P.J. Clarke's

American, Burgers
$$$$ ($15-$24)
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Editorial Review

Tom Sietsema wrote about P.J. Clarke's for a October 2010 First Bite column.

To explain why the hamburgers at the new P.J. Clarke's in Washington rest on thick slices of onion, general manager David Lovett gives me a little history lesson. He says that back when the sandwiches were offered at the original P.J. Clarke's on Manhattan's East Side -- in 1884 -- they were served on paper plates, which was a problem given the juiciness of the meat. Someone thought to separate plate from burger with an onion, Lovett says, and thus was born a tradition that continues today.

P.J. Clarke's opened in the old Olive's space earlier this month, but the saloon looks as though it's been there forever. Antique light fixtures and walls hung with black-and-white photographs of Washington politicos lend patina to the ground-floor dining room and bar, as do the red-and-white-checked tablecloths and a solarium crafted from wrought iron and milk glass.

That last design element once belonged to Walt Disney, Lovett says, but now serves as an entrance to the restaurant's reservations-only Sidecar downstairs, home to 86 seats, rich wood panels and portraits of U.S. presidents. (He has requested pictures of first ladies to soften the masculine feel of the setting.)

Lovett, who came to New York from his native Ireland on vacation 12 years ago "and never went back," makes a convincing ambassador for the venerable Big Apple institution, for which he has worked for the past eight years.

"Tourists are great," he says, "but we want to build relationships with our neighbors." He says he hopes the new Clarke's (there are three in New York and one in Sao Paolo, Brazil) becomes known as "a Washington restaurant rather than a New York restaurant with an outpost in D.C."

The menu eschews trends for what's familiar. In addition to those homey burgers, there's a raw bar, deviled eggs, clam chowder, fish and chips and several cuts of steak, including a respectable dry-aged New York strip served with a thatch of shoestring fries.

Swanson's bakes a better chicken potpie than this kitchen, however, which caps an underseasoned glop of potatoes, carrots and chicken with a pale oval of pastry that tastes as if it hasn't spent enough time in the oven. A nice change of pace from the usual green salad, though, finds shaved fennel, onions, tomatoes, feta cheese and chickpeas atop a puree of black olives.

Lovett isn't the only storyteller in the place. When I ask my server how my cheeseburger with bacon came to be named, he refers me to the original P.J. Clarke's, the 1940s and a compliment from a celebrity guest, Nat King Cole. The singer, the waiter says, declared it "the Cadillac" of burgers.

(October 27, 2010)