest beer are tapped dry, the kitchen will turn its attention to the Game Festival, then the Asparagus Festival and the May-Wine Festival, when the previous year's vintage is celebrated with glasses of young white wine flavored with waidmeister, a sylvan herb known in English as woodruff.
Old Europe owes its longevity to Karl Herold, who arrived from Germany in 1958 as a young chef recruited by the Lichtenstein family, the founding owners. After Herold bought Old Europe, he kept his position as executive chef but also served as the restaurant's host.
Ever the amiable innkeeper, Karl Herold would approach the table with a gentle smile and a twinkle in his eye that said, "I want to share with you the good things in my kitchen and the fine German vintages in my cellar." Ah, that cellar. While Old Europe had a variety of fine German beers on tap, Herr Herold championed the cause of Germany's wines by sharing his knowledge of them and offering them at bargain prices. In this day of inflated wine prices, Old Europe offers some of the great wines of the world—Schloss Vollrads, Hattenheimer Nussbrunnen, Erbacher Marcobrunn—for well under $40.
These days, Karl Herold is in for only three hours a day, usually at lunch. He has entrusted his innkeeping duties to his son, Alex, whose enthusiasm bodes well for his stewardship of Old Europe.
Thursday through Sunday, when a pianist pounds out show tunes on the restaurant's spinet, the dining room fills up. There are tables of four couples; all-male tables of academics indulging in one-liter stems of German draught beer and plates crowded with sauerbraten, potato dumplings, red cabbage, and a sauce thick enough to stand up and salute; young couples in search of comfort food; and a neighborhood regular who asks for a Schnitzel à la Holstein—which hasn't been on the menu for years—and gets a breaded veal cutlet with a pair of fried eggs on top, decorated with a crossed pair of anchovy filets. Experience it and you'd have to be a cynic not to be taken in by the fun and old-fashioned comfort that is Old Europe.