Dishing up more than politics in D.C.
By SHARON WATSON
Published April 2, 2006
Whether your craving is for a burger and a brew or wild striped bass and fresh pear strudel, Washington boasts any number of restaurants to fill the bill, many of them in historic spaces, from an old city incinerator to a presidential waiting room. Here is a sampling of some special restaurants in the nation's capital:
This former boardinghouse is about three blocks from the Capitol, which makes it even closer for everyone working in the two Senate office buildings. But it's not just because of its location that its regulars are the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill.
The Monocle is as welcoming as a neighborhood bar, and everyone on the staff seems eager to please. When it opened in 1960, the story goes, frequent customers included a young senator from Massachusetts named John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon, both vying for the presidency.
Today, its walls sport autographed photos of the famous faces of those who have eaten here over the years, including almost every president since Kennedy.
However, not all of the chief executives were as popular as JFK. Nixon's photo was once found in the ladies' room, pulled from its frame and ripped to shreds.
With two small rooms upstairs, the Monocle has been the regular meeting place for the caucus of female senators, and it is regularly reserved by various members of Congress for private functions.
But even if your photo isn't on the wall, you'll get a warm welcome here. And if you're weary of the fashionable designer food so much in vogue some places, you'll find it the perfect antidote with its simple fare and hospitality.
The menu concentrates on steaks, including filet mignon with a Merlot sauce and roasted garlic ($29), porterhouse with caramelized peppers and onions ($33) and ribeye with chili butter ($30). But the signature dish is probably the crabcakes with roasted red pepper sauce ($23). Another standby is the pork rib chop with a pommery mustard sauce ($18).
Set in the former presidential waiting room in Washington's historic Union Station, B. Smith's is as grand as it gets in the federal city.
The majestic space was designed as a safe haven for presidents while they waited for trains, a measure deemed prudent after President James Garfield was assassinated in the railroad station.
Today, its magnificent 30-foot vaulted ceiling, period chandeliers and stately columns combine to create one of the most stunning restaurant spaces in town. Yet the atmosphere is comfortable and warm.
Its namesake is TV personality and former model Barbara Smith. This restaurant, second of the three she has opened, features an eclectic menu of classic Southern cooking with contemporary Cajun and Creole interpretations.
House specialties include a combo of fried chicken and a crabcake with mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach and a sweet onion and tomato sauce ($26) and the Swamp Thing, a seafood dish with sauteed shrimp, scallops and crawfish in a Dijon cream sauce ($24).
Battered and deep-fried catfish with stewed tomatoes and macaroni and cheese ($18) is another favorite.
An excellent way to sample the menu is at the Saturday and Sunday buffet brunch (served noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday; $30 for adults including unlimited brunch cocktails, $15 children).
The buffet table holds the usual breakfast items, along with house specialties and delicious pastries and breads. Later, diners select desserts such as Bourbon Street bread pudding, apple cobbler and sweet potato-pecan pie. But the rich, sweet coconut cake served with a vanilla brandy sauce is my pick every time.
With charm and grace, the Morrison-Clark Inn delivers a nostalgic return to days gone by. Wedding two 1864 brick townhouses into a grand mansion, it is the only Washington inn on the National Register of Historic Places.
The two houses were originally built by the Morrison and Clark families. In 1917, the Morrison property was sold. The new owners, influenced by their trip to Asia, made changes to the exterior that give the property much of its charm, notably the Chinese Chippendale Porch with its graceful Shanghai roof.
Today, this elegant inn has a gracious restaurant that is pure Victorian romance - the feel of a special night out.
The kitchen turns out excellent American cuisine displaying a definite Southern affection in many dishes. Starters include Maryland blue crab bisque ($10) and Bourbon shrimp and grits ($14). Main selections typically include Carolina rainbow trout stuffed with lobster and porcini mushrooms with local fall vegetables and pecan rice ($24), sauteed breast of Amish chicken with succotash, roasted tomato grits and a smoked onion sauce ($20) and Smithfield ham ($26). Desserts include pecan pie ($7), apricot currant bread pudding with a whiskey white chocolate sauce ($7) and triple chocolate cake with espresso cream ($8).
Iron Gate Inn
You'll also feel as though you've stepped into another time and place when you enter the rustic, old-fashioned dining room at this hidden gem. Formerly the carriage house and stables of a Dupont Circle mansion, the dining room's baroque wooden booths once sheltered horses.
Dating to the Civil War, the home was originally owned by Gen. Nelson Miles, who rose from volunteer infantryman to commander in chief of the Army, the last person to hold that title.
President Theodore Roosevelt once called him a "brave peacock," an allusion to Miles' combination of fearlessness, vanity and self-promotion. He was criticized as commander of the fort in which Confederacy President Jefferson Davis was kept in shackles, but he was also in charge of troops that captured Geronimo. In his 70s, his application for a return to the Army during World War I was denied.
