Restaurants of the Past: The Evolution of a City's Food

Restaurants of the Past: The Evolution of a City's Food

Back-cover art on "Rive Gauche" menu, c. 1977. Courtesy Phyllis Richman.

Those who are less than bowled over by D.C.'s dining options and long for the choice that they claim other cities (along the Eastern seaboard alone, they're always at pains to point out) offer may have a point - our city doesn't have a long history at the top of many "best dining destination" lists. But decades ago, the epicenter of the city's culinary life was still centered around dinner parties in the home or mediocre restaurants and cafeterias, and much of the rest of the country looked at it as a culinary backwater. Considering D.C.'s culinary history from that point of view, we've come a long way.

Back-cover art on "Rive Gauche" menu, c. 1977. Courtesy Phyllis Richman.

Those who are less than bowled over by D.C.'s dining options and long for the choice that they claim other cities (along the Eastern seaboard alone, they're always at pains to point out) offer may have a point - our city doesn't have a long history at the top of many "best dining destination" lists. But decades ago, the epicenter of the city's culinary life was still centered around dinner parties in the home or mediocre restaurants and cafeterias, and much of the rest of the country looked at it as a culinary backwater. Considering D.C.'s culinary history from that point of view, we've come a long way.

So what changed, and when?

On Wednesday, we're continuing our culinary history series with a look back at D.C.'s first "celebrity chef," Jean-Louis Palladin, who arrived in the city in 1979 to open his ground-breaking restaurant "Jean-Louis at the Watergate." Former Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman and "Marvelous Market" founder Mark Furstenberg will be here with Kojo to talk not only about Palladin and his legacy, but how the city's culinary scene evolved from fairly "blah" to "well worth checking out." As Richman wrote in her and co-writer Charles Turgeon's 1975 book Dining Out in Washington, "Fifteen years ago - some would say five - Washington was no great shakes in the eating out department." She credits, among other factors, an explosion in the options of different ethnic cuisines and rising incomes among residents as private sector jobs grew.

Our guests are ready to talk about some specific restaurants whose chefs and menus helped push the city to its potential back in the 1960s and 70s, but we've also listed some restaurants below that came up in our last conversation in this series. We're wondering if you know much about them - where they were located, what was on their menus, and what it was like to eat there. If you do, let us know. You can browse through some of what the professionals have said about D.C.'s restaurants of the past, and then we'd like to hear your memories and opinions, too. You can make comments here or send us an email with stories/images at kojo@wamu.org.

The Critics' Take:

French Restaurants

Sans Souci (726 17th Street, NW): "Probably no French restaurant in Washington offers a more delightful room in which to dine. Open, airy, gold and green, it defies the stereotyped décor of most of its competitors… The kitchen’s performance is several notches below that of such restaurants as Jean-Pierre, Bagatelle, or Rive Gauche, but for style, comfort, and service Sans Souci bows to none." - Richman & Turgeon, Dining Out in Washington, 1979.

L'Auberge Chez Francois (332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls, VA): "The Old World service at L'Auberge is as impressive as anything on the menu. A meal isn't finished, though, until the golden tuiles and dark chocolates arrive on a small tray. Just as they always have." - Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema, 2002.

Jean-Louis at the Watergate (2650 Virginia Avenue, N.W. ): "Jean Louis's kitchen is adventurous, exciting, contantly issuing new ideas…The menue is a small choice of multicourse fixed-price meals that force you to discover the joys of foie gras with pears or lobster with fresh fava beans or zucchini blossoms in truffle sauce… In all, Jean-Louis has the makings of this city’s superstar." -  Richman's Best Restaurants (& Others) Washington DC & Environs, 1982.

Le Lion D'Or (1150 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.): "A highly professional, experienced and yet experimental kitchen staff and a similarly competent dining room staff…Among the exciting experiments lately have been duck sausages, as light as quenelles and wrapped in crisp skin—superb." - Richman's Best Restaurants (& Others) Washington DC & Environs, 1982.

Rive Gauche (Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, NW): "…The darling of senators and socialites, tycoons and tyros, the movers and shakers of the Washington scene...One of the capital’s most prestigious restaurants. Its founder, Blaise Gherardi, imported a host of highly talented chefs and service personnel, many of whom have gone on to own or staff other fine establishments in the Parisian tradition..." - Richman's Best Restaurants (& Others) Washington DC & Environs, 1982.

Italian Restaurants

The Roma (3419 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.): "Despite its small Italian community, Washington did not lag far behind New York in getting its own Italian-American restaurants. In 1920 the Roma opened at 3419 Connecticut Avenue..." - Robert Shoffner, ("The Italians Won!") Washingtonian, March 2006.

