An Early Look at Sax (Pictures)

“We’ve wanted a place that evoked opulence, corruption, scandal, and sex”

Left: Beet salad with hibiscus, vanilla, pickled watermelon, and goat cheese; right: A look at the over-the-top red-and-gold decor. Photographs by Kyle Gustafson

Slideshow: Inside the Restaurant & A Peek at its Dishes 

The latest spot from the owners of Oya and Sei is all about bacchanalian revelry—just look at Monica over there.

At a time when pop-up restaurants and underground markets are the fad, it’s clear that Washingtonians want to push the dining envelope. Enter Sax in DC’s Penn Quarter—a lounge, cabaret, and French-Mediterranean restaurant rolled into one Versailles-style space. Nowhere else can you dip into blue-crab-and-Gruyère fondue while watching lithe, corset-clad women in cat masks prance along a glass-enclosed stage. There were whispers at a pre-opening party that Washington may be too buttoned-up for these follies, but co-owner Errol Lawrence thinks the concept will succeed.

“We’ve wanted a place that evoked opulence, corruption, scandal, and sex,” says Lawrence, who also owns the nearby restaurants Sei and Oya with business partner Nancy Koide. “And we realized we’re sitting in the middle of it: We’re in Washington.”

A bi-level, 150-seat space filled with red velvet, faux-marble columns, and antique sconces speaks to the opulence. Allusions to scandals and sex unfold with burlesque troupes performing onstage—the acts get racier as the night goes on—or artist Balage Balogh’s “Sax Scandals” murals and portraits, which show such ribald images as Monica Lewinsky riding a centaur/Bill Clinton mash-up, President Barack Obama smoking a joint, and George W. Bush poised over lines of cocaine.

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The menu of shareable plates is tame by comparison. Chef Jonathan Seningen, most recently of Oya and Hook, prepares dishes that seem decadent but not provocative. Expect offerings such as Wagyu-beef tartare on gougères, sea scallops with coconut and ginger, and a tiered platter of charcuterie festooned with flowers and pickled heirloom vegetables. Cocktails are also meant to be seductive with names such as Boudoir, which has fresh peaches, whiskey, and Champagne.

The theme of indulgence doesn’t stop there. Diners must spend at least $75 per person on drinks and dinner—which shouldn’t be difficult with $30 lobster sliders and $16 cocktails.

Sax, 734 11th St., NW; 202-737-0101. Open Monday through Thursday 6 PM to 1 AM, Friday 6 PM to 2 AM, Saturday 7 PM to 2 AM, Sunday 8 PM to 1 AM. Reservations required.

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Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.