Today, an air of antiquity abounds in this quaint restaurant. On a blustery winter's day, its cozy fireplace offers instant cheer, and in summer, its beautiful garden is one of the nicest places in the city. A cobbled courtyard entryway leads to a grape arbor terrace loaded with Mediterranean charm.
Not so long ago, this was a restaurant where the ambience, not the food, was the draw. But in recent years, the food has been gaining acclaim.
The menu features American cuisine with a decidedly Mediterranean influence, with starters such as hummus ($7), an Arabic bread salad ($7) and wild mushrooms on grilled polenta ($11). Main courses are more American mainstream: roasted farm chicken with vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes ($21), pork tenderloin with a fruit sauce ($23), grilled salmon with potatoes au gratin ($21) and grilled filet mignon with mashed potatoes and caramelized onions ($33).
Poste Moderne Brasserie
This striking, glass-fronted American brasserie is set in the chic Hotel Monaco, a gorgeous conversion of what was the first all-marble building in Washington when it was completed in 1842. Then, it served as the General Post Office; the restaurant occupies the space that was its mail-sorting room.
You can enter Poste through the stunning hotel lobby, but then you'd miss the nostalgic feel of passing through the historic cobblestone carriageway portal off the Eighth Street entrance.
Inside, you'll find an exhibition kitchen, skylights and two dining rooms. The main dining room, with its 16-foot-high cast-iron ceiling and skylights, is a dramatic space, but the room itself is rather simple, with platform booths and original paintings by American artists. Elegant table settings and huge bursts of flowers add a bit of sizzle. The second, smaller dining room is long, narrow and much less appealing.
In warm weather, the best spot is the pretty Parisian-style terrace in the imposing courtyard.
Signature dishes include Virginia Kobe beef steak tartare served with homemade brioche ($11) and crispy skin wild striped bass ($16).
The menu changes with the season; recent highlights have included beef bourguignon ($23) and herb-crusted Chatham cod served with a miniature skillet of roasted potatoes with bacon and onions ($20).
Desserts include seckel pear strudel with caramel custard ($7) and a pecan tart ($8). But whenever I have the plate of freshly baked cookies (chocolate chip, peanut butter, apricot and chocolate almond biscotti) served with a miniature root beer float, I leave feeling like a happy child.
The Tabard Inn
Named after the famous hostelry of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Tabard Inn opened its doors as a guesthouse more than 80 years ago. Formed from three linked townhouses on a pretty, tree-lined street near Dupont Circle, the inn offers 40 guest rooms, each different and some quirky.
The Tabard Inn Restaurant is a neighborhood favorite. Customers feel its easygoing ambience in the dimly lit lounge, with low couches that look as though a plume of dust will rise up the minute someone sits down.
The main floor dining room is casual and unassuming, with low ceilings, a black-and-white checkerboard tile floor and scarred wooden tables. The upstairs dining room, open for dinner, has a dressier look. Best yet is the brick-walled garden for warm weather dining.
The food is largely New American with an emphasis on regional produce, but the menu changes often. A favorite time to dine is weekend brunch, when a complimentary basket of mini muffins and other treats is presented as soon as diners settle in.
Main courses for the brunch include toasted pecan waffles with ginger-rhubarb compote and cinnamon whipped cream ($10) and quiche with grilled salmon, roasted peppers, spinach, scallions and fontina cheese with a mixed green salad ($12).
On the dinner menu, favorites include pan-seared scallops with homemade fettuccine ($23) and grilled rack of lamb with Japanese eggplant ($24). Recent desserts have run from peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream ($8) to chocolate peanut molten cake with roasted banana ice cream ($8).
In spite of its unglamorous history and industrial past as a city incinerator, Fahrenheit sizzles with style.
Set in the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, the restaurant is crafted around the shell of the incinerator building, which could not be torn down under D.C.'s historic preservation laws.
Fahrenheit is actually situated on the top floor of this art deco structure and has a comfortably chic ambience, with original 1930s red brick walls, beautiful hardwood floors and elegantly tall windows.
But its humble past is recalled in the cab car of the garbage crane parked near the ceiling at its entrance, and in the building's towering smokestack.
The contemporary American menu entices with options that include bay scallops and shrimp linguine ($26), mushroom-crusted veal chop with lobster mashed potatoes and jumbo asparagus ($38) and filet mignon with truffle Parmesan fries and portobello mushrooms ($36). For dessert, the chocolate fondue served with pound cake, fruit, a walnut brownie and marshmallows ($12) is sweet.
Sharon Watson is a freelance writer living in the Washington suburb of Glen Echo, Md.