DC’s Grande Dame of Vietnamese Cooking Will Serve Pho Again Starting This Weekend

Germaine Swanson of the lauded Germaine's is back in the kitchen after two decades.

Germaine Swanson in her namesake restaurant. Photograph courtesy of Pamela Swanson

One of the pioneer’s of DC’s modern dining scene is back in action after two decades. Germaine Swanson, a Vietnamese native who opened the lauded pan-Asian restaurant Germaine’s in 1978, will serve her pho again starting this weekend. The chef, now in her mid-eighties, is teaming up with former daughter-in-law Pamela Swanson and family to serve the soups—and eventually more Vietnamese dishes—out of Pamela’s Old Town Alexandria restaurant, Haute Dogs and Fries.

Like many Washingtonians, my first taste of pho was made by Germaine. Originally from South Vietnam, she came to Washington in 1972 with photojournalist husband Richard Swanson, whom she met working in the Saigon bureau of Time magazine.  Her namesake restaurant opened in Glover Park six years later. More than any downtown steakhouse, Germaine’s was a gathering place for journalists, politicians, and celebrities. (A 1979 New York Times article captures the scene in the dining room, complete with Nora Ephron and Ben Bradlee.) The first pan-Asian restaurant in DC—and a rare gem on the East Coast—it was also a foodie destination. Julia Child once famously dined in the elegant space and asked for Germaine’s Peking-duck secrets.

Pho ga at Haute Dogs.

I don’t remember the duck—it’s Germaine’s pho ga that’s most vidid. My family would visit often when I was growing up, and I was delighted by the delicate chicken soup swimming with cilantro, shaved onion, tender noodles, and meat. (Her crispy “pine cone” fish and shaking beef were also deliciously memorable.) The “haute pho” menu, which will launch alongside the regular lineup of local hot dogs and sausages, will specialize in pho ga. Pamela says they’ll add beef and vegetable noodle soups soon, with the eventual goal of opening a stand-alone Haute Pho restaurant.

Germaine’s closed in the late ’90s, but its proprietor has remained active in the kitchen, catering with Pamela at Haute Dogs and teaching cooking classes out of her apartment. Germaine, whom Pamela describes as having “the energy of a teenager,” is currently in and out of the Alexandria restaurant, monitoring the ten-hour pho brew that she’s labeled “confidential” on all the family recipes. Pamela says the next step for the business is a commercial kitchen space in DC, which will allow them to do more catering, deliveries—both dogs and pho—and eventually add more Vietnamese dishes (including Germaine’s spring rolls, sate, and banh mi) to the restaurant menu.

“It’s like opening a mini Germaine’s again,” says Pamela. 

Haute Pho at Haute Dogs and Fries. 610 Montgomery St., Alexandria

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.