Fri 31 Jul 2009
My work has always required me to spend at least some time on Capitol Hill, but until recently my office has been elsewhere. Now that I’m working on the Hill full time, I’ve begun to explore the lunch options in much greater detail. Lucky me, right?
I had always felt that the restaurants in closest proximity to the Congressional office buildings lacked a certain…I don’t know what. (Bet you thought I was going to toss off a French phrase there, didn’t you?) Simply put, the majority of the choices seemed to be geared toward expediency – sandwich chains, steam table buffets, and coffee shops abound. I was ready to start investing in brown bags.
But then I decided to stop into Le Bon Cafe, a quaint little storefront on 2nd Street SE between a FedEx Office and Pete’s Diner. I had seen plenty of people streaming in and out of the bright blue doors and even some friendly gatherings at the tables outside, so I decided to check it out for myself. The line, which ended just inside the door, struck me as a good sign (though it was lunchtime on Capitol Hill and that’s hardly unusual).
Breaking away from the Hill lunch rut after the jump.
Opened in 1991 and patterned after the Parisian cafes frequented by proprietor Sandra McCluskey, Le Bon Cafe is small, to be sure. With blue-stippled walls and French signs and posters throughout, the decor works hard to reinforce the Parisian mystique. McCluskey now runs a successful catering company as well, but Le Bon Cafe remains her love eighteen years later.
For breakfast, they offer an array of typical morning fare including quiche, waffles and an egg strata with sausage that is as rich and unhealthy as it is tempting. If you’re still searching for the ideal croissant, you may want to add Le Bon Cafe to your list and mark it ‘urgent.’ And to wash it all down, diners who choose to stay and savor are favored with literal bowls of hot beverages like coffee, tea and chai.
The handful of tables inside and out are frequently full at lunch time, so Le Bon Cafe does a brisk carry-out trade. And their menu is perfectly suited to it: a dozen or so sandwich choices (including a quintessential Croque Monsieur and some panini that are pressed to order), salads, and baked goods are available at lunch, as are hot beverages and a selection of soft drinks.
All of the bakery items are made on site, as are high-maintenance meal options like the chicken salad and the aforementioned strata. This can lead to frustrations from time to time, when a favorite menu item runs out just before you can get to the counter and place your order. Make sure you’ve got a backup selection ready to go just in case.
Each sandwich comes with a small side order of potato salad. Under other circumstances, this would be seen as a nice gesture. At Le Bon Cafe, it’s a huge favor. Red-skinned potatoes are cooked to a firm but yielding consistency before being tossed with red peppers, shallots, mayonaisse and what tastes like tarragon. The combination is addictive, and the portion is far too small to truly dig in. Even so, it was a great addition to the fresh ingredients in my turkey club.
Opinions on Le Bon Cafe seem decidedly polarized – either you love it or you hate it. While UrbanSpoon’s raters are unanimously supportive of the restaurant, Yelpers have given Le Bon Cafe a mediocre two and a half stars out of five.
Personally, I found it to be a flavorful and fresh alternative to some of the other options in the neighborhood. I suspect I’ll be getting to know their menu pretty well in the near future. And if I find anything particularly noteworthy (good or not-so-good) I’ll be sure to let you know what an update to this post.