I've learned a lot from the Peacock restaurants. The first time I tried Peacock Bistro, on New Hampshire Avenue near Dupont Circle, the food was so indifferent -- flavorless cold cuts and flabby bread for the sandwiches, watery smoothies, unappealing soup -- and the service was so negligent that I dismissed the place.
What did I know? Peacock Bistro thrived, and I continued to hear praise for those sandwiches, salads and smoothies. What seemed most to attract people was that the restaurant had something for everyone -- especially for vegetarians in the company of meat-eaters. Eggplant, pesto, warm brie, veggie burgers -- Peacock was serving the history of the '80s on a roll. It not only thrived, it spun off a branch, Peacock Cafe, in Georgetown. I heard from a new set of fans, still mostly vegetarians who socialize with carnivores.
The branch, too, flourished without my patronage. It moved to larger quarters down the block, and finally I could see the point. The enlarged Peacock Cafe is airy and inviting, with a curve of glass dividing bar from dining room and a curve of blond wood shielding dining room from street. Mirrors and photographic art punctuate the walls, and the mood is casual, down to the bare concrete floor. At night, tiny spotlights and candles add romance to the $8.95 penne with marinara sauce. Peacock Cafe is chic enough to draw Georgetown night life, without being intimidating to a teenager or a tourist.
At breakfast on a weekday, I saw more people at Peacock Cafe's outdoor tables than I'd seen on several blocks of Wisconsin Avenue. Some were reading at small tables in the sun, some chatted with friends in the shade. Peacock has created the kind of Georgetown experience that drives real estate prices up and makes travelers' friends back home envious.
But it doesn't pay to examine those experiences too closely. My omelet would have looked grand on a postcard. It was large and nestled among home-fried potatoes. But it was tough and dry, overcooked, and it hadn't been stirred to break the eggs into soft flakes or curds. Its filling sounded abundant: Black Forest ham, portobellos, grilled onions and cheese. But the meager ham was shaved thin, the mushrooms were soggy and the bits of yellow and white cheese were measly -- though since they didn't taste any better than American cheese, I wasn't sure I'd want more. The home fries, paprika-tinged potato chunks, were lukewarm and lacked any crustiness. Breakfast added up to a lot of uninspired food for $7.95.
What about the smoothies? This time I tried a bananacino, a breakfasty-sounding concoction of espresso, honey, banana and skim milk. It was skimpy on the coffee and light on the banana, yet altogether pleasant enough for a summer morning. The hot coffee wasn't much stronger, though it had a definite coffee aroma, which one can't take for granted these days.
For a long while, my morning reverie was uninterrupted, though I'd have preferred to have the waiter offer more coffee. Then the peace was disturbed by a garbage truck, parked in front of the restaurant to gather refuse from all the nearby buildings. It stayed there through the rest of my breakfast, through my long wait for the waiter so I could request my check, through my signaling him at the next table by waving my credit card, through his bringing me the check, and my paying and leaving. Not a word was exchanged. None had been, in fact, since he'd delivered my omelet.
I've since tried Peacock Cafe at lunch (with planes droning overhead) and dinner (punctuated by motorcycles and hemmed in by valet parking lines). I've found the staff far more eager to be of service once morning is past. I've also re-affirmed that vegetarians are so neglected in our restaurants that even token gestures -- a gummy pasta salad, a dry Caesar salad with no danger of forbidden anchovies -- renders them grateful. There are plenty of meatless choices, from vegetarian nachos, chilled asparagus, or herbed mushrooms with soft polenta as starters to ravioli on spinach or a sandwich named in honor of Paul Newman as entrees. But these dishes wouldn't make anyone else yearn to try them. Even fish-eaters are offered more style than substance, in the form of barely tart and certainly not acid-cooked seviche, tasteless gray-surfaced seared tuna or bouncy grilled fish kebabs.
The people who are best fed here are meat-eaters, the heartiest sort. The one appetizer that would draw me back is the grilled polenta with prosciutto. It's soft as oatmeal; the grilled part is its thick layer of frizzled prosciutto cooked crisp with a sprinkling of cheese. Furthermore, the burger -- the meat kind -- is big and loosely packed, grill-striped and not even cooked to death. It's a contender, in fact a clear winner when it's buried in gorgonzola, portobellos, grilled onions, lettuce and tomatoes. The accompanying filament-thin fries would be great, too, if they were allowed to brown. Then there's the lamb, a big, floppy, cover-the-plate round-bone lamb steak that's a little chewy but all the more flavorful for that. It's sprinkled with rosemary and served with green beans and a mound of rough and wonderful mashed potatoes with celery root. Meat-and-potatoes: That's Peacock Cafe's strength. As for desserts, they come from elsewhere -- and not too recently.
There are restaurants that serve professional-chef food, and others that merely provide what you could cook at home if you felt like bothering. Peacock Cafe is the latter, well suited to a generation that hasn't yet learned to grill a lamb steak or mash a potato -- much less peel a celery root. This is a place to get -- for better or worse -- some home cooking when you can't rustle that up at home.
PEACOCK CAFE -- 3251 PROSPECT ST. NW. 202-625-2740. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7:30 to 11 a.m., Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for lunch daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.75 to $7.95, entrees $3.95 to $20.95; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $7.95, en-trees $6.25 to $20.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $20 to $50 per person.
The last time I reviewed Pesce, on P Street NW, after it hired a new chef, that chef promptly left. So I'm a little skittish about reviewing it again. I hope the current chef, Jamie Stachowski, stays a good long time. The casual observer might not notice a change, since the menu, chalked on blackboards and revised twice a day, looks the same as ever. There is still the long list of appetizers, the three pastas and the half-dozen or so fish and shellfish entrees. But Stachowski cooks with a sure hand. The sparkling-fresh fish is teamed with the likes of mushroom couscous, and the risottos are studded with bright and flavorful asparagus, mushrooms and such. His soft-shell crabs are lightly fried, and he serves such rarely encountered fish as bluefish and walleyed pike. The purely vegetable dishes, too, crackle with freshness. Even such an unlikely invention as peach soup with sweet onions -- more savory than sugary -- tastes of solid good sense. -- P.C.R.
CAPTION: The Georgetown experience that Peacock Cafe offers includes grilled polenta with prosciutto, left, and a mango smoothie.