Atmosphere: Friendly, pleasant.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Price range: Entrees $7 to $13.
Reservations: Usually not necessary because of large seating capacity.
Credit cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, Central, Diner's, Master-card, VISA.
Special facilities: Plenty of parking across the street. Booster chairs for children. Easily accessible to handicapped.
During my childhood, O'Donnell's was a feature of the landscape of downtown Washington. It was close to the National Theater and near what in those days was the main shopping district for Washington. No suburban malls then. No suburbs.
I remember O'Donnell's as dark and sedate, very pleasant. Nothing hokey about the place, but then most restaurants in those days were like that. The fancy places and gimmicky joints came later.
Fish and seafood were, of course, completely fresh. My mother recalls that O'Donnell's was known for its Norfolk-style seafood dishes, which she remembers others trying to duplicate without success.
The basis for a Norfolk-style dish seemed simple: crab or shrimp or lobster sauteed in butter. But there was something else that was never identified but gave the dish an extra fillip. A squirt of vinegar perhaps? Lemon? No one ever knew. O'Donnell's never told. The dish was served sizzling hot in a distinctive round pewter casserole. It made O'Donnell's famous.
That original O'Donnell's has disappeared now, replaced by a fancier seafood restaurant on the same site. A second O'Donnell's opened in Bethesda in the mid-1950s. It expanded in recent years to a seating capacity of 400.
I went there with my family recently and, despite a few bright spots, we were mostly disappointed. Bigger has not made for better. In fact, there seems to have been a net loss.
A bright spot: the Bethesda O'Donnell's, which our hostess said was run by the grandson of the original O'Donnell's owner, is certainly ready for children. There's a cute little menu for them shaped like a sailing ship. Inside the menu are four or five mazes and doodling games that our kids enjoyed.
We thought the children's dinner was better than ours. Our son's fried scallops (a dozen) were delicious and nicely prepared. Our daughter's shrimp ("Don't even ask me, Mom, always order me shrimp," she had said) was equally well-prepared, sweet and crisp. Other choices for $4.25 include flounder, turkey, hamburger, ham or fried chicken. These come with appetizer, two vegetables, milk and ice cream, making the children's menu the best buy in the place.
Our simply prepared first courses were fine. My oysters on the half shell were fresh and briny, although the hot sauce was not hot. A bucket of steamed cherrystone clams were fine, too.
But the main dishes for adults were another story. My husband was disappointed with his whole flounder stuffed with deviled crabmeat ($10.95). The fish was big enough, but the runny crab stuffing spoiled it. The crab tasted neither fresh nor deviled, and the entire platter was swimming in a filmy liquid, which made us wonder whether some part of the fish had been frozen and had thawed during cooking.
I ordered the Norfolk sampler, a small casserole of crabmeat, shrimp and lobster, $11.95. Again, the same watery liquid glazed the bottom of the dish.The lobster was in shreds, not chunks; the shrimp tough, as though it had been cooked before being sauteed.
The house salad is iceberg lettuce coated with an overly sweet, reddish dressing. Other vegetables, such as creamed spinach and stewed tomatoes, are straight from the can.
Desserts are lovely to look at, but more glamorous than tasty.
Perhaps if you stick to simple items such as raw oysters, steamed clams and, judging from our children's dinners, fried foods, you'd be satisfied at the present-day O'Donnell's.
But it would be hard if you remember the old place.