If history teaches us anything, it is that the Sans Souci may rise again. Pre-Watergate, the Sans Souci was not far behind the Capitol as a tourist site, nearly as densely populated with the high and mighty of Washington, and on its way to becoming a generic term, as in "a Sans Souci lunch" (later attacked under the name "three-martini lunch"). Sans Souci was as much a social network as a restaurant, and if the food was no better than mediocre, one didn't notice, or at least didn't care.
Nowadays, the restaurant is closed to the public at lunch, serving only the Federal City Club. And at dinner the dining room has had all the bustle of an airport at 2 a.m.
A number of factors led to this meteoric fall, foremost of them, perhaps, the departure of Paul de Lisle, the maitre d'hotel who was almost a synonym for Sans Souci and who knew how to orchestrate a dining room to harmonize rivals and competitors, the bold and the secretive, the important and the more important. Sans Souci suffered as well from the declining status of the status lunch; increased competition from newer glamorous restaurants, particularly those with better food; and finally, a serious skid in the quality of Sans Souci's food from mediocre to embarrassing. The dining room management descended meanwhile from haughty to slipshod.
Finally, at the end of last summer, the owner of the restaurant realized that absentee ownership was not working. He revamped the management of kitchen and dining room, taking the role of maitre d'hotel himself, and signed with the Federal City Club for lunches. He also declared to me that the restaurant was renewed and ready for a fresh critique.
So what's new?
The dining room remains, even when challenged by new and extravagant Washington restaurants, among the grand and beautiful. It is by now more obviously a period piece, with its mock Renoir and Chagall murals and canopied. Montmartre bar; and some of the green leather banquettes show rips. But they are real leather, and the gilded mirrors and ebony statues are still imposing. The tables and chandeliers are large. It remains a comfortable place to dine, and in a layout that optimizes seeing and being seen. As ever, the cadre of gold-braided, white jacketed waiters are parade-perfect, even more so now that there is no reason for them to ignore your needs for a moment. As one once expected in a French restaurant, they speak French. And English.
And the food has been restored to its former mediocrity.
The bread, as it always was, remains second-rate. The menu continues to be routine. The prices, as ever, maintain an extravagant level. Amend that; now there is a fixed-price menu of $16 (plus a lower-priced pre-theater dinner) that is the lone good value. As for the menu mainstays, they range from an unexpected high of tongue orloff -- that's right, not veal, but tongue -- to an unexpected low of chicken in tarragon-flavored glue, with most dishes falling right in the middle. But these days the middle is higher than ever in Washington, with the vegetables in French restaurants routinely fresh (and a la carte ones at Sans Souci bargain priced at $1.50 to $1.75) and the pastries and sherbets nearly always made on the premises. Competition may be stiffer than ever in Washington, but Sans Souci has regained its place in the middle and could still wow a newcomer who wants to dine within shouting distance of the White House.
Roll Call -- After almost 15 years, Bon Appetit, the tiny basement carryout on 21st and I Streets NW still sells the best-buy hamburgers in town. For $1.20, you get a thick four-ounce handpacked patty, char-broiled to your specifications -- and they understanding the meaning of rare. The 13 varieties of $1.45 burgers ooze originality in such forms as feta cheese with black olives, guacamole with tomatoes, or sour cream with marinated onions. For an even better bargain, you can get double the meat for $2.35. How do they do afford it? "It's volume," says one burger flipper, "we sell between four and five hundred a day."