Mary Mendle Bird
Washington has been transformed since I first landed here as a post-graduate student in the mid 1960s. In those days, the fare was quite plain and very Southern influenced. Sundays meant roast beef or turkey and was not washed down by a libation. My late husband, Collins Bird, was at the helm of the Georgetown Inn when he discovered a local mom-and-pop operation with great breakfasts. Inspired, he soon began serving eggs, etc. for brunch at the Inn and lines formed.
Rare exceptions venturing beyond the mundane in those days were the still-flourishing and quite venerable 1789 (1226 36th Street, NW) in the shadow of Georgetown University and Rive Gauche, long since gone, which exuded a French essence from the Camelot era. That restaurant occupied a corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue in the heart of Georgetown—now home to a Banana Republic branch.
Other long-departed stalwarts include Harvey’s with impeccable seafood next to the Mayflower Hotel, Duke Zeibert’s eponymous landmark for haute deli, and the elegant Jockey Club frequented by diplomats and cave dwellers, those native Washingtonians who tend to stay in their own private worlds.
I am not certain when the restaurant scene shifted. Perhaps the advent of new office buildings on K Street brought an influx of very good dining options. From those early days, The Prime Rib (2020 K Street, NW) is one of the remaining bastions of predicable fine dining in an elegant setting with superb service. Important, too, is the fact that it’s a place where one can actually be heard. (In this regard, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema became so aggravated when noise levels at several other places made diners feel hearing impaired that he has added a decibel rating to his reviews.)
Today, for glamour there is no parallel to Café Milano (3251 Prospect Street, NW). Proprietor Franco Nuschese came here to open Bice but swiftly moved on to establish this current haunt of visiting and local superstars: presidents, divas, moguls, and the rest. I recently had the pleasure of a post-theatre benefit dinner in the desirable Domingo room, named for frequent diner Placido of opera renown.
Remembering Collins and to update the brunch scene (please bear in mind that I don’t care for overladen buffets), a chic crowd at Peacock Cafe (3251 Prospect Street, NW), next door to the aforementioned Café Milano, basks in the warm attention of the Farivar family. Ris (2275 L Street, NW), the brainchild of esteemed chef Ris Lacoste of the aforementioned 1789, offers eggs Benedict in many guises as “small plates.” Wolfgang Puck spoils all of Washington with his Asian fusion at The Source (575 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW) where executive chef Scott Drewno produces sensational dim sum adjacent to the Newseum (Washington’s celebrated interactive museum) and easily walkable from the National Gallery.
More suggestions. I often tease that Washington must now have more Ethiopian restaurants than that homeland and they can be delightful. And crossing into Northern Virginia, there’s the Eden Center (6751 Wilson Boulevard, Falls Church), which offers a wide choice of Vietnamese options. Peking Gourmet Inn (6029 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church), also in nearby Virginia, was a favorite haunt of the George H. W. Bushes and continues to draw a loyal clientele. I happily feasted at a many-course luncheon repast during the summer.
Still speaking personally, and back to Washington itself, I love taking a “private holiday” to sit solo with something special to read and savor variations of bouillabaisse at Black Salt (4883 MacArthur Blvd, NW) or mussels at Et Voilà! (5120 MacArthur Blvd, NW) or steak tartar at Central Michel Richard (1001 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW) or any special treat at Bistrot du Coin (1738 Connecticut Avenue, NW).
My own hood is near the National Cathedral and we have a number of tempting options. The closest choice is Chef Geoff’s (1301 New Mexico Avenue, NW), manned by Geoff Tracey, who is forming a mini empire. His newscaster spouse Nora O’Donnell and their pals and offspring can on occasion be found enjoying a relaxing moment on the canine-friendly landscaped patio.
John Warner mans Le Zinc (3714 Macomb Street, NW), a French bistro that instantly acquired a following. The stunning black-and-white gallery-quality photographs are equal to the cuisine. The restaurant recently closed on a Sunday evening as Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer hosted “a non-partisan party to celebrate the conclusion of election 2012.”
As a committed urbanite, in a heartbeat I would venture to recently opened The Grilled Oyster Company located in the Cabin John Shopping Center in Potomac, Maryland. The oysters there are impeccable. Friends spoiled me on a recent birthday luncheon in the private room and some thought that the second of their two world-class crab cakes might go home to spouses—that did not happen!
Generally speaking, Italian options in DC are a bit lacking. I still moan the demise of A .V. Ristorante Italiano in what was then a dreadful, and now booming, downtown neighborhood. It had the world’s worst parking lot sculpture, a jukebox with eclectic selections heavy on opera, and questionable hygiene but the first and, in my mind, still best white pizza to grace the nation’s capital. Today’s winner in the authentic Italian category is Al Tiramisu (2014 P Street, NW) near Dupont Circle, overseen by the ever gracious chef/owner Luigi Diotaiuti (his photo graces the top of this article and his surname translates as “God help you”). I discovered the restaurant last year when Luigi, a proud dual Italian/US citizen, honored the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy with a series of cooking classes showcasing the nation’s twenty regions. The compact and totally functional kitchen produces miracles of fresh pasta and imported delights. Luigi recently hit the news when it was revealed that George Clooney has dined there multiple times without benefit of paparazzi. Fortunate New Yorkers can sample Luigi’s cucina on March 14 when he will be the featured chef at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village. Luigi, the first professional sommelier in Washington, DC, to be certified by the Association of Italian Sommeliers, is planning his menu and wine pairing, which may well include a salt cod specialty from his native Basilicata.
So yes, I can happily declare that the restaurant scene in Washington today has come a long way from the days when Roberta Flack was entertaining the cognoscenti at Mr. Henry’s on Capital Hill. People have many, many choices of where they go to enjoy the kind of quality fare the city deserves.
Little did I know when I met Mary on a terrace at Sarah Lawrence College all those years ago that our friendship would be one of those that last a lifetime. And how happy a fact that it has! A society reporter for The Georgetowner, Mary is retired as the Chief of Translating at the Department of State.