We tend to associate dining bargains with modest settings. Part of what you’re paying for in restaurants, after all, are the props around the food: serviceware, linens, flowers, art. Thus a recent encounter with a $6 bowl of bean soup in one of the most familiar buildings in the world surprised me on two counts.
First, the appetizer was the taste equivalent of a call from home, creamy beans and hickory-smoked ham with unseen grace notes of leek and carrot in every spoonful. The only reason I didn’t scrape the bottom of the bowl was because the soup gets served in a portion that could easily feed two hungry people. Well, that and the fact that I intended on exploring more of the menu.
The second reason for my wonder: my surroundings. Bean soup typically brings to mind Formica counters and paper napkins. Here, ornate sides came with the bowl I devoured as if I had just ended a fast. Above me hung a weighty chandelier. The rear wall drew my eyes to a fresco of George Washington by Constantino Brumidi, “Cornwallis Sues for Cessation of Hostilities.” And at every other table in my purview seemed to sit an alpha personality holding court. From across the room, I could hear a patron overshare his résumé with a female companion: “I worked for Obama for three years, Nancy for two.”
A new power spot? Hardly. The House Members’ Dining Room has been feeding movers and shakers since 1858. But only since October has the restaurant, also known as the Ernest S. Petinaud Room (named for a Jamaican-born busboy turned maitre d’), been open to the public. Now, whenever Congress is in recess, mere mortals can order off the same lunch menu as their representatives.
This is not the privilege that it sounds. While it was thoughtful of Congress to provide diners with more transparency, the reality, aside from the bean soup (a different recipe from the more famous U.S. Senate version), is one of the sorriest dining experiences in Washington. No amount of history can erase the twin problems of food and service, starting outside, where, if you’re a strange face without a familiar ID, sober security guards will greet you with zero cheer. I realize the minders aren’t responsible for me finding my way to the dining room, but a curt “What time’s your reservation?” could be finessed by the guys in blue at the south entrance of the Capitol steps.
Did you think you could just glide into lunch? A reservation via Open Table or a call to the restaurant is necessary before you can proceed to security, go through a metal detector, check in at a nearby desk and pick up a temporary badge. From there, it’s just a walk down the hall and past the office of the sergeant at arms to a table. You hardly need directions, though. Your nose guides you to cooking smells, promising but ultimately just a tease.
Before you sit down, take a moment to study up on the dining room. The foyer of the establishment is a mini-museum displaying an old menu — lamb chops cost 90 cents in 1944 — and even a Victorian mirror acquired for the speaker’s office in 1858.
Today, blue napkins rest on white linens, and red curtains frame nothing so breathtaking as scaffolding and Tyvek wrap. The Capitol is undergoing a facelift, and until it’s complete, the dining room’s view of the VIP carriage entrance remains out of sight. A few quirks indicate your government location, however. High on the wall hangs a clock above a row of seven stars, part of an old-fashioned alert system designed to get representatives to the floor in time to vote. Three illuminated stars signal a quorum call; six lights mark a recess in proceedings.
Let’s eat! A table dressed with chafing dishes is for the convenience of representatives, who can opt for a buffet lunch if pressed for time. Outsiders only see the a la carte menu. The list reads well, and current. Salads include a Caesar tossed with baby kale, sandwiches involve fried chicken fueled with Maker’s Mark bourbon, and Key lime “pie” is presented in a little jar.
No sooner does much of the food start coming than you wish you were grazing away — far, far away — from George Washington’s gaze. The Caesar looks like a grade-school art project, a haystack of kale topped with splinters of industrial cheese and fenced in with slices of chicken that taste like they emerged from a freezer bag. The best thing about the fried chicken sandwich is the fact that the bun is toasted. The filling tastes as if Cap’n Crunch inspired it. Chicken — rather, nubbins of chicken — make yet another appearance on a plate of gloppy pasta that’s the polar opposite of al dente and further degraded by a rumor of pesto. Flatbread scattered with vegetables finds us rescuing bites of roasted squash, caramelized onion and goat cheese from a ringer for damp cardboard.
Fish suggests standard-issue banquet fare. The menu promises pickled vegetables and Thai basil-coconut curry with the salmon, but their flavors are so faint, it’s as if the dish was rinsed before it left the kitchen. A whiff of coconut is the sole attraction.
Multiple visits also turned up a raft of fried calamari assaulted from above and below with squeeze bottles of lemon aioli and balsamic vinegar sauce, and short ribs that seemed to be auditioning for a role on your least favorite airline. Sad beef. Sad, tepid and underseasoned spinach. Okay squash puree. (But I ordered the entree for the meat!)
No need to stay for dessert. Not unless you like achingly sweet Key lime pie garnished with waxy shavings of white chocolate, or bread pudding that tastes like pumpkin-flavored croutons. Let me amend that: The scoop of vanilla ice cream atop the bread pudding benefits from a flourish of toasted coconut.
Service only adds to the mess on the Hill. Bread is sometimes doled out, other times not. (When it does come, the doughy focaccia is forgettable.) Appetizers consistently arrive with main courses, crowding the table and forcing diners to eat whatever is hot first, before it cools down. “Everything okay?” a server asks as she walks past my table with another party’s check, barely looking my direction. On a sunnier note, diners looking for peace and quiet with their meal should be cheered to hear that conversation is easy in this august space.
As much as people like to think of critics as Anton Egos, gleefully rubbing their hands together and dreaming up fresh ways of saying “awful,” I don’t know any serious critic who plays that way. In fact, the opposite is true; we’d much rather shine a light on good work. I didn’t go to Capitol Hill expecting the farm-to-table Dabney — this is, after all, a government-run facility — but I did hope to find more than bean soup to rave about.
Back in the day, the chef position was considered a plum assignment. For the past four years, the contract has gone to Sodexo, the global food and facilities management operation. The team in the Capitol is free to cook what they want, with the proviso that the bean soup is always available, says executive chef Fred Johnson, a former member of the Air Force who also oversees cafeterias and catering and whose sous-chef is toying with the idea of adding fashionable octopus to the menu.
Excuse me while I sigh.
Most recently, a “social hour” was added to the more open House. Staged in the adjacent Charles E. Bennett Room from 3 to 7 p.m. on Fridays, the occasion combines a full bar and snacks, including chicken wings and a few appetizers from the members’ dining room menu. I’ve yet to partake of the end-of-week function, but my experience across the way suggests liquids are better than solids. Drink up, in other words.
On the way out of the restaurant last month, I glanced at the clock, high on the wall, and came to the unfortunate conclusion: It’s the only place in the House Members’ Dining Room that you’re likely to see stars.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the number of stars that light up on the wall indicating a quorum call. It is three, not two.
House Members’ Dining Room (Poor/Satisfactory) U.S. Capitol, First Street SE. 202-225-6300. history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/Capitol/Members-Dining-Room/. Open: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for weekday lunch when Congress is in recess. Prices: Appetizers $6 to $12, sandwiches and entrees $11 to $25. Sound check: 64 decibels / Conversation is easy. Accessibility: A ramp leads to the entrance and the broad corridors of power thereafter. Restroom doors open electronically.