January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

A stately Washington institution with a menu that balances tradition (rack of lamb) with adventure (lamb tongue salad).

No. 44: 1789 Restaurant

You might guess that the growing interest in dinner as theater eventually would spell the demise of a place like 1789, a restaurant where men show up for dinner in a jacket and where a prefeminist code of manners obtains among the bow-tied, fiercely competent staff—the bill is rarely if ever set down in front of a woman.

While the old ways still apply, generations of politicos, legions of Georgetown students (buttoned-down for proper dinners with parents or for courtly dates), and tourists flock to the historic townhouse.

But even institutions need a shot of energy now and again. Chef Nathan Beauchamp and his bosses at the veteran Clyde’s Restaurant Group have aimed to reposition 1789 as a fresh restaurant without sacrificing its appeal as a sometimes stuffy special-occasion destination.

Caught between old and new, Beauchamp straddles the middle. The approach mostly works, as Beauchamp shops wisely and concentrates on updating and lightening French bistro classics, from a robust but unheavy steak tartare to an escargot tart to an almost country-style pork chop that won’t weigh you down. There’s even a quietly daring lamb-tongue salad, a revelation for a restaurant whose signature dish has long been its rack of lamb. You’ll also find dishes that don’t live up to their risk and dishes that taste as generic as any wedding banquet’s.

The star of the menu remains the rack of lamb. It’s no gastronomic epiphany, just a very well-cooked and gratifying plate of food. And, for the restaurant’s many longtime fans, a reassurance.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.