The reason everybody goes to Duke's is that everybody goes to Duke's. They clearly don't go for the food -- though they may say they do. And while the huge dining arena is certainly attractive in its new gray and burgundy incarnation, there are obviously more beautiful restaurants. And the service is only, well, all right. The restaurant is known more for that critical mass of stars, celebrities, movers-and-shakers who go there to see each other.
Duke himself is probably the secret. He is the longest running one-man show in town, the host personified, and hasn't slowed a beat.
Okay, the food. Well, you can hit it right. You can get some fat juicy crab cakes or a steak with real meat on its bones. You can find a fish hardly dry from swimming, and the chopped liver is the stuff great bar mitzvoth are made of. And Duke's has about the only really good matzo balls sold on the open market, and his cheesecake is slathered with dreadful red gel, but it is as creamy and dense as you could wish.
You can also get a roast beef hash that could have fooled you if they called it stew. The food can be salty, saltier and even more salty, and the salads are just plain drab. So, while you can depend on the pickles and the onion rolls day in and day out, you wouldn't want to bet your last dollar on anything else. Except Duke. 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW. 466- 3730. L $8-$12, D $12-$19. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, DC, V. Res sugg. Full bar.