Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.

Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C. by John DeFerrari, American Palate, History Press 2013, $24.99 paper, 222 pages

Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C. by John DeFerrari, American Palate, History Press 2013, $24.99 paper, 222 pages

…a shop, which never has anything in the window and never has the door open–is painted in large characters, ‘The City Lunch.’

–Charles Dickensa

There is a particular imprimatur that only Washington restaurants can vie for—when the President comes to dine. From George Washington at Suter’s Tavern in Georgetown to Barack Obama celebrating a birthday at Rasika, the press and prestige is worth the trouble of Secret Service sweeps.

But in his chronological tour of D.C. dining, DeFerrari explores a wide-ranging dining culture shaped by local produce, the power and wealth that accrue to a capital city, and communities that add local flavor.

He explores these themes from 1800 to 2000, starting with taverns, through the rift of prohibition, and into the current cosmopolitan age. And while D.C. dining has often been described as provincial, especially by comparison with that other capital, New York, his review of restaurants and their times explores social and economic stories, as well as describing delicious meals. And resident readers will enjoy recalling their own experiences of long-gone restaurants from workaday standards like Sholl’s Cafeteria or splurges like Le Pavillon.

Local Produce

In the 19th century, an oyster appetizer, terrapin stew, and roast canvasback duck was a national and even international marker of culinary excellence, made possible by the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay. In Washington, oysters could be ordered steamed in an elegant restaurant or fried to-go from a corner oyster house. Terrapin became a particular Maryland specialty, a winter dish and an expensive delicacy priced at $2.50 at the Raleigh Hotel in 1906. It was so popular that a Maryland law allowed only residents to catch them. Intensely gamey canvasback ducks were served by Queen Victoria and Prince Bismark, shipped from Havre de Grace. The bird’s flavor comes from its fastidious diet of wild celery but it eventually dropped off the menu as native habitat was disturbed by WWI ordinance tests on the Eastern Shore.

The Bay’s bounty was often sold at the 7th Street waterfront, by families already in the fishing business. Over time, waterfront dining shifted from saloons for workers to a special night out for crabs, reflecting the ongoing tension to clean up the waterfront that persists to this day. A 1960s urban renewal scraping cleared out most of the crab houses; only the Flagship and Hogate’s remained.

Power and Prestige

Former White House chefs were staples of D.C. restaurants, beginning with Jefferson’s chef, John Privaux’s Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant. Not surprisingly, most fine dining restaurants clustered along Pennsylvania Avenue, surrounding the White House and amid the city’s commercial life. Perhaps also not surprisingly, the food was “every thing that was rich and good” served in luxurious settings and private rooms, restaurants meant for display, to attract the powerful and deter “improper characters.” Many of them catered presidential inaugurations and supplied parties and balls.

Most closed in 1914, when the District’s excise board limited liquor licenses, foretelling prohibition, and the rest were cleared out by Federal Triangle construction. But that was not the end of power dining, which began with Capitol dining rooms in 1858. In 1912, the Occidental didn’t include a ladies dining room, since the owner planned “to cater to officialdom.”

On the Other Side of Town…

While women were limited to tea rooms, the African-American community was limited to their neighborhoods by segregation. While some restaurateurs, like James Wormley catered to “a very select circle of patronage,” others served their community in places ranging from the extensive Delmo-Koonce Café to homey southern food joints. Sophisticated supper clubs along U Street featured and fed performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Wilson, and Dinah Washington.

D.C.’s first Chinatown was established by the late 1890s at Pennsylvania Avenue and 4th Street, and became a place to go slumming for exotic nightlife. Chinese dishes became “a fad among the smart set.” Restaurants were named, decorated, and served food to fit the clichés of the mysterious east.  This original Chinatown moved north when the McMillan Plan improvements created the Mall, and as  immigration bans were lifted and political ties developed, fresh styles of Chinese cuisine emerged.

Italians never settled in numbers to warrant a “little Italy” but as in other cities, Italian food in D.C. began with “red sauce joints.” With the influence of chefs and restaurateurs, it evolved into alta cucina with Cantina D’Italia in Dupont Circle, followed by Tiberio, Galileo, I Ricchi, and more.

The evolving ingredients and styles that DeFerrari describes reflect the shifting fortunes and development of Washington and its residents.

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About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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