In 1970, the only cheese anyone melted was Velveeta, and nobody would dream of heating a brie to turn it into a slippery ooze, much less hiding it under a layer of almonds. But then, in 1970, beef Wellington was still respectable. In fact, beef itself was respectable and veal was ordered only by people who could spell it in French. Nouvelle cuisine had not yet been invented by New York magazine; health foods had been invented, but were taken no more seriously than Carl Bernstein.
People in Washington dreamt in spring of lunching outdoors, but that was because they had not tried it, and did not realize that bus fumes blended badly with chef's salad. In fact, outdoor cafes were so rare that Bassin's, simply by virtue of having open air tables, developed the chutzpah to call itself Washington's Cafe de la Paix.
Fresh and new and full of hope were La Nicoise, Csiko's, Childe Harold, the Golden Table and Charcuterie Normande, the latter a tribute to Virginia's having discovered that liquor by the drink could be a major civilizing force. A really racy restaurant was one that served liquor on Sundays, and advertisements made a point to mention that their restaurant served "mixed drinks," since one could never assume it. As for wine lists, the term had hardly been unearthed.
Things were going to get worse before they got better. Chez Francois was going to bite the dust -- or at least disappear in the dust of rebuilding, and when it reopened in Great Falls, not only would the $5.95 fixed price dinner be but a hazy memory, one would require a hefty supply of gas and two week's notice to dine at L'Auberge Chez Francois. The Occidental, though, promised no revival, and we spent the rest of the decade wondering where statesmen were going to dine.
The decade held the funerals of nearly three dozen Hot Shoppes (and Sunday night chicken noodle soup), Tops drive-in restaurants (and necking while you waited for your milkshake), Rich's (and the State Department's only nearby supply of stuffed kishka). Positano opened brilliantly in Bethesda -- and then closed, suffocated by the enthusiasm of too many customers too soon. The restaurant business continues volatile. At least eight eating places with display ads in last May's yellow pages have already closed.
Restaurants were going downhill -- literally, beguiled by lower rents below the level of the street. Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle left the restaurant named after him on order to cook in a basement. Harvey's, too, went underground.
In 1970, a late-night restaurant was one that served after 9 p.m. Before the Cafe de Paris introduced Georgetown to middle-of-the-night croissants, you expected post-midnight sustenance of no more elegance than Little Tavern hamburgers.
Washington was an innocent town. And along with the innocence came privacy. Advertisements boasted "intimate elegance" and "hideway." That was before the Watergate hearings drove restaurants to turn up the lights and move the tables close together so nobody would think they were a laundered money drop. Only the Old Angler's Inn made it through the decade on its reputation for clandestine ambience, though the joggers on the canal added a wholesome touch, and upgrading the food -- beside the point in the good old days -- supported its respectability.
Life had more surprises a decade ago. The Fabulous Follies advertised a special luncheon for executives and called it the "Original Luncheon Lingerie Show." Lingerie is gone now, and such a place would hardly merit a second glance, competing with bottomless restaurants downtown and topless ones even invading Chevy Chase.
If the whole truth is now being exposed in bodies, it is also being bared on menus. Veal is no longer pork or turkey. Virginia ham has its pedigree examined by the health department. So fervent have been the inspectors that one challenged Harvey's on the origin of the beast in its Welsh rabbit. A menu became a reflection of reality rather than of the restaurateur's hopes.
That didn't mean we knew what to expect. In 1970, if a menu was in a foreign language, which was rare enough, the waiter carefully explained each dish in English. Now the menu in English has become all too rare, and nobody expects a waiter to speak English, at least to you. Sakura Palace once advertised "One of the finest sushi bars in town." Now it claims, "We use the finest 'tane' available," assuming that everyone knows what "tane" means. But 1970 was a long time ago, when everything came wrapped in a crepe, so it didn't matter. And nobody had heard of zucchini quiche.
Zucchini was, of course, the Vegetable of the Year last year. It came as soup, salad, pancakes, stew, tarte, tourte, and even cake. But that was a natural and primitive reaction to Washington's discovery of fresh vegetables. Just three years ago, The Company Inkwell surveyed its patrons and found, to its surprise, that they preferred fresh vegetables over canned. Little dishes of carrots and peas swimming in canning juices disappeared from French restaurant tables. Whereas then seafood restaurants boasted in their advertisements that they had shrimp, it was not even considered an issue whether it was fresh or frozen. But frozen fish, too, drifted away in shame from respectable tables, and restaurateurs, not realizing that the Atlantic Ocean had an outlet on this side, began flying in fish from France. Someone, too, discovered that mussels were edible, and another vehicle for garlic took root in the American repertoire.The other staple to be discovered was hot peppers. Before anyone heard of the cocaine nose, the Szechuan-seared tongue became fashionable, and printers laid in a heavy supply of red ink and thousands of little stars for redoing old Cantonese menus.
Revolutions have always been good for the restaurant business; thus, Washington began to diversify with Vietnamese, Thai and Persian restaurants. (There seems to be no truth, though, to the rumor that Washingtonians are fomenting a revolution in Brooklyn in a desperate attempt to draw refugees bearing pastramis.)
Whereas the Americas had once introduced the tomato to Italy, Washington now rejected it, and started a passionate affair with northern Italy. Red sauce became as disdained as the word "Continental" on a menu.
With this nonstop dining, non-joggers needed some exercise, too. So the salad bar was invented, replacing the evening walk, and considered to be safer in a big city. The introduction of the salad bar coincided with the disappearance of dinner dancing, and one supposes that lettuce leaves now occupy the space that once was reserved for foxtrots. Dancing, of course, could not stay away for long. But its return, like many a marriage, was in separate residences, as discos, thus providing the public with another spending opportunity. Just in time. Washingtonians were worrying where they were going to get rid of the money they were making from having bought a house 10 years ago. And so we end the decade with Tiberio boasting in advertisements that they are expensive.
Yet we end the decade with more people than ever dining out. Competition has taken on new meaning, being the competition of the diner. In 1970, Aldo's cafe -- its demise lamented by all of us who romanced under its grape arbor -- advertised, "We suggest reservations to make sure of your table." If Aldo's were still around, it might be advertising, "We suggest reservations to give you a fighting chance for a table."
But such is the price of Washington's growing up and finally becoming what is known as Restaurant Town.