RESTAURANTS IN WASHINGTON change so quickly that even last year's list would probably be a revelation, so looking back 25 years ago means that there is not much to recognize if you weren't here then.
Those of us who were around in 1961 have a lot to be grateful for in today's Washington: The dining is considerably more varied, more sophisticated and overall much better than it was then. But we have some things to miss, too.
We miss Le Bistro -- which was reputed to be Jackie Kennedy's favorite restaurant -- and the Knife and Fork across the street from it. (In fact, I still get calls asking where it went.) We miss the heyday of Mrs. K's Toll House, when the food was home-cooked and comforting and the two-crust lemon pie was the most tingling we ever tasted, and when the Blair Mansion Inn, too, could be counted on for good family dinners. The Peter Pan in Urbana, Md., then made world- class fried chicken and corn fritters that were worth the drive and the wait in line on a Sunday. We remember when the Pekings, Hogate's and the Flagship were still in their glory days and the Hot Shoppes made better fried onion rings, cream of chicken soup and hot fudge ice cream cakes than anybody's mother. The original Mighty Mo of the Hot Shoppes would put the Big Mac to shame, even with lettuce and tomato.
We didn't have Afghan or Ethiopian or even Vietnamese restaurants then, and we only had two Greek (the Astor and the Athens) and one Japanese (the Sakura Palace, which hadn't yet introduced us to sushi). But Eastern Europe was better represented: the 823 served gutsy German food, and the Brauns served fine dinners in the dining room of the Broadmoor apartment building.
Newcomers to Washington won't understand the long-ago fondness for the ribs at Arbaugh's. But they feel the loss of Gifford's intense hot fudge sauce and summertime peach ice cream.
But if you ask me the one food source I would have resurrected in Washington from a quarter of a century ago, I would have no hesitation. I want Sam's Argentine Bakery back. I'll never stop missing those breads he started in the middle of the night with a batch of dough left over from the previous day's batch, or his cumin-spiked, meaty and juicy empanadas, or Sam himself, gruff as a teddy bear.
We still have the A.V., but in those days you could eat your pizza in its parking lot around the fountain; at the Aldo Cafe you dined under a grape arbor; at the Roma, you still can.
French restaurants were preeminent -- and considered exotic. The Rive Gauche, the Jockey Club, La Salle du Bois, and Le Bistro competed at the top, while even then Chez Francois stood alone as the sole source of such homey dishes as kidneys, sweetbreads and quiche; and Chez Odette was where French food was affordable by ordinary people. Quenelles de brochet hadn't come -- or gone -- in the fancy French restaurants.
We had no New American food in those days, but we did have some good Old American food. You could have your steak with piano music at Billy Martin's or with pickles at Duke's, or preceded by John Kennedy's favorite onion soup at Paul Young's.
Which others have lasted? The Monocle, which hadn't yet made network television fame as the place to find the Watergate investigators planning their strategies. Normandy Farm and Old Angler's, as quiet places to get away from it all. Napoleon's, La Fonda, the Calvert Cafe, Iron Gate Inn and Old Europe as exotic foreign eateries. Martin's Tavern, the Market Inn, Reeves and Sholl's, for good plain food at good plain prices. Italian standbys such as Gusti's and Luigi's. And the Florida Avenue Grill, which then had more competition in southern cooking. McDonald's and Jerry's Sub Shop were around already. And the 1789 opened in Georgetown, despite protests from Georgetown residents who worried about the peaceful nature of their neighborhood.
People complained even then that it wasn't like the good old days. The Flagship and Hogate's had already lost the touch of the personalized fish houses they had once been, so Crisfield's became the most reliable down-home fish restaurant, and Harvey's the best upscale.
Some things that seem to be new are really just revivals. Today's rage may be grill restaurants, but in 1961 Harvey's boasted of its Charcoal Grill Room. It also advertised its diamondback terrapin -- I guess some things do change after all.
In 1961 a Washington Gourmet Society considered it chic to allow no hard drinks, no speeches and no women. Nowadays it is largely accepted that speeches and women are here to stay, but hard liquor hasn't such a secure position at the table. A story in this magazine in 1961 began with, "Will a glass of wine ever replace the martini?" Twenty five years later, ordering a martini at dinner is almost considered quaint.
In those days we talked about politics more than food. Only two restaurants -- Harvey's and Trader Vic's -- ran advertisements in this magazine in 1961, and the only two mentioned in stories were the Jockey Club -- for its flaming desserts (hardly the mainstay of the menu nowadays) -- and a lunch counter that was a site of antisegregation sit-ins.
There were no restaurant reviews in this magazine 25 years ago. In the rest of the newspaper, the big restaurant news was about the legalization of outdoor caf,es; and although they were allowed to have up to three musicians -- stringed instruments with a maximum of one accordion or concertina -- it was another year before the caf,es were allowed to serve liquor.
I won't venture to judge which direction politics has developed in the last quarter-century, but clearly food has gotten better, at least for grown-ups (the public school cafeterias then baked their own bread). It has been years since I saw canned peas and Belgian carrots on my plate in a French restaurant. And I can count on my fish being fresh in most respectable restaurants today.
In 1961, as now, there was a running argument about how Washington rated as a restaurant town, with James Reston in The New York Times claiming that Washington still didn't have good restaurants, and editorials in The Washington Star refuting him.
While the debate remains, the arguments have come full circle. An anonymous "Diner-Out" wrote in those days that Washington had much improved as a restaurant city, and as proof he offered, "When I served here in the Navy early in World War II, if you didn't like southern fried chicken, cream gravy and grits, you almost starved to death."
He's still right. Washington is an ever-better restaurant town; we have increasingly fine restaurants from more parts of the world. But we still have no authentic deli, and we have no Scandinavian food to speak of. Furthermore, in some ways we have lost ground. Nowadays I would paraphrase Mr. "Diner-Out": If you DO like southern fried chicken, cream gravy and grits, you can almost starve to death.