Food critic

The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide.


Tadich Grill’s signature cioppino, with scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels, bay shrimp, white fish, dungeness crab, tomato and garlic bread. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

(Good)

The Washington branch of the San Francisco treat does an impressive job of making you feel as if you’re dining in the original. While bigger than the restaurant born during the California Gold Rush, the spinoff — picture a saloon with a seafood focus — comes with menus that use the identical green tint, booths wrapped in wood walls and sourdough bread from the same source. Steaks you can get anywhere; come here for the things you can’t, including sweet-fleshed sand dabs and tangy cioppino, conveniently offered in three sizes: happy hour cup, midday bowl and nighttime tureen. Not every signature whisks you to the City by the Bay; definitely not the leathery Hangtown fry, a sad frittata with stiff fried oysters and greasy, thick fries. And the peppery Coney Island clam chowder would be better if the seafood wasn’t chewy. But the D.C. branch also counts a few charms you won’t see in San Francisco. Warm weather extends the seating to outside, and every day, reservations are taken.

Previous: Sfoglina (Best new restaurant — No. 2) | Next: Tiger Fork (Best new restaurant — No. 6)

2 stars

1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-638-1849. tadichgrill.com/location-dc.php.

Open: Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.

Prices: Mains $19 to $40.

Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.

Previously (2005): 2 stars

--

The following review was originally published Nov. 25, 2015

Tadich Grill review: Scandal aside, how does it stack up?


The maitre d’ podium inside the front door of Tadich Grill. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

(Good)

Have you heard? A San Francisco icon moved to Washington in October.

Tadich Grill, born during the California Gold Rush in 1849 and famous for serving the seafood stew known as cioppino, now has a second location on Pennsylvania Avenue. Prime real estate, the corner location previously housed the Asian restaurant Ten Penh.

Cioppino wasn’t what people were lapping up at month’s end, however, when my Washington Post colleague, Lonnae O’Neal, wrote a column about Terri Upshaw, a daughter of the Tadich Grill owners, who disowned her in 1983 when she revealed she had met an African American football player and was following him to the District, where she and Gene Upshaw married three years later. The reaction to Upshaw’s experience on Yelp and elsewhere was swift. Some readers, turned off by charges of racism about which accused family members declined to comment, urged a boycott.

To review or not review the Tadich? That was never a question for me, a former food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Despite the charges of racism, the restaurant, a brand almost as big as the Golden Gate Bridge, remains newsworthy. To ignore the establishment would be to ignore the elephant in the room and dismiss the curiosity of diners who want to know how the restaurant stacks up — on its own merits, scandal aside. (The owners, meanwhile, are characterizing the story as a father-daughter dispute that doesn’t involve the restaurant, especially since the father retired from the business in 1993.)


Pan fried Sand Dabs with long branch potatoes, vegetables and butter sauce. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Let me say upfront: Initially, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a second Tadich. Sacred subjects are rarely improved in a retelling. (See: 2008’s “The Women,” a listless version of the 1939 classic of the same name.) Yet my initial visit to the corner of 10th and Pennsylvania turned out to be a pleasant surprise. While twice the size of the original, the 170-seat spinoff nails many of the details that make the senior establishment special: cozy booths enclosed with walls of wood, Hangtown fry and sand dabs on the menu, waiters who take what they do — but not themselves — seriously. Deviating from tradition, the Washington branch accepts reservations. Good call, Tadich.

Maitre d’ Michael Flannagan is likely the first staff member you’ll see, stationed at a high podium facing the revolving doors at the entrance. Flannagan reprises the role he played so well at Joe’s, the restaurant that most closely resembles the macho Tadich — right down to the suits that populate both dining rooms. Service, at least in these early weeks, is reason enough to drop in. One lunch, a waiter behind the counter broke into beautiful song; “Fly Me to the Moon” felt like the perfect accompaniment to Dungeness crab gilded with Louie dressing, pink with chili sauce. At dinner, a pal ordering cioppino gets a bib tied around his neck. “Our best defense against dry cleaning liabilities,” his white-jacketed waiter explains.

The menu, printed using the green tint and retro font customers find in San Francisco, looks bigger than it is once you factor in the many variations on a theme.


Deviled Eggs with smoked salmon, trout roe and white anchovy at Tadich Grill. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Appetizers are stacked with seafood cocktails (bay shrimp, jumbo lump crab, prawn, Dungeness crab, etc.), while salads spring mostly from shredded iceberg lettuce — and there’s nothing wrong with straightforward seafood and the cool crunch of a vegetable that deserves more respect. Main courses span a school of fish that can be fried, sauteed, deep-fried, broiled or baked into casseroles. Experience has taught me that fryers are your friends, cream sauces not so much, at least if you want to taste the featured fish. So bring on those sand dabs, native to the Pacific and sauteed just enough to crisp their delicate white flesh, but beware of anything baked in a casserole. Halibut Florentine is basically a creamy coffin for the ... um, exactly where is the fish?

The newcomer hired Wil