Open for breakfast daily 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Sunday and Mondayu 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday, Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight, AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Street parking. Prices: Main courses $4.50 to $11, most $6 to $8. Appetizers average $2 to $3, deserts $2 to $2.50.
It is the surprises that make this job such a pleasure.
When the original management leaves a restaurant, one worries that the new management will be second-string, followers of the plan without the spirit. When the staff tell you that the kitchen and the menu are in flux, one fears that the day's meal is going to taste like make-do cooking. My fears were unjustified at the West End Cafe.
It opened as Champagne and Beaujolais, two small restaurants in one refurbished hotel. But the originator, Jason Wolin, who has been known as the spirit behind 209 1/2, Foggy Bottom Cafe, Patent Pending and Hot Diggity Dog, left the restaurant after he set it up. It closed for awhile and reopened as one restaurant with two rooms, and retitled as West End Cafe. The menu, however, retained the original tone: a range from light cafe food to full-blown diner, familiar dishes with a twist in seasonings or accompaniments, an emphasis on freshness and on preparations simple enough not to be dependent on a very experienced chef.
On each visit I have been told that a new menu is in the works and that the kitchen is still being restaffed. Furthermore, the menu makes a feeble attempt at sounding clever ("trendy overtures," "a mixed bag," "the finale"), which raises concern about the taste in the kitchen reflecting the taste of the prose.
All the ingredients for disappointment.
Yet West End Cafe has been a pleasure each time -- not without serious flaws, but overall a restaurant that tempts you to return. Even at Washington Circle, West End Cafe is one of the closest restaurants to the Kennedy Center and the State Department. Along with its being a hotel restaurant, its location suggests it could serve many purposes: pre-theater and late supper, as well as lunch and dinner. The menu thoughtfully provides alternatives for all these occasions. Even at dinner you can order just a bowl of chili -- handsomely garnished with small bowls of scallions, green peppers, parmesan cheese and sour cream. At lunch you can splurge your day's allotment on a strip steak or barbecued sesame duck (though it is so fatty and its vinergary barbecue sauce so overwhelm the duck that I don't know why you would). At night you can have eggs benedict or a hamburger. And fresh fish is on the menu daily. Whatever the time, you can eat lightly with a salad or heavily with a soup-to-Haagen-Dazs meal. Lunch and dinner menus vary only slightly in selection and price.
This being a self-acclaimed "trendy" restaurant, it of course has pasta salad as a frequent special. If the cold tortellini was representative, the trend is welcome to stay; the tortellini were tossed with a wealth of prosciutto, dill, pine nuts and slivers of green pepper that had been added recently enough not to grow overbearing in the oil and vinegar dressing. Soups are homemade, a little dull but decent.
The management hopes you don't order shrimp, orange and onion salad. I hope you do. The salad, you see, is a stunning arrangement of split shrimp alternated with slices of orange and red onion, overlapping to form lovely pink, orange and purple curves. The problem is that the arrangement is laborious, and ingredients cannot be cut and arranged too far ahead, or the onion will overpower the shrimp. It is, however, light and refreshing as well as pretty, successfully contrasted with slices of avocado and a pungent pale green dressing, all on soft dark green lettuce leaves.
In addition to arranging nicely, the West End Cafe also can cook nicely. Rockfish in a cream sauce has been moist and fresh, its sauce carefully glazed. Along with it came tiny cubes of potato sauteed with garlic, and sauteed zucchini and mushrooms. Eggs benefict have showed similar care, the eggs gently poached and the hollandaise well balanced, their accompaniment was excellent broccoli.
The dish that reaches far above expectations, however, is the club sandwich, the best I've had outside Paris (where it would be a real challenge to beat the club sandwich at Le Drugstore). The secret to this club sandwich is freshness: the chicken was freshly cooked -- and moist, the bacon tasted freshly cooked -- and crisp -- and the toast was also freshly made, retaining its crunch.
The details, then, are given more attention than we have grown to expect. Vegetables are buttery and firm at West End Cafe, and potatoes (except the tasteless french fries) are more interesting than usual, here likely to be creamed or sauteed.
Surely by now one expects a few "buts". This is, after all, a restaurant in flux and one with a streak of inexperience. Some of the inexperience shows in the dishes that represent an advanced cooking course -- the duck, for instance. Other major flaws stem from misguided ideas. Take Duffy's London Broil Salad. It is a beautiful looking meal, a huge glass bowl piled high with greens, avocado, olives (martini olives, unfortunately, rather than Greek olives), tomatoes, good crunchy croutons and crumbled feta cheese, topped with slices of london broil cooked perfectly rare with crusty edges. A myriad of good things. But it is nearly impossible to eat, to cut the london broil into manageable pieces in a bowl, to cut the greens and to eat the ingredients in combination.Another problem dish is open faced hamburger and avocado crab sandwich, two open-faced sandwiches side by side and looking lovely under a crisscross of avocado. But the crab shreds would taste canned or frozen if one could taste them in the creamy binder under the melted cheddar, and the hamburger was crusty but not cooked as rare as ordered. Furthermore, the combination was a mismatch.
The catalyst for pleasure in this multi-flawed restaurant is that the fresh and lively food is served in fresh and lively surroundings: the sun streams in through arched windows and skylights, the bare wood floors gleam, the women mats and snowy napkins and glossy greenery mingle to set a scene of crispness and light. The service may be sometimes clattery in its awkwardness, but is as fresh and exuberant as the cooking. Add to this the moderate prices, and the total is that West End Cafe is a welcome surprise.