The Roof Terrace has a show worth catching, too


Executive chef Joe Gurner takes on the challenge of filling the Kennedy Center’s 300-seat dining room — and emptying it — in about an hour. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
December 17, 2013

Who goes to the restaurant at the top of the Kennedy Center just for dinner? Everyone is there because it’s the closest, most convenient prelude to a performance down below.

The waiters at the Roof Terrace say as much when they greet you. “Are you going to a show?” they ask in the same breath they bid you “good evening.” On a recent Friday night, my quartet was the sole remaining occupied table — at 8:45.

News flash: We were lingering over a plate of homey apple-quince crisp.

Haven’t been in a while? Ever? The Roof Terrace emerged from a retooling in October that was meant to make the nearly 300-seat dining room more accessible, says Jeff Wingate, the restaurant’s general manager. A quarter of the space near the bar was turned over to walk-in guests and lounge seating, and white linens were replaced with more contemporary sand-colored covers in the main dining room. Meanwhile, the number of menu selections has nearly doubled.

With its soaring ceiling and illuminated columns, the carpeted expanse still looks the part of a vintage ocean liner. And although hard rolls (and even firmer butter) smack of banquet fare, much of what follows on the new script, developed by executive chef Joe Gurner, deserves applause.

The Caesar salad packs a nice punch. Dollops of creamy tuna tartare are separated on their slender plate by wonton chips for scooping; pinpricks of heat in the appetizer are courtesy of Sriracha sauce. Sauteed skate swims to the table golden and crisp, shored up with mustardy mashed potatoes.

Gurner’s panzanella salad sold so well in the spring, he decided to bring it back. The winter version stars rich duck confit, tender root vegetables and long pumpernickel croutons. More, please.

The average patron is in and out of the Roof Terrace in 60 minutes, says Gurner. “The biggest challenge is making great food and getting it to the table in a really short time.”

Racing to get the masses to their shows, the servers are genial if over-zealous. Twice in one evening, my waiter splashed red wine somewhere other than in my goblet: first on the tablecloth, again on a plate of beef short ribs.

The Rioja paired better with the latter.

2700 F St. NW. 202-416-8555. www.roofterracerestaurant.com. Dinner entrees, $25-$33.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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