Noontime in Washington: $5 can buy five asparagus at the Jockey Club. It also can buy a lumberjack-size plate of, say, meatloaf and whipped potatoes, peas and carrots with roll and butter, maybe coffee and certainly a tip for the friendliest waitress this side of Ocean City.
A survey of downtown Washington from the White House to Florida Avenue and between 16th and 21st streetssought out sit-down restaurants with hot lunches--something more than a sandwich or a salad--that cost $4 or less, allowing for tax and tip to make a maximum of $5. There were plenty, over 40, in fact. And there was plenty of food for the money.
High-priced K Street, between awnings of restaurants that gross $2 million in an average year, has $3.69 shrimp with lobster sauce at China Express. Alleys lead to clusters of luncheonettes, many of them with far more exotic possibilities than tuna salad; at The Huddle there is couscous for a mere $3.30. Dozens of office buildings, in unexpected basements or inconspicuously marked back rooms, hide places called "coffee shop"--like the Coffee Shop at 1000 16th St. Here gyros, spaghetti, egg rolls and coleslaw share the menu with a $2.55 beef teriyaki platter that includes vegetables and rice.
Some are not easy to spot. The office buildings may not even show a sign at the entrance; the alleys may branch off to divert you from a potential discovery. And such glamorous restaurants as Shezan may not advertise that they offer under-$4 vegetarian entrees like basmati rice with chick peas and onions. Obviously there are the lunch counters for dollar-counters (and traditionally for lone lunchers); less obviously, some of them have food far better than their surroundings imply. Mr. M's shares a kitchen with Mel Krupin's, but its filet of sole platter is only $3.95 and every bit as gargantuan. You may think of Yummy Yogurt for dessert or the Lunch Box for carryout, but both now have hot sit-down meals--with roll and butter and vegetables--for less than $3. Even more unexpected is Tiffanne, a downtown disco that by day has an all-you-can-eat soul food buffet for $3.
A city is bound to have neon bargains such as the Cold Duck or the Trio, which a hungry stranger can spot a block away. But not all the budget-lunch glitter is on the outside. Dupont Villa is dark as a wine cave, yet still grows an entire grape arbor in plastic, and the Casino Lounge surrounds its ham in orange and raisin sauce with mirrored walls and roulette wheels implanted in the ceiling.
For $5 the food may not be great--the fried clams might taste just like the fried shrimp--but what would you expect from a $2.85 platter of crab cakes, french fries and coleslaw (M Street Connection) or a $2.79 rib eye steak with cranberry sauce, corn, french fries, rolls and butter (Peoples Drug Store)?
Which brings up the question of starch. Potatoes and corn. Macaroni. The inevitable french fries. Peoples Drug goes so far as to serve its chicken a la king over homemade biscuit plus a roll on the side ($1.69). Filler is cheap--and of course filling. Then there are the gravies that are so thick and opaque as to cover all sins. As for seafood, the lower the menu price, the more likely it is to be fried. If you consider cost per calorie the $5 lunch is really a bargain.
There is also the issue of regionalism. Spaghetti is the local specialty around Dupont Circle, while farther south toward K Street is lasagna country. Inevitably with rolls and iceberg lettuce salad.
The widest variety in this minimal price range is likely to be found at the cafeterias: Telly's had five specials in one day (meatloaf, short ribs, pepper steak, pork chops and baked chicken, each for $3.75). And at Sholl's the choice is also extensive in fresh vegetables, homemade breads and some of the city's best desserts.
The bargain shopper knows that the lower the price range, the greater the choice of vegetables. At a $40 lunch you usually get whatever vegetable comes on the plate--if you get a vegetable at all. But at Annie's Paramount Steak House "served with two vegetables" means you have a choice of seven.
In a city where office space rents for upwards of $20 a square foot, expect a $4 entree to be quickly prepared. The beef stew may be canned, the french fries frozen and the mashed potatoes instant. Thus it's best to order chicken--cheap to buy and hard to destroy since moisture compensates for overcooking and long holding. Lasagna, spaghetti and meatloaf also are generally reliable. Sometimes the vegetables are fresh--maybe not crisp but still with a good homey taste. And the coleslaw is never bad.
If you are sensitive to grease, watch out for anything that might be an offender: eggplant, fried chicken, dishes made with fried onions. Bypass "special sauces"; one tasted like diluted fruit punch, another like melted orange ice pop. Furthermore, anything brown and liquid--whether called gravy, sauce or au jus--is likely to be salty (though admittedly great for sopping up with mashed potatoes and white bread). Beware of expensive ingredients; $4 worth of New York strip steak is unlikely to be tender, rare or juicy; and except at Sholl's or the Trio the fish is seldom fresh. Given the price of shrimp, crab and veal, their presence in a $4 entree is bound to be minimal and of inferior quality.
