Open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11:15 p.m.; Saturday, 6 to 11:15 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations. Prices: Main courses start at $5 at lunch, $9 at dinner. Steaks at dinner are about $15. Full meal with tax, tip and modest wine averages $30 to $35 at dinner, $15 to $20 at lunch.
The new census maps of Washington may not have taken note, but neighborhoods are forming downtown: French restaurants on K and L Streets, Italian surrounding Dupont Circle and drifting westward, steakhouses huddling around Connecticut and M. c
The steakhouse neighborhood is the fastest growing. If beef has declined in popularity, they haven't heard the news here. Old faithfuls Palm and Golden Ox, the newer Joe and Mo's, Mel's-quondam-Duke's, and now Gary's sends a charcoal haze over Connecticut Avenue.
Just who is Gary? you might ask. The Palm knows. He used to tend their charcoal-scented and lobster-steamy kitchen before he opened his own place. He's the big guy you used to see in pictures of the Palm's staff, the one who looks as if he could finish a Palm prime rib all by himself and never have to look for someone to share his six-pound lobster.
So the portions are Palm-size, and the menu is very Palm-like, with steaks and roast beef and racks of lamb for one, huge shrimp and chicken salads at lunch -- the chunks of chicken and shrimp huge, as well as the portions -- and vegetable or potato servings enough for a family. Gary's chopped steak looks as if someone forgot to portion the pound into single servings.
Besides the portion sizes, what is the same at Gary's as at the Palm is the quality of the meat (very good), not to mention the buddy-buddy attitude of the staff (as fresh as the rockfish, which they encourage you to order) and, of course, the prices. No, amend that. The lobster prices, averaging $12 a pound, are even higher; the Palm hasn't yet edged over $10 a pound.
What is better than the Palm is the smooth, relaxing comfort of the place, a stretch of space generous in its per-person allotment, with tables large and aisles between them wide. The rooms are more formal than the Palm's, with curved upholstered banquettes and high-back chairs, handsome wood flooring and oriental-style carpets. The Palm would never have silk flower arrangements or soft lighting, for goodness' sake. And the Palm's bar is a place for serious public drinking rather than serious private talking.
Despite all the subtle fabrics and sophisticated tone of Gary's, the best of the menu are the solid meat-and-potatoes (or fish-and-potatoes) choices. The steak, for instance, is as good as the best in town, and better than many that call themselves the best in town. It is thick and crusty and well-marbled, as succulent a piece of beef as you are likely to find these days (taking into consideration all the complaints that beef doesn't taste the way it used to). Furthermore, it was perfectly trimmed of fat.
If you order it, however, do not trust those waiters' inviting candor. They tell you that "medium" is really "medium rare" by that kitchen, and rare is just about tartar steak. I didn't believe them, and ordered rare steak when I wanted it rare; it came medium-rare. Next time I won't believe them even more.
Besides the steak, the broiled fish is the optimum order; even the swordfish, which seems to be the fish most prone to restaurant-kitchen pitfalls, was superb: smoky from the grill, moist and sweet and tender and fresh, not a tad overcooked.
Straying from the "simplest is best" rule will put you on shaky ground, except when it comes to the pasta. I don't know why you should go to a steakhouse for linguine with pesto, except that Gary's makes a stunning pesto.
Now for the gripes. Most serious is that Gary's makes sauces about as well as you would expect a French restaurant to make a hamburger. He does to much to them; the cream sauce for the tortellini has too much thickening (and lacks zest); the sauce for the rack of lamb -- which needed trimming and tasted strong enough to be mutton -- was overpowering, but at least it was served on the side so you could avoid it. The prime rib is good here, thick and juicy, but it is ruined by bouillon flavor permeating the meat. Gary's makes a big deal of veal, cutting it in-house and bragging of its quality. It is certainly good meat, and served as a thick chop as well as thin scallops. But the thick chop I tried was cooked just beyond moistness and its delicate flavor was lost in another sauce with the strong tang of bouillon. The chopped steak, similarly, was fine meat cooked rare and crusty, but ordered with onions it came in a greasy pool with a soggy, salty mess of onion mush that disguised the quality of the beef. Soups, too, suffer from being too diluted and then overseasoned, so that the basic flavor of lobster bisque or she-crab is too faint, and even further eclipsed by spices or sherry.
Gary's has its special touches: Saratoga water instead of Perrier and some of the best house wines in town -- any town. While there are two whites and two reds at $7.50 a bottle, the soave is particularly worth trying. Well, so is the Sangre del Toro. And the Robert Mondavis aren't bad, either. By the glass, the wines are $2.50, and they pour a generous eight ounces plus.
Vegetables, served a la carte, are fresh and lightly cooked, and there is a broad choice including potatoes from lyonnaise to plain skins. Garlic bread is expensive -- $2.25 for four pieces -- but intriguing, topped with tomato slices and cheese. Gary's serves good oysters, either raw or in an exceptionally pleasant Rockefeller-style, but they have been very small oysters, the only small anything on the whole menu.
This has the potential -- especially when Gary tires of his new-found freedom to make those fancy dishes the Palm never served -- to be a very good, reliable steakhouse; but there are bugs to be ironed out. One day at lunch for two the pickle tray inexplicably contained one pickle. Another day the shrimp salad was chewy, watery, iodiney; a complaint brought an immediate substitution with the apology that it had been "emergency supply." Furthermore, the chicken salad that was substituted tasted dry and dull.
Desserts are cheesecake and tortes brought from outside, acceptable but unexciting. Asked which desserts were made in-house, the waiter answered, "We do a nice job with the strawberries." More typical endings at Gary's are just espresso -- excellent strong, puts-hair-on-your-chest espresso -- and liqueur-coffee concoctions produced with a flossy show of flames.
Finally, one is left with a sense of Gary's as still far from perfection, but certainly A Presence.