Tue 9 Sep 2008
The days of three-martini lunches and back rooms wreathed in cigar smoke may be gone (unless you work for Sterling Cooper), but Washington’s lunch scene is still dominated by steakhouses and other expense account-friendly venues. Thankfully, the evolution of the DC dining scene has not passed these power spots by – their menus now boast locally sourced ingredients, sustainable seafood and even inventive vegetarian options alongside the three-pound lobsters and filets mignon.
And while perennial favorites (the Prime Rib, Old Ebbitt Grill, the Monocle, the Palm) still do what they do best, here are five of the newer establishments whose plush leather seats and white linen tablecloths provide the backdrop for big deals and some of the best political gossip:
5. Charlie Palmer Steak - The newest power spot on the Hill, Charlie Palmer has been packing in the political crowd since it opened in 2003. They’re deservedly well known for their upscale take on a standard steakhouse menu, with entrees that highlight their “line caught” provenance or the names of the farms that supply them. Not as well known is their daily pris fixe menu: they offer a variation on the typical Restaurant Week menu (one of two appetizers, entrees and desserts) for $20.08, making this a great place for the junior lobbyists among you to treat a client without breaking the bank. Don’t be surprised to see a handful of Congressional types on hand, as well – although Congressional gift bans prohibit lobbyists from treating Members and staff to lunch, fundraising events allow everyone to sit down and enjoy a good steak together.
4. Bistro Bis – As the name might suggest, Bistro Bis is a smaller venue, located in the Hotel George. Tucked away on E Street near Union Station, this is something of a hidden gem and a great spot to go for a quiet lunch with a client (or a prospective client) coming in from out of town. Their menu is hardly typical of power spots - only one steak option, and it comes with frites! – but the $16 burger and heavily French-influenced cuisine should reassure you that you’re in the right place. Owned and operated by Chef Jeffrey Buben (also of Vidalia restaurant), Bistro Bis offers a fine dining option for those times when a power lunch is about more than just the power.
3. The Caucus Room (heads-up: their website launches with music) – This place was launched during the contentious 2000 elections with political functions in mind. The list of owners includes Mississippi governor (and former RNC Chairman) Haley Barbour and left-leaning “King of K Street” Thomas Boggs. The restaurant boasts six options for private dining venues ranging from 8 guests up to 40. Currently at the bar you can ‘vote’ with your drink order by selecting a red cosmopolitan that represents the GOP (seems a bit of a stretch when Bloody Marys are also a lovely shade of red) and an electric blue margarita for the Dems. But the Caucus Room’s location in Penn Quarter and its classically-focused menu make it a favorite for the downtown business crowd, as well. A well-stocked wine list and service staff that go above and beyond help to distinguish the Caucus Room from a number of other contenders in its neighborhood.
2. Oceanaire Seafood Room – Sure, it’s part of a chain, but Oceanaire blows its maritime competitors out of the water when it comes to high-end seafood. Downtown denizens love this place for its opulent art deco-meets-oceanliner decor, its ever-changing menu of “ultra-fresh” fish and its expense account price tag. Simple presentations of grilled, broiled or pan-seared fish are always spot-on, and the chef’s specials reflect a wide range of culinary inspirations. With its throwback elegance and impressive food, it is definitely one of the best places to show a client that he or she is your top priority.
1. The Capital Grille – With almost 15 years of service under their belt, the Capital Grille is hardly a newcomer to the Washington restaurant scene. But their commitment to using the best ingredients (including steaks that are dry-aged on site) and their top-notch kitchen make them a favorite of Capitol Hill, K Street, and pretty much everywhere else in the city. They are easily accessible on Pennsylvania Avenue, but garage parking is a near must as a result. The menu includes all of the standards – salmon, roasted chicken, crab cakes - but the real standout remains the house-aged beef. Try it with their creamed spinach and whipped mashed potatoes. Go ahead – wash it down with a Bourbon, a Bourdeaux, or something from your own private storage locker up front. Now that’s a quintessential Washington power lunch.
If you’re in the habit of entertaining over lunch on a regular basis, you’ll be pleased to know that all five of these venues accept reservations via OpenTable. If you’re going to be dining out regularly and you don’t already have a free account with OpenTable, you really owe it to yourself to sign up for one. DC’s restaurant scene has embraced the site to an extent that is almost unrivaled across the country, so it’s especially easy for Washingtonians to earn dining checks that are accepted at all OpenTable participants. And the service keeps track of the reservations you make, so your reputation as a big spender (or a frequent no-show) can precede you to new establishments.
As I was writing this, it struck me that three of these newer options are part of large national chains (Charlie Palmer, Oceanaire, Capital Grille) and the other two are local establishments with at least one sister venue (Bistro Bis/Vidalia, Caucus Room/Harry’s Tap Room). Are the days of the great independent steakhouses truly over? Or are these places just doing it better at the moment?
And what are your thoughts? What are your favorite places to wine and dine (or be dined) in town? Who really is the King of the Hill when it comes to steak and seafood? Which of the go-to lunch spots deserve the reputations, and which ones are past their prime?