The principals behind St. Anselm near Union Market have a favor to ask: Please don’t call their restaurant, an import from Brooklyn, a steak house. While the menu showcases a lot of meat cooked on a grill and a slew of sides that sound like perfect companions, the team would prefer you to think of St. Anselm as “a tavern,” says co-owner Stephen Starr: “a restaurant that happens to have steak on the menu.”
Besides, says business partner Joe Carroll, who owns the much smaller original in New York, St. Alselm is the opposite of the “corporate, probably stuffy, special occasion” images most people have for steak houses. His new corner restaurant, which greets customers at the door with a beefy aroma and is outfitted with banners from sundry fraternal organizations and outward-facing booths the color of creamed spinach, is designed to make customers feel like coming on a regular basis. The waiters wear what they want, for instance. “I’m not a uniform person,” says Carroll, who would rather his staff “dress the way they would hanging out with friends.”
In the kitchen: Marjorie Meek-Bradley, the California native whose jobs in Washington have seen her cook Middle Eastern (Zaytinya), Italian (Graffiato), contemporary American (Ripple, Roofer’s Union) and sandwiches (at the fast-casual Smoked & Stacked, which Meek-Bradley created and retains). Her menu at St. Anselm is a single page and reflects the way the executive chef says she likes to cook and eat.
Enter tender biscuits, served in a skillet alongside a bowl of pimento cheese that sees so much back and forth at the table, observers feel as if they’re watching a tennis match. The must-try salad gathers cucumber, watermelon radishes, whipped feta cheese and a “granola” made with cashews. Indeed, vegetables get plenty of attention. Fried cauliflower, among my favorite side dishes, shows up as a little igloo paved with tahini made from sunflower seeds and a sprinkling of amaranth. The richness of Meek-Bradley’s food is nicely foiled by acid. Note the pickled beets beneath the cauliflower.
A category billed as “bigs from the grill” spans beef, lamb, pork, fish — the lemony bone-in salmon is a real catch — and a heritage chicken from a family-run farm in Upstate New York served “Buddhist style,” meaning the feet and head are attached. If the presentation is unusual, the eating is luscious. (Don’t miss the bit of meat hiding in the neck.) The mindful restaurant showcases off-cuts of naturally-raised meat and the chef knows a good piece of beef doesn’t need much beyond a hot grill to enhance it. Thus slices of hanger steak come with a simple wash of garlic butter. Desserts, meanwhile, tap into our inner children. Birthday-cake-flavored ice cream cake is built with the help of crushed Oreos.
Retro china finds some of us supping off the portraits of Jack and Jackie and Dick and Pat. Sleek French knives with wooden handles make a luxurious act of mere slicing. Above all, this is a chill restaurant. Incomplete parties can be seated, thank goodness, and a request for directions to the restroom near the front bar might be met by “Take a left at the bear” (pelt). As the night wears on, the lights grow dim and — you knew this was coming — the noise approaches that of a power mower. If the weather is cooperating, you might want to sit on the first-come, first-served patio.
St. Anselm’s eccentric decor includes portraits of seven of the worst U.S. presidents, which sounds more controversial than it is. In a stroke of diplomacy by the owners, the current occupant of the White House is nowhere to be found.
1250 5th St. NE. 202-864-2199. stanselmdc.com. Entrees, $23 to $90 (for rack of lamb).