1789, Washington DC.

May 2019.

This place is billed as the pinnacle of conservatism in DC dining. It meets the grade for ambience and sort of for cost (it isn’t really that expensive) and the food is very good. We just kind of wished they had treated us with a little more sedate respect.

It was a long Uber ride across the top end of the city during rush hour which slowed us down, but we had a lovely time chatting with the driver and another passenger who turned out to be a young doctor in an STD clinic. Anyway, we arrived just as it started to rain and indeed the building was older-looking, probably originally a residence, and we were pleasantly welcomed and taken to a nice table at the side of a small warm complex room full of wood beams and antiques.

Our server was a bright, brisk cheerful lady. For this our big night out in town we ordered cocktails to start, Robin the “Bob’s Back-Porch Lemonade” which was a variation on a vodka lemon drop, and for me a Hendricks gin martini. The lemonade was lovely, just the right amount of sour. The martini was at least a double, a big glass full right to the brim, thanks in part to which (the other part was the wine) I didn’t get around taking pictures of the dishes…

We passed on the fixed menu. Our shared starter was a braised lamb shank with gnocci, just loaded with delicious traditional savoury succulence, the little gnocci soft like cooked marshmallow but rich and salty in a reduction, the lamb tender and gently seasoned. Robin’s beef tenderloin was about as perfect as that lovely thing can be, and my pork duo – a crisp belly plus tenderloin – was really satisfying. They asked how I wanted the tenderloin done which surprised me and I opted for medium-rare hoping against hope that I the tiny minority of people which loves roast pork pink would get what I was looking for, and I did. It was a fat cylinder of tender, rare, moist, delicious pig.

Everything was just fine as we worked our way through a 2016 bottle of a Special Cuvée Cabernet from Elizabeth Spencer in Napa at US$88, chosen by our server as a better deal than a reasonably-priced off-barolo nebbiolo and a little-bit older Saint-Emilion. The wine list by the way was strangely organized as a mix of the cool modern “light crispy whites” and “full-bodied reds” and the new-world varietals: cabernets and pinot noirs, as categories. Not a big serious list extending to the cathedrals of Europe.

Then it started to dawn that our server was rushing us. I’m not sure exactly when this began but the cadence of arrival of courses was about 1.3 times what we were expecting and hoping for in a place of this pretense. We had arrived fairly early (I think 615 for a 6 PM reservation) and the place was not full, although at the point we began to feel the pressure of hurry it was probably filled up to 80%. The final insult was assertive and full-volume conversational pulling apart of the large table next to us and tipping it into two with the tops up and redressing them, as though the place was empty and they were cleaning up. Hey! We’re still having our big fancy dinner over here… No, we thought, there is another priority here than our comfort.

Of course Canadians get slaughtered in America these days with our worthless money, and this approximately US$300 dinner with its tip looked to us closer to 400.

Anyway, funny how an otherwise lovely experience can be turned on its silly head by something stupidly crass. Robin and I probably differ a bit on this, I would go back to this place if ever in my life I wanted a special dinner here in the US capital, Robin was more put off and probably wouldn’t. So great food but come on, this is the American Capital and the best place in town. Where’s the class?

Food 9.4, service 6.4, ambience 8.8, value 7.7 peace and quiet 8.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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