The director of operations for yet another steakhouse in the District doesn't miss a beat when asked what distinguishes his employer from the rest of the herd. Rare Steak and Seafood, says Justin Abad, is "unapologetically old-fashioned" in terms of hospitality.
He's got that right. Diners climbing the carpeted stairs to the second-story dining room take in paintings of sober-faced, long-ago gentlemen. To reach the 150-seat restaurant — an import from Wisconsin, where the concept has homes in Madison and Milwaukee — is to encounter a time capsule outfitted with multiple small chandeliers, burgundy-hued leather booths, gleaming wood walls and servers in black jackets. Save for Michael Jackson on the soundtrack and an illuminated wine display, a diner could be forgiven for thinking it was 1940, or 50 years later.
Then there's the Midwestern earnestness of some of the staff. A server making a Caesar salad tableside shares not just the history of the dish but pretty much his life story, which would have been charming had I been eating by myself. Instead, it had everyone in my party wondering whether he should just pull up a chair and sit a spell.
Meals begin with sourdough garlic knots shaped like cinnamon rolls and showered with Wisconsin-made Parmesan cheese. "We can't do popovers," a server is likely to tell you. "Not with BLT Steak" in such proximity, he says, referencing the brand known for its warm popovers. The knots lose their appeal the minute they cool and harden, resulting in stiff rings that peel off like wallpaper. No thanks.
Better early impressions include neatly shucked oysters, a bountiful chopped salad brightened with watermelon radish and a plump crab cake, featuring seafood from the Chesapeake Bay, served with avocado remoulade. Executive chef Marc Hennessy, who turns 40 at the end of this month, is no stranger to grilled meat, having previously cooked at Del Campo downtown and BLT Prime in the Trump International Hotel. If the 500-bottle wine list makes for daunting reading (such small type!), enlist the assistance of Abad, who can find you good juice in a price range that fits your budget (or not).
The brief menu at Rare, which shares its building with the Laborers' International Union of North America, doesn't break much new ground, and a few steakhouse staples are executed better elsewhere. The creamed spinach (with cress) is far more dairy than vegetable, and the highly touted bone-in filet reveals faint evidence of the promised dry aging. Count me a fan of the juicy rib cap and robust, dry-aged Kansas City strip steak, however, especially in the company of the potatoes Dauphine, mashed potatoes blended with choux pastry and served as crisp, golden orbs. As long as you're splurging, throw in some Molly sauce, similar to hollandaise but with the addition of mushroom duxelles, Parmesan and white truffle oil. A riff on Rice-A-Roni, made with house-made spaghetti, brown rice and fresh turmeric, proves strangely delicious. Should you have room for dessert, Key lime pie provides a tangy ending.
That massive, solid brass door in the main dining room? It's a 300-pound gift from the landlord, the aforementioned LIUNA, which explains those old guys, all former labor leaders, staring at you from their frames. (Behind the shiny door is a small, private dining room.)
Another detail separating Rare from the competition is its 160-seat tavern on the ground floor, which Abad likes to think of as the place to go when a diner isn't on an expense account — and which I could see frequenting more often than upstairs. In addition to being less expensive, the tavern comes with a comparatively more creative menu, including a terrific vinegar-sharpened $12 veggie bowl that demonstrates the chef's affection for plant-based meals, as well as a decadent muffuletta built with fried bologna and cheese curds. (So Wisconsin!)
1595 I St. NW. 202-800-9994. raresteakandseafooddc.com. Entrees, $30 to $115 (for Wagyu rib-eye).