Nobody would suggest that politicians run for national office just to get to eat in Washington, but fundraising dinners accumulating under their belts do make politicians more sensitive than they might ordinarily be to the character of their meals. And Washington is certainly a better eating town than, say, Plains. What hungry candidates may not realize is that not all a congressman's or senator's eating is likely to be at Le Lion d'Or. So, just in case the quality of life has been a significant motivating force, here is the inside story of where one is likely to be dining in everyday political Washington, at least when one is not eating a sandwich at the desk.
Capitol Hill Club (officially know as the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill), 300 1st Street SE. 484-4590.
Only eight years at this location, the Capitol Hill Club looks like a part of history. Enter a hall of tradition, past the ballroomsize Eisenhower Lounge, to a spiral staircase -- yes, a spiral staircase -- that leads up to the main dining room. The room is enormous, looking like a voluminous Republican matron in formal dress, its walls and tablecloths a chartreuse right out of a House and Garden sun porch, its tied-back draperies proper Republican gold. Carpets and space control the spread of conversation so that anyone can be seen, from one end of the room to the other, and little can be heard, whether a campaign secret or a request for a glass of water. All the ruckus is going on downstairs at the bar and grill, particularly during the $1-a-drink Happy Hour from 5 to 7 p.m.
The menu is a crowd-pleaser, a something-for-everyone catalog of fruits and homemade soups, beef -- as steak, roast or sandwhich -- and seafood, salads and burgers, restrained continental touches of veal parmigiana and quiche. The kitchen is represented as full of old fashioned virtues: self-reliance (homemade soups and rolls), honesty (fresh carrots), practicality (instant potatoes and hollandaise that is not profligate with butter), generosity (enormous portions and an extra measure of sugar in everything from the macaroni salad to the chili), and tradition (mashed potatoes on every plate that one can fit mashed potatoes on). And lunch at the Capitol Hill Club balances rewards (better bean soup than the Senate's, a salad bar of extensive variety, lobster pie that gives you more lobster for $7.75 than you could buy in a seafood store) with punishments (tasteless crackery pastry under that lobster pie, chili of insipid character). If all is not what it seems -- the tarts more window dressing than real food, the mousse nothing but a gritty custard -- dessert has been notoriously downgraded by Republicans anyway.
The real lesson to be learned at the Capitol Hill Club is the value of incentive. Tip is automatically added to the bill. Where else can it take nearly a half-hour to order a drink and get a menu? Where else is there only one menu for each two people? Where else does it take nearly another half-hour to get a bowl of soup and then an unconscionably long time to get main courses? All this must be meant as a laboratory to show the evils of welfare statism and central control
National Democratic Club, 30 Ivy Street SE. 543-2035. While the Republican Club is showcase of tradition, the Democratic Club is clearly a working place, or at least a place to work the crowd. While at the Republican Club one ascends a spiral staircase, to be seen only on reaching the top, at the Democratic Club one descends a magnificent carved wood staircase, making a grand entrance and surveying the room at the same time. And wherever one is, one is in the thick of things. On one side is the bar, nearly a separate room but sharing noise with the main dining room, which also has a piano bar. Eating and drinking, talking and carousing are inextricably intertwined.
Business and pleasure are similarly intertwined. Quorum calls are heard at the Democratic Club, and a Dialcom/UPI "Data News" computer provides the entertainment: news, sports, stock market reports.
Tradition be hanged. The baroque, leather-edged bar has cans of Lucky Boy juice sitting right out on the copper surface. Not a bourbon and branch is in sight; everybody is drinking light beer and red wine by the glass. The waitresses "honey" you like you've just come home for the holidays.
What is traditional is the menu: steak and veal cutlet and fish fillets and shrimps, a short list of fairly plain stuff that has a slight French accent (veals Viennoise and Francaise, port Basquaise and trout Amandine). Omelets are available at dinner for overworked stomachs. But what is most traditional is the pricing: Dinner at the Democratic Club is less expensive than lunch at the Republican Club.
The few pretensions don't come off. Prosciutto is on the menu but unavailable; even melon is out. Chopped liver hasn't been heard from in a long time. Main dishes are flabby and boring, neither objectionable nor memorable. A medium-thin steak, pink but not rare, is flamed at the table and doused with a strong, canned-tasting brown sauce and called Entrecote Marchand de Vin. The available potatoes are foil-baked or crinkle-cut french fries. The "vegetable of the day" was canned corn. Soups are watery, desserts just Watergate pastry. And the highlight of six dishes was clams casino -- large, fresh, briny clams cooked just enough and sparkling with garlic, parsley and bacon. I have never heard of anybody joining the Democratic Party for clams casino, but there have been worse reasons.
I only hope, in sum, that somebody launches a serious investigation of the whipped butter.
White House Staff Dining Room, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. From the special crackers -- soaked in water, buttered and re-baked until crisp -- to the four kinds of mints and nuts at the exit, the White House staff dining room adds extra little somethings to an otherwise ordinary lunch. Service is shipshape in this Navy-run operation. Hardly have you put down your fork when your plate is whisked away and your dessert order taken. You can eat in 20 minutes if necessary, or linger for perhaps an hour. With a telephone prominently displayed and no liquor served, one is not inclined to tarry. The two rooms are quiet -- no table hopping -- and quietly luxurious, with substantial nautical paintings on dark wood paneling, soft navy blue carpeting, wood tables centered with a lazy susan and red carnations. The menu, except for the traditional Thursday Mexican lunches, is short and commonplace, with fried shrimp and such for daily specials, grilled steaks and chops, spaghetti, club sandwich, tuna salad or hamburger, plus a "waist watcher" and waist-ignoring sundaes with homemade soft ice cream. Important constituencies are covered with grits at breakfast, garbanzo beans-to-bean sprouts salad bar at lunch. And prices, which are not listed on the menu, are low. Perhaps to keep in touch with the real world, the cooking is standard quality, with sugary bottled barbecue sauce on the chicken, watery packaged-tasting onion soup floating a blob of cheese certainly not Swiss, and vegetables with none of that newfangled crisp-cooked quality.It's just food, for just folks.