Cantina D’Italia (1214A 18th Street, N.W.): "On January 3, 1968… Joseph Muran de Assereto opened Cantina d’Italia, a basement restaurant of 75 seats on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and 18th Street. Cantina started with three advantages: It approached Italian food as something to be taken seriously; it charged prices comparable to those of the best French and Continental restaurants; and it had Joseph Muran de Assereto in the dining room. De Assereto was the greatest menu pitchman the city had ever seen. Cantina's handwritten menu, which changed frequently, was barely legible, and most of its dishes were unfamiliar to its clientele. … But what most endeared customers to Cantina d’Italia was de Assereto’s passionate belief that arrogance had no place in restaurants. This was a refreshing attitude in the 1960s and '70s, when waiters in French restaurants could be counted on to treat diners who were not regulars with disdain. For the first few years, de Assereto hedged his bets by offering dishes both from the Italian-American repertory and from the regional cuisines of northern Italy. Diners could find comfort in fried mozzarella, fettuccine Alfredo, and veal Marsala, while those who followed Joseph's counsel discovered the delights of fresh pasta tossed with sweetbreads, stewed rabbit, and creamy polenta topped with house-made sausages. By 1974, the preponderance of dishes on Cantina's menu were from northern regional cuisines, so Cantina d'Italia could claim to be our first authentic northern Italian restaurant. - Robert Shoffner, ("The Italians Won!") Washingtonian, March 2006.

A.V. Ristorante (607 New York Avenue, NW): "You'll have to get over any trepidation you may feel about the restaurant’s New York Avenue location, the roaring truck traffic, and other potential hazards, real or imagined. You;ve got to brace yourself for the Spartan décor and the brusque reception you'll get. Finally, you must learn to throw away the menu, lock eyeballs with your waitress, and demand ‘what’s fresh today?’… Among the many good things that emerge from those dark precincts are out-of-the-ordinary seafood dishes involving mussels, clams, crabs, or sea snails." - Richman & Turgeon, Dining Out in Washington, 1979.

Vincenzo (20th and Q Streets, N.W.): "In the spring of 1980, Vince MacDonald opened Vincenzo near the corner of 20th and Q streets. MacDonald was a free-spirited college dropout who had worked as an elevator operator in Congress, as a waiter in an Italian-American restaurant in Bethesda, and as a bartender in one of Georgetown's first French bistros, Au Pied de Cochon...Vincenzo was an overnight success: MacDonald's purist approach attracted a clientele of Italian expatriates, diplomats, and Italophiles. Critics who found fault with Cantina d’Italia’s oversauced pastas and Joseph Muran de Assereto’s penchant for boosting the flavor of dishes with Old Bay seasoning delighted in MacDonald’s devotion to authenticity. His pastas were tossed with a spare amount of their sauces. The tuna steak, grilled rare, made its Washington debut at Vincenzo. Until Vincenzo, no restaurant in Washington offered whole fish, such as sea bass or striped bass, cooked on the grill." - Robert Shoffner, ("The Italians Won!") Washingtonian, March 2006.

Middle Eastern Cuisine

Astor (1813 M Street N.W.): "In Washington, restaurant allegiances come and go as fast as administrations do, but the Astor Remains one of the town’s favorites for bargain hunters…The restaurant has been done in electric blue vinyl and marbleized Formica, with a look that is clean and festive and just a bit Greek… Amon the appetizers, the piquant taramasalata has a devoted following. But the hot poililia—an hors d'oeruvre platter with suffed squid and grape leaves, fried fish and chicken livers, and delectable crusty herbed meatballs—is worth splurging on...For main dishes, try moussaka or pastitsio, an enomous serving of lamb baked with eggplant, or the onion –smothered beef-styfado." - Richman & Turgeon, Dining Out in Washington, 1979.

American Fare

Duke Ziebert’s (1722 L Street, N.W.): "This fine restaurant is almost as much a Washington institution as the Redskins… The menu is unabashedly American with an emphasis on spanking fresh seafood and great slabs of beef…Nobody in town serves better prime rib…If you wanted a foreign guest to know just how good American food can be, this would be the place to take him." - Richman & Turgeon, Dining Out in Washington, 1979.

