Lots of diners respond well to nostalgia, which is good for the newly revamped Jockey Club. First opened in 1961, the restaurant drew customers as much for the VIP spotting as for the formal, traditional menu: Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, and Joe DiMaggio all dined there. So did eight Presidents. Nancy Reagan and CBS’s Mike Wallace held monthly lunches there.
In 2001, the place shut down, reportedly for a facelift. It reopened last November.
Despite minor changes—there’s more natural light, and the coveted corner booths are gone—the second incarnation of the Jockey Club evokes the restaurant’s heyday: an era of martini lunches and dining rooms thick with cigarette smoke.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the maitre d’. Martin Garbisu, who presided over the room from 1978 to 1993, is back ushering regulars to their favorite tables.
Sitting down to dinner here is a throwback to a time when dining was a quieter, more formal experience. As with the serious French restaurants that dominated the city in the ’70s and ’80s, service is of equal importance to the food. “This is what we call French service,” a waiter declared one afternoon as he poured soup from a tureen at the table.
The image is sometimes at odds with the reality. One night, a spoon arrived with dried food on it. At a recent lunch, we were asked if we were ready to order before we’d been given menus. A Caesar salad prepared tableside, in the traditional manner, resulted in a nearby chair’s being splashed with mustard.
The cooking, overseen by chef Richard McCreadie, seldom risks but seldom fails. The Senegalese lemon soup had a deeply layered broth and a well-spiced curry-chicken garnish, while Dover sole and lobster Thermidor—staples of ’60s fine dining—were expertly prepared. The crabcakes were marvelously light, with minimal filling, although the toasted quinoa that accompanied them was inexplicably bland. The kitchen’s faithful recreation of the restaurant’s best-loved dishes, built on a solid command of classical technique, made a veal schnitzel that was pounded dry and flavorless that much more disappointing.
One of the best dishes was an appetizer of Parmesan gnocchi in a sweet-corn broth with delicate trumpet mushrooms and a drizzle of chive oil. In this setting, it amounts to boundary pushing.
A formal restaurant with a jackets-required dress code and entrées priced upward of $40 is a hard sell these days. There are better values to be had, not to mention livelier times. But for diners who miss the old ways, the resurrection of the Jockey Club is likely to be greeted as a welcome development.
This review appears in the August, 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.