Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations.
Food: Ordering simple broiled fish is the secret
Style: Dark and clubby, with service that sometimes overwhelms, other times underwhelms
Price: Expensive; dinner platters $7.75 to $21
IN 1874, the Washington city directory listed but thirty restaurants; by 1877, the number jumped to over 200. Only one of them has survived to this day, and I wouldn't want to draw any untoward conclusions, but that one - Harvey's - did have the foresight to invest in an advertisement in the then-new Washington Post, a step which cost Harvey's all of twenty-five cents.
But Harvey's always was and still is known as a restaurant that knows how to spend its money where it matters. Its bar brands are tops, its seafood purchases impeccable, its winf list - particularly California's entries - impressive. And that is the strength of the restaurant - serving the best, and not messing around with it too much.
Some might say that the service is a strength of Harvey's, and I will add that it can be. I have had waiters who made everyone from grandmothers to small children feel like visiting rock stars. I have had waiters not only steer me to the best dishes, but stubbornly refuse to let me order whet they disapproved (trout stuffed with salmon: "Those two don't belong together"; Channel sole: "You know it can't come all that way fresh"; Harvey's Original Imperial Crabmeat: "It's just crab and mayonnaise"). Waiters have told me not to order a dish because people usually leave most of it. But I have also had waiters who didn't anything about the sauces on the menu. I have seen the wine served as diners were finishing their main courses. The wine steward has been observed carrying the bottle under his arm, shaking it roundly as he bent over the table to distribute glasses. And I quenched my ire with one of Harvey's famous drinks - fortunately large enough to last awhile - as my 8 p.m. reservation was not honored until 8:50. (The maitre d'hotel's explanation was that they are not even supposed to take reservations for 8 p.m. except from people they know, so our name was not on the list. Others, who were on the list, waited as long as we did.) I have waited just short of an hour for my appetizer then been rushed through my main course, the waiter asking for our coffee order because the pantry closes at 10:30.
That's what you may have to put up with at Harvey's, that and high prices (plain broiled fish from $7.75, seafood averaging about $10, oyster or seafood cocktails $3.25 to $4.75). The atmosphere is hardly rarefied, for this is one of the dimmest basements in town, most of the illumination coming from the strong reds everywhere - red paisley, red stripes, red plaids, red leather, red wool, red paper. It looks like an underground nautical club, and the crowd can get so boisterous that in the semi-dark the guffaws take on a fun-house quality. Fortunately, the bar is so far from the main dining room that some of the more raucous patrons must get lost on the way.
Why, you may reasonably ask, is Harvey's so crowded?
Simple. In this town, just far enough from bay and ocean that a lot of fresh seafood gets lost on the way, there simply aren't many places to get good fish, not to mention good drinks.
Dinner starts with crisp hot rolls and a profligate chunk of butter. It should then go on to oysters or clams, both of which carry solid credentials - either raw or baked in a Rockfellerish green herb dressing named after Mr. Harvey. Surprisingly, the clam chowder is - though nicely flavored - short on clams.
At lunch one can't miss with a seafood salad, the greens, like the seafood, noted for their freshness. At dinner, the living testimony to Harvey's generous nature is the Harvey's salad for two, whcih has a lot of everything - an abundance of roquefort cheese, a plethora of anchovies, and more dressing than it needs.
I would like to be able to say you can't go wrong with the seafood at Harvey's, but you'd never believe me again. Instead, I'll say that you can't go wrong ordering the simplest seafood dishes. Broiled whole flounder is here a revelation - the right cooking method applied to the right fish for the right duration - as simple as an unadorned eight-carat diamond. Filet of red snapper is equally exquisite. If you like a little more flourish on your plate, you could get into the lobster section, the best buy there being the $10.75 lobster seafood platter, which mates a fine lobster half with the most succulent fried scallops, fried oyster of considerable merit, a few innocuous fried shrimp, and a crab cake that might do elsewhere, but falls short of Harvey's buildup. Don't get railroaded into ordering seafood Norfolk-style here, for the oily, oversalted Norfolk butter drowns the seafood. And if once you get into brandy and cream and curry sauces, you're in uncharted shoals.
Even when you stick with the simple, you won't leave feeling you could have done it all easily at home. The vegetables are an elaborate choreography, perhaps paper-thin rounds of zucchini with herbs and walnuts, or puffy popover potatoes, sauteed fresh cauliflower, or one day a memorable creamed broccoli in a rrepe. And the wine list includes - at moderate prices, many under $10 - some wonderful California obscurities (seven cabernet sauvignons, five chenin blancs) as well as a sound selection of imports. The house wines are Robert Mondavi. There is even Harvey's traditional musty ale.
Seafood restaurants in this region are noted for their dismal or nonexistent desserts. Harvey's is the exception to the rule. The strawberry shortcake is a glorious slush of syrupy berries, cake and whipped cream. Cheesecake is served at the right temperature and swathed with pineapple or strawberries and almonds. Sundaes are grandly presented in large ceramic shells, bedded in crushed ice.
And so Harvey's survives, a distinguished gentleman from another age, faltering a bit and perhaps not up to the adroitness he displayed in his youth, but nevertheless still worthy of considerable respect.