Blackie's House of Beef (22nd and M Streets, N.W.): "In its prime from the 1950s through the 1970s, Blackie's was a center of deal-making and plot-hatching in the nation's capital. President Harry S. Truman came to dine. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, was a regular. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey even stood at the doorway and greeted customers like a maitre d'.  Auger's business empire started with hot dogs. With his wife, Lulu, he opened a hot dog stand at 22nd and M right after World War II. He took the profits and opened a restaurant centered on beef, which was coming back onto the market after shortages during World War II and the Korean War. In 1953, he started a fixed-price dinner menu of prime rib, baked potato, peas, salad and cheesecake, all for $1.75. He kept costs low and undersold the competition. Business boomed." - Lyndsey Layton,  The Washington Post, "In Search of Stories With Chops: Demolition Firm to Preserve Memories of Blackie's House of Beef," October 22, 2006

Asian Cuisine

The Yenching Palace (3524 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.): "Among the capital’s veteran Chinese restaurants of the first rank…it is cheerful in appearance and well staffed with knowledgeable waiters. Its corps of chefs is the envy of the cHinese restaurant community…Yenching offers a broad selection of food from all over China, but seems most proficient in the Mandarin style." - Richman & Turgeon, Dining Out in Washington, 1979.

Sakura Palace (7926 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, MD): "Sakura Palace once stood alone, first when there were no other Japanese restaurants around, then when sushi was unknown in Washington… Sushi is quite good here. It doesn’t get particularly fancy unless, perhaps, you are an insider. But the quality and freshness are consisten, and the range of choices is wide." - "Local Landmarks: A Diner's Guide," The Washington Post Magazine, March 27, 1988.

Nightlife

Casino Royal (3524 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.): "In the 1950s and '60s, the Casino Royal was the place to see Mae West, Bob Hope, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald… (it)  took up the second story of 1401 H Street, Northwest, (and) shone as a beacon of entertainment in the city… the 600-seat Casino Royal was the largest and most popular, and it commanded the best performers. Leon Zeiger—owner of the Casino, Blue Mirror, and both speakeasies—was the man behind the area’s thriving nightlife…. In 1953 Zeiger bought Bamboo Gardens, a failing Chinese restaurant, and turned it into the Casino Royal. He renovated the interior but kept the staff. The club opened each night at 6 and served up three shows, with dancing in between, as well as both a Chinese and an American menu. Well-heeled patrons could choose items like pork chow mein or Maryland crab cakes, each 85 cents according to a 1956 menu." - Kelly Dinardo, Washingtonian, October 2007.

Places We'd Like to Hear From You About:

Quonset Super Club
O’Henry’s: Exclusive club off of 18th street, was a bar-type setting
The Romeny Room: Night club with Nat King Cole, Sid Caesar, famous Rat Pack groups
Bohemian Caverns: Now a jazz club again after being out of business for a 2 1/2 decades, where Roberta Flack was discovered
The Bayou: Featured Dixieland music, Wild Bill Waylan and his Dixie five
Harry’s: Nightclub before the rocket room, had a sign that said servicemen were forbidden to be there, SPs and MPs would look through to find servicemen
The Rocket Room
Cellar Door
Wax Museum

The Old Rogan Jar: Jazz club in the late 70s, a lot of local talent on display with 50 seats
The Romanian Inn: On New York Ave. Catered to Jewish immigrants, could get full meal for under $2
Serbian Crown: Failed when it moved from D.C. to Virginia
Berk Motely’s Sirloin Room
The Old York: In Georgetown, mentioned the menu in the window and “warm happy atmosphere inside”
Harvey’s Restaurant: Started out as an oyster saloon on Pennsylvania ave, moved to 19th street, sign says "We measure time in centuries;" menu claims they invented Crab Imperial, also called “The Restaurant of the Presidents”
Orleans House
Colonel Brooks’ Tavern: Still in Brookland
Paul Young’s Restaurant: In the Bender Building on Connecticut Ave., it hosted such events as President Kennedy’s inaugural party in the 60s
B. Smith’s
Faces Bar and Restaurant: On Georgia Avenue; Kojo knows it
Hitching Post
Dar Es Salaam: In Georgetown, good Moroccan food
Heartland Restaurant: Pennsylvania avenue, on Capitol Hill, 1930s bar, mirrored glass in the back (also stumped our previous panel on where it is and its existence)
Winston’s: In Georgetown
The Hayloft Lounge: Off 14th street
Rands
Benny’s Rubble Room
Desperados: In Georgetown, had "world’s greatest guitar player," Danny gatt
O’Donnell’s Seafood Restaurant: Down on E street, but long gone
Java Jungle: Another restaurant on the lines of “Coffee and Confusion”
Costin’s Sirloin Room House of Fine Beef: Below the press building
The Brentwood inn
Ledo’s Pizza: They are moving in College Park from Langley Park in Adelphi, and are now a franchise
Black Tahiti 
The Luau Hut:  Where Silver Spring station is now
Waffle Shop: (Was a chain produced by Blue Bell); east of 11th street
Psycadeli
The Iron Gate Inn
Beowulf Pub
: 20th and 11th, one of earliest downtown bar
Trio: Down on 17th street, still operating almost as a Diner
Gallagher’s Pub: A dive  replaced by Heartland 

The Kojo Nnamdi Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.