Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. No reservations for lunch, reservations suggested for dinner. Valet parking for dinner. Prices: Main courses at lunch average $6 to $8, at dinner $11 to $16. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $80 a couple.
It's the spitting image of its father. In fact, many who were old friends of Duke Zeibert's can't get used to its offspring being named Mel Krupin's. "I'll meet you at Duke's," they say. Even Mel Krupin himself has been known to answer the phone of his new restaurant with, "Hello. Duke Zeibert's."
So Duke's has risen from the rubble of the wrecker's ball, reincarnated in the spacious basement-plus that was Paul Young's, with the old menu (almost) and the old crew and the old customers. Even the prices are pretty much the old one, with a 50-cent or dollar boost here and there.
But is it the same? It would take a serious Duke's-watcher to notice the differences, but in some ways it is worse, and in some ways -- dare one intrude on the myth of the Duke's that was? -- it is better.
The grumbles about Mel's fall into the same category as complaints about markets being cleaned up or stadiums becoming too easy to get to. The disciples of the original Duke's cannot bear that there is so much space between the tables, that the wall and carpets are tasteful beiges and browns rather than electric blue. To them it is not the same going off to a Monday night football game after sitting on an eggshell-tinted velvet chair surrounded by etched glass rather than jock memorabilia. It is, I will agree, not the same descending Washington's grandest, widest staircase as it was to have to wedge past front tables to your seat. Comfort can grate on those used to life's being a struggle. But even if they can adjust, one complaint of the old crowd stands out as most significant. The bar in the new place is just too visible; how can a guy do any serious hanging around, with the bar right there up front where any boss, client or office gossip can see him?
So Mel's is not quite Duke's. It does, however, have the same pickles on the table -- half-sour, sour and green tomatoes. It still serves the little homemade rolls, poppy seed and onion and kaiser, along with the same always-slightly-stale sliced pumpernickel bread. It still has the same waiter, decades gruff from a life of carrying matzo balls across crowded dining rooms, miraculously adept at serving eight crotchety and rushed law partners their eight eccentric choices in good time with a few good jokes to spice the stew.
Most important, it still has the boiled beef and boiled chicken in pot, with their fat, round cloud of a matzo ball and their tiny threads of egg noodle and huge chunks of juiciest beef or chicken, floating on the oddly golden clear broth that Duke's always served up as chicken soup. It is not the best soup -- but it's a great dish nevertheless.
There are certain dishes you order at Duke's -- I mean Mel's -- if you know what you are doing. You have to have a matzo ball, either in your soup as appetizer or with the boiled chicken or beef. The crab cakes are historic -- not the best in anyone's experience, since they are a bit heavy on the bread, but dependable for the quality and quantity of crab and the mustard spiciness of the mix. I have reservations about the roast beef hash, which is chopped too fine and apt to be greasy, but it is real homemade roast beef hash that started as good roast beef served in thick slabs at dinner and as inches-high sandwiches at lunch. Mel's is the classic meat-and-potatoes restaurant, with big hunks of very fresh, plainly grilled beef or fish. The enormous salads use iceberg lettuce rather than those effete dark greens, and plain old oil and vinegar instead of aromas of hazelnuts or exotic mustards. In fact, the main seasoning in the salads is likely to be sugar. But if there is meant to be turkey there will be lots of turkey. And the bacon will be in big shards, not all chopped up.
Some call Mel's food bland. They are right. The marinated herring is slathered with about a half inch of sour cream, so that most of what you taste is plain sour cream. The meats and fish are always fresh and prime quality, but they remain unacquainted with oregano or demi-glace. Don't look on a plate at Mel's for pizzazz. Look for plain good food. Short ribs or knockwurst or a thick salty slice of well-cured ham with big buttery mushroom caps on top. Steaks or lobsters at dinner. Somebody may do any one dish better at other restaurants, but Mel's offers as much variety as one could want among simple fare. It's a chance to rest up from the ethnic restaurant or embassy reception circuit, and it has perhaps the best baked potato in town.
Mel's is for people who are inclined to hope that nothing ever changes. On the lunch menu there is a section called "Today's Specials." It is nearly identical to the "Today's Specials" listed on Duke's menu for the last umpteen years.
There are, however, a couple of new dishes, notably veal scallops at dinner. And, the hottest news of all, the chopped liver is better than Duke's was. Its former bitterness has been softened by more onion and egg, and it is definitely less dry. In fact, it is now chopped liver to compete with legend.
I was never a fan of Duke's desserts, and Mel's as well are meant to impress you with their heft. There are cream pies as high as a souffle and cheesecake as heavy as bookends, but they look better than they taste. But there is now, on occasion, an exception. One night a waiter found us a piece of strudel, I mean real strudel, with layers of flaky crust peeling off as you hit it with a fork, filled with ground nuts and bread crumbs and just enough sour cherries. It tasted like a resurrection of the Mama Young's cooking from the old Roumanian Inn that begat Paul Young's, which is now Mel's.
The place is indeed full of wonderful ghosts, a kind of clan gathering of Duke Zeibert's, Paul Young's and the Roumanian Inn come to help out Mel in his new restaurant.