A $4 entree may not mean a $5 lunch if you are careless in ordering. At Cold Duck the beverages are $1.25 despite the platters averaging less than $4. Appetizers, desserts, even other entrees may be priced way out of proportion.
A bonus of low price is fast service. But that doesn't mean bad service; the waiters and waitresses are unlikely to rush you and may treat you like part of the restaurant family. No pretensions, no snobbery. These are servers who willingly answer questions, eagerly ask the kitchen which vegetables are fresh today and gladly bring you another napkin. They expect you to be a careful shopper; the fact that you want to know what comes on the platter doesn't faze them. They routinely carry a heavy workload, so even at the busiest of lunchtimes they remember the bread and butter.
There is a sea of gummy sauces out there and a mountain of anonymous fried tidbits. But the liver at Sholl's is a classic and the meatloaf at Telly's is as good as going home for lunch; the carrots at Annie's would do a tablecloth restaurant proud and the stuffed cabbage at Mr. M's would make a Michelin inspector detour. The $5 lunch is not only alive but well.
This list is a start; many more lurk behind Washington's revolving doors. Remember that dishes continually change, as do prices. The $5 lunch today may be a $6 lunch tomorrow.
The following restaurants have been divided into three geographic segments from 16th through 21st streets: From the White House (including Pennsylvania Avenue to 18th St.) through K Street, from K Street through N Street, from N Street through Florida Avenue. The platters that follow are examples of each establishment's under-$4 entrees, not a complete listing. The White House To K Street --
All States Cafeteria--1750 Pennsylvania Ave., NW., 393-5615. Daily special with one vegetable, bread, butter and drink $2.49; chicken pot pie $1.90; barbecued spare ribs with cole slaw $3.25, roast turkey and dressing $2.25.
Art Gallery--1712 I St. NW. 298-6658. Daily special served with two vegetables, frequently under $4.
Black Steer--730 17th St. NW. 298-7030. Entrees served with potatoes, salad, bread and butter. Roast sirloin of beef $3.95, Athenian-style chicken $3.95, chicken livers over rice and mushrooms $3.95.
Black Tahiti--1776 K St. NW. 293-1770. All-you-can-eat pasta bar with salad, bread and butter $3.99, all-you-can-eat taco bar $2.75.
China Express--1906 K St. NW. 223-4139. All dishes come with fried rice or noodles. Shrimp and lobster sauce $3.69, diced chicken with vegetables $3.09, sweet and sour pork $3.49.
The Esplanade Mall--1990 K St. NW. Sholl's, Viet Delice and Alfredo's Pizzeria.
Frank and Jo's--1910 K St. NW. 429-0920. Daily specials ($3.95) served with roll and butter: beef sirloin tips over rice with peas, veal parmesan with rigatoni and salad, beef stroganoff.
Huddle Coffee Shop--1625 I St. NW. 331-1515. Couscous $3.30; fried chicken with french fries, cole slaw, bread and butter $2.45; eggplant casserole $1.35.
Knife and Fork--915 21st St. NW. 466-5567. Lasagna with bread $3.95, daily specials frequently $3.95.
Lafayette--1621 H St. NW. 347-9485. Daily special such as beef, macaroni and tomatoes or liver and onions served with salad, vegetable, roll, butter and beverage for $3.88; a la carte items such as roast beef au jus $2.65, baked fish $2.20, veal viennese $2.65 served daily.
Metro Market--1850 K St. NW. (In International Square). Shezan, Chef Paolino, Chow Chow Cup, Crescents Cafe, Shelley's Meat and Potato, Statesmen Club and Wingmaster.
Paramount Coffee Shop--917 18th St. NW. 223-4214. Entrees come with two vegetables, bread and butter. Moussaka, lasagna or meatloaf $2.80. Daily specials also.
Peoples Drug Store--17th & I streets NW. 296-5123. All specials served with roll and butter. Rib eye steak with french fries, corn and cranberry sauce, $2.79, chicken a la king over homemade biscuit $1.69, beef stew $1.89.
Piper's Pub--888 17th St. NW. (In the Brawner Building) 293-2217. Daily specials come with french fries and cole slaw, such as crab cakes $3, rib eye steak $2.95, fried shrimp $3.65.
Recessions--1700 K St. NW. 296-6686. Fish and chips or fried clams with french fries and cole slaw $3.95, chopped steak smothered with saute'ed onions, mushrooms and green peppers, with french fries and cole slaw $3.95. Also daily specials. From K Street To N Street -----
The Beret--1140 Connecticut Ave., NW. 223-9596. Open faced hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy $3.95, stuffed turkey breast with gravy and cranberries $3.70.
Blue Chip--1641 L St. NW. 659-2544. Specials: fried fish with french fries and cole slaw $2.35, fried chicken with same $2.20.
Coffee Shop--1000 16th St. NW. Beef teriyaki with rice $2.55, spaghetti and meatballs $2.75, fried beef with shrimp fried rice $2.95.
Connecticut Connection--Connecticut and L sts. NW. Old Western Chicken and Chips, Taco Ole, Mama Lucia.
Eleven-Eleven Coffee Restaurant and Casino Lounge--1111 19th St. NW. 293-5666. Restaurants: Fried shrimp platter with french fries and cole slaw $4, veal cutlet with mashed potatoes and one vegetable $3.l0, open face roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy $3.50. Casino Lounge: Spaghetti with meat sauce, salad, hard roll and butter $3.50; gyro platter with special yogurt sauce $3.50.
Hungry's Food and Drink--2000 M St. NW. 659-9820. Daily specials such as beef stew with roll; meatloaf with potatoes, gravy and vegetable; creole chicken with rice and vegetable, from $2.25 to $3.50.
Lunch Box--1719 M St. NW. 775-1652. Entrees come with two vegetables, bread and butter. Baked meatloaf $2.75, lasagna $2.75, beef burgundy with rice or noodles $2.95. Daily specials.
M St. Connection--1720 M St. NW. 296-8594. Hot lunches served with roll and butter. Breaded veal with parmesan cheese and green beans $2.85, fried shrimp with cole slaw and french fries $3.45, liver and onions with mashed potatoes and gravy $2.25.
Mr. M's--1120 Connecticut Ave. NW. (In the Bender Building), 331-7005. Meatloaf with mashed potato and gravy, string beans and a roll $3.95; beef barbecue, cole slaw, roll and butter $3.50; filet of sole with cole slaw, french fries and a roll $3.95.
Tiffanne--2015 L St. NW. 833-5595. All-you-can-eat buffet includes spareribs, shrimp, chitlins, pigs feet, pork chops, fried chicken, homemade potato salad for $3.
Yummy Yogurt--1724 M St. NW. 466-6110. Entrees come with roll and butter. Chicken and rice $2.75, eggplant parmesan $2.75, tuna noodle casserole $2.65.
Ziggy's Deli--1015 18th St. NW. 331-0860. Lasagna, spinach pie, eggplant parmesan, served with salad, range from $2.50 to $2.85. Daily specials such as chicken a la king or beef tips come with rice and a salad for $3.50. N Street to Florida Avenue Annie's Paramount Steak House -- 519 17th St. NW. 232-0395. Entrees come with bread and butter and two vegetables. Chopped sirloin $2.95, with cheese $3.50. Also specials.
Candy Parlour--1361 Connecticut Ave. NW. 861-0638. Burrito and taco platter with refried beans, lettuce, tomato and sour cream $3.69.
Cesar's Cafeteria & Carry Out--1200 l9th St. NW. 296-5333. Five daily specials with one vegetable, roll and butter: prices range from $2.95 to 3.95.
Cold Duck Restaurant & Lounge--1732 Connecticut Ave. NW. 667-6211. Two daily specials of meat or fish with two vegetables $3.95, fried chicken with two vegetables $3.95, hamburger steak with two vegetables $3.95.
Copley's--1509 17th St. NW. 387-5463. Entrees come with two vegetables, bread and butter. Meatloaf $2.50, fried chicken $2.50, pork chops $2.70.
Dupont Villa--1345 Connecticut Ave. NW. 785-2333. Rigatoni and meatballs with soup and salad $3.95; pan fried liver with potatoes, soup and salad $3.95, spaghetti and meat sauce with soup and salad $3.95.
Kozy Korner--1253 20th St. NW. 785-4314. English fish and chips with hard roll $3.95.
Le Cafe Rabelais--1647 Connecticut Ave. NW. 797-8713. Main courses come with french fries, bread and butter. Trout with butter and lemon sauce $3.75, roast chicken $3.75.
Peoples Drug at Dupont Circle--7 Dupont Circle NW. 785-1555. Hot turkey or roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes, gravy and roll $1.69; fried chicken, french fries, roll and butter $2.39. Daily specials with potatoes, vegetables, roll and butter.
Telly's Cafeteria--1348 Connecticut Ave. NW. 833-1621. Lunch platters come with choice of two vegetables. Meatloaf, short ribs, pork chops, pepper steak or baked chicken $3.75.
Tien Yuen--1612 16th St. NW. 234-1444. Chicken with almonds and rice $3.95, Mongolian pork with rice $3.95, moo shi pork with pancakes and plum sauce $3.95.
Trio--1537 17th St. NW. 232-6305. Fox and Hounds Lounge, 1533 17th St. NW. 232-6307 (same menu). Entrees come with bread and butter, two vegetables and a beverage. Fresh roast turkey with cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce and all of the above $3.95, fresh broiled flounder $3.55, grilled pork chops with applesauce et al $3.20. Daily specials.
Vesuvios Pizza--1601 Connecticut Ave. NW. 667-1500. Spaghetti and meat balls with roll or bread $3.45, half chicken with salad or french fries $2.95, gyro platter with french fries or salad $3.45.