Martinis and Manhattans — the size of bird baths and filled to the brim — are carefully slid across the bar and sipped before anyone dare raises his drink in a toast at Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse in Dupont Circle. Flanking a companion and me on a recent Saturday night are men who look as if they came of age when “YMCA” was blasting through discos. Helping crowd the bar are heaping plates of pasta and steak that suggest portion sizes are more important than Michelin consideration.
If nothing else, Annie’s, as regulars know it, is a generous restaurant, easy on the wallet. It has also remained a safe place for men who like men — and women who like women, and everyone in the LGBTQ demographic — as shown by the banter between a bartender and a couple of customers.
When a 40-something next to me watches a dapper senior pay his bill and depart, he asks the bartender, “Should I know that guy next to me?”
The bartender shrugs, smiles and says, “I like them younger.”
“I like them older,” replies the customer.
“I like them breathing,” chimes in an eavesdropper.
Somewhere, Annie Kaylor must be laughing with everyone. Gone but hardly forgotten, the restaurateur lent her name in the early 1960s to what debuted down the block as the Paramount Steak House in 1948. The business was opened by her brother, George Katinas, and took on the appearance of a family reunion over the years, as extended members of the tribe were added to the payroll. (Kaylor signed on in 1952, saw the business through its overnight move to its present location in 1985, and presided over the place almost until her passing five years ago, at 85.) Visit now, and you’ll see a shrine to the beloved den mother behind the bar, where Annie bobbleheads go for 15 bucks a pop and 70th-anniversary tote bags go for five. (Mike Katinas, Annie and George’s brother, operates a same-named spinoff in Grasonville, Md., on the Eastern Shore.)
The restaurant’s definition of family extends to loyal employees. “I was a guest before I was an employee,” says Raul deGuzman, general manager for the past decade. Previously, he was such a regular presence that when he was once seated near Kaylor while she was paying the staff, she glanced in his direction and told him, “I can’t find your check.” DeGuzman laughed and said, “But I don’t work here.”
Can we talk? Annie’s is about as current as a pay phone, as complex as a Hungry Man frozen entree. Even its present owner, Paul Katinas — son of George and nephew of Annie — will tell you “we’ve never been one to follow a trend.” The menu is a lot of fried snacks followed by mainstream American comfort food, while the blue-tinged interior is of the generic variety you see on soap operas. That said, Katinas points out that the restaurant was something of a trailblazer when it started serving brunch 33 years ago and later extended its weekend hours to round-the-clock in 1992. As for the interior, which includes a semiprivate dining room for parties and a second bar upstairs, fresh carpets have been rolled out and new booths should be installed by the time you read this. Still, no one goes here to see the latest in restaurant design.
If you see food as more than mere fuel, something to fill you up, tread lightly among the appetizers, many of which taste as if they originated from a bag in the freezer section. The best that can be said of the calamari, onion rings and jalapeño poppers is they make great sops for Annie’s big drinks. Better are the chicken wings, stoked with cayenne and vinegar, and peppery crab “bites,” six little cakes arranged on a ruffle of lettuce with the only accent you might want, lemon. If you’re in need of some greens, the caprese with tomatoes and pesto beats the Caesar with industrial cheese and croutons.
“The American food is very predictable — I like that,” says Lane O’Connor, 73, a customer of three decades who drops in for dinner as many as seven nights a week. The San Diego native gravitates to the chopped steak and the Athenian chicken, one of the house specialties that gets my nod as well, even if the herbed and lemony chicken spends a few minutes more than it needs to in the oven.
The kitchen is stocked with a manager but no dedicated chef. Annie’s knows enough to roast its own turkeys, though, which is your cue to get the open-face sandwich, sliced ciabatta decked out with carved turkey moistened with a homey-tasting gravy and accompanied by a small cup of tart cranberry sauce. Thanksgiving every day of the week! The cooks also bread their own shrimp for the seafood platter, which is best for the shrimp, springy beneath their crisp golden coats.
A lot of the audience seems to have committed the menu to memory. “Pork chop, extra gravy,” says a customer at the next table who hasn’t bothered to open his menu. He must know what I know: I’ve yet to order a pork chop here that doesn’t bring the Sahara to mind. But the kitchen does a decent job with its steaks, which continue to be cut by hand, just as Paul Katinas learned to do when he started out in the family business, at age 12, working after school or on breaks.
If you live to eat, knowing the menu’s strengths buys you a satisfactory meal: New York strip steak over Bull in the Pan, for instance. Never mind that the latter is a house special; dense marinated sirloin tips tossed with raw bell peppers (my experience) does not a classic make. Entrees come with two sides. Time has taught me that mashed potatoes, steamed carrots and sweetly fresh coleslaw trump bland steak fries. Also, my straight friends are as welcome as anyone else. Everyone can get around a brunch-time spinach-feta omelet — fruit and toast included — for under $15, yes?
Quill-shaped pasta slicked with pesto sauce and a storm of grated bagged cheese is straight out of the disco era, but size queens will appreciate the heaping helping, enough to split or save half for tomorrow. And any meal is better when it’s served by one of the kindly Macedonian twins, Kirche and Blago Shapevski, who are so deft at what they do, I’ve seen the brothers, here on asylum since the previous administration, take orders for four-tops and nail every single order. No small task when a couple of diners change steak temperatures or drink orders.
At this point, you may be wondering why I’m devoting space to a restaurant that sounds as if it cooks with the help of a lot of can openers. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that it’s not always about the food when you eat away from home. Like Ben’s Chili Bowl, another District landmark whose cooking takes a back seat to its icon status, Annie’s is significant not merely for having endured, but for providing what O’Connor, the longtime regular, calls “a sense of comfort,” regardless of who you are. (In a story retold in the Washington Blade, Annie Kaylor once spotted two men holding hands under the table and let them know they didn’t have to hide it.)
Annie’s plans to celebrate seven decades of inclusiveness in early December. Preparations are still taking shape, but the owner thinks he might close for an all-day party to thank regulars. And what better place than home to toast and roast?
Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse (Satisfactory/Good) 1609 17th St. NW. 202-232-0395.
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Appetizers $5.95 to $12.95, sandwiches and entrees $11.95 to $32.95.
Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.