Sam Smith, 2000 – In the time before the walls of the capital were irrevocably breached by the bagel boosters of Manhattan, the technocratic terrorists of the Harvard Business School, and the hubristic hordes of Yale Law, Washingtonians often spoke of things other than work, power, and food. Restraint on the latter topic was immeasurably aided by a lack of restaurants, modest menus, early closing times, and a peculiar local tradition of surly waiters.
The food was often more nondescript than bad, which was all right because restaurants then were places to go to be with your friends rather than to be seen by your adversaries. Eating out was an extension of community, not politics by other means, or a stage on which to display one’s exquisite and ostentatious knowledge of trivial gastronomic variations.
Of course, community and good food are not mutually exclusive; a few examples of their synergistic potential still survive even in boomer Washington, most notably La Tomate on Dupont Circle, AKA the Review’s conference room. It’s the sort of place that, when the owner died a few years back, 500 people showed up for his funeral including politicians, cops, and this alternative journalist.
But for the most part, Washington’s better known restaurants mimic the brutalist capital culture they serve, places of power and image, of price and pretense.
In 1987 wrote a piece for Washington’s City Paper in which I complained:
“Life in Washington’s slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than half-million residents who don’t subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town. This elite is not content with the mere possession of money, power, and success; it feels compelled to plaster its icons and totems all over town, giving the place the oxymoronic aura of franchised trendiness, coincidentally destroying the places and symbols of indigenous Washington.”
It being also quite a literal city, the restaurant critic of the Washington Post, Phyllis Richman called to inquire the name of the 537th best restaurant in town. I quickly devised an answer, bestowing the honor on a hole in the wall on New York Avenue I had recently visited. Richman wrote a piece in which she called me a “capital curmudgeon,” and noted that my ranking was a bit off since the place in question had an award from another publication hanging on its wall.
When I wrote that, I was actually thinking of places such as the long-gone DC Diner into which came cops, drunks, prostitutes and college students returning from dates or, on early Sunday mornings, from the midnight mass that the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception thoughtfully provided the Catholic young and restless. My routine was to order the steak and egg breakfast. A beefy cook would grab a couple of eggs and burst them on the grill. The steak followed. He then reached over for a handful of home fries from the foot-high pile that sat nearly cooked in a cool corner of the stove. Almost simultaneously the chef lunged for a fistful of salad from a five gallon potato chip can resting under the counter and plopped it into a side dish. During the whole procedure no kitchen utensil touched his hands, yet few meals have tasted as good.
Or Spack’s Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also “the world’s smallest bar” — a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles. “Now someday this place is going to have class,” Spack once told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. “You know — cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance,” he said as he reached for an object under the counter, “this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?”
There was a whole subset of restaurants, though, that specialized in surliness: Martin’s in Georgetown, the AV Ristorante on New York Avenue, and a Capitol Hill favorite, Sherrill’s Bakery. Sherrill’s is about to close to make way for yet another Starbucks, purveyors of hot, flavored water and milk to urban sophisticates who enjoy hearing themselves say, “one latte grande with a chocolate biscotti, please.” The only place in America where you have to take a Kuder preference test before getting a pound of ground coffee.
Sherrill’s wasn’t like that. Once when a parent asked for two donuts for her kid, the woman behind the counter said, “he only needs one.” On another occasion, a dissatisfied customer picking up her cake became so frustrated she threw her acquisition at the staffer and stormed out. The sort of place you miss when it’s gone.
There are still a few real Washington eateries left, though. Like Jimmy T’s just five blocks from the US Capitol. It hasn’t been refurbished in over three decades, the paint hangs like stalactites, and when we entered the other day, the kid sitting on the stool was told to “go in back and get your shirt on. We’ve got customers.” The only sign on the place is a neon one in the window that says “OPEN.” You just have to know where you are.
They don’t waste money on signs at such places. My old office, not too many blocks away, was right next to Helen & Lee’s Carryout. They would advertise their pork chop sandwiches and other specialties as “recommended by our five doctor sons.” Then Helen died and for years thereafter, the carryout had a sign that read, “& Lee’s Carryout.”
The other night, Hallmark put on one of those sappy movies I never watch, except this time the setting was DC, so I did watch it. There was a scene in which the leads went to a funky eatery in Georgetown, except they don’t have any funky eateries in Georgetown, and so they ended up across town at Jimmy T’s. I was reminded of my conversation with the owner during which I had listed some of Washington’s rudest restaurants. He said, “And don’t forget me.” As I was leaving, I shook his hand and said, “My name’s Sam,” and he looked me straight in the eye, and said with perfect impassivity, “Mine’s Juanita.”
I’m going back.