227 Massachusetts Ave. NE (also at 1211 Wisconsin Ave. NW). 547-8200. Price Range: From $1.95 for a cup of chile to $5.95 for hot roast beef with breadsticks and vegetables. All a la carte, mainly salads and sandwiches. Hours: Seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Atmosphere: Informal but sophisticated. Decorated in earth colors, brick, tile and wood. Reservations: For groups of five or more. Credit Cards: Visa, Master Charge. The cafe advertises that it also takes American Express cards, but when we tried to pay with one, we were told they weren't accepting them yet. Check in advance if you plan to pay this way. Special Facilities: Booster chairs available. Two blocks from Union Station Metro stop. Delicatessen for takehome goodies and box lunches.
The American Cafe, long established in Georgetown, recently opened a branch on the ground floor of a refurbished brick rowhouse on Capitol Hill. At a recent dinner there with another family, we found the setting pleasant, the staff helpful to families and the food inviting and tasty.
When we arrived at 7 p.m. on a weekday, the restaurant was already fairly crowded. Our friends were ensconced at an attractive butcher-block table with their baby in a basket on the linen-covered banquette and their 2-year-old in a booster seat sipping orange juice. We ordered orange juice and apple juice for our kids, too - before we checked the menu and discovered that the juices, without preservatives, cost $1.35 for an 8-ounce glass.
The menu is American, emphasizing certain American classics such as chile and cheesecake and hot fudge sundaes. It is also eclectic enough to include nominally foreign foods americans have adopted, such as crepes, croissants and submarine sandwiches. There are no multicourse dinners on the menu.
I was tempted by the Tarragon Chicken Salad with almonds for $4.75, but decided instead on the Mixed Market Sampler, which included tarragon chicken salad as well as seafood salad, cold broccoli with garlic mayonnaise, sesame noodles, eggplant salad, coleslaw and potato salad for $5.25.
It was delicious, especially the broccoli and the cold sesame noodles, which I shared with the Kids.
There is no children's menu, so we ordered a hot turkey with gravy sandwich with two plates to split between our 3-year-old and our 6-year-old. The turkey was sliced so thin that it was hard to tell whether it came from a real bird or one of those processed composition turkeys. But the gravy was like everybody's mythical mother used to make. Even for our kids, who don't eat very much, the split sandwich wasn't enough to eat. With our other orders, we found that portions were not overly generous.
Our friends' 2-year-old had a roast beef sandwich on a split croissant for $3.95. The roast beef was rare and tender and the croissant light and fluffy, but I don't think the combination is really successful. I may be old-fashioned, but I think croissants belong at breakfast, with butter and apricot jam.
My husband, one of those maddeningly thin people who eat an enormous amount, ordered two main dishes: a Chili Gourmet, consisting of chili with French bread and garnishes of zucchini, grated carrot, onions and sour cream for $4.25, and the Tennessee Smokehouse Barbecue with cole slaw for $3.50. He ate all of each dish, with approbation.
One of our adult friends, a connoisseur and creator of hero sandwiches, ordered the Italian classic, a sub. He pronounced it excellent, commenting especially on the big chunks of sweet peppers. His only adverse observation was that the oil was not poured on the bread, which would have absorbed it, but on the filling. As a result, most of the oil ended up on the plate.
As the adults finished a carafe of the house wine, $5, the kids played on the small terrace outside the restaurant, returning all too often to ask if it was time for the hot fudge sundaes we had promised them for dessert.
The Fantastic Fudge Sundae costs $2.95 and consists of two scoops of Haagen-Dazs ice cream with hot fudge, walnuts and whipped cream. We thought of ordering the ice cream by the scoop (75 cents per) and then adding the topping, but that seemed too complicated so we splurged in a sundae for each kid. (Sundaes are something that can't be split between kids without tears.)
My husband, still hungry after his double dinner, ordered the Mocha Maria, consisting of Haagen-Dazs chocolate chip ice cream, coffee ice cream, Tia Maria liqueur, walnuts and whipped cream, for $3.50. I settled for espresso and the prospect of finishing the kids' sundaes. They managed to finished most of the sundaes, but the little I got was every bit as deliciously sinful as I remembered hot fudge sundaes to be.
Our waitress, who had been helpful throughout the meal, brought extra napkins so we could clean the kids after their immersion in hot fudge.
The tab added to more than we expected to spend, probably because the menu is all a la carte. The check, including four cocktails, one beer, one espresso, one cappuchino, one American coffee, one carafe of wine, three juices, seven main dishes and four desserts came to $67, including tax. With the tip, the bill came to about $38 per family. That's more than we would normally spend for a fairly casual meal - and more than you'd have to spend at the American Cafe if you watch what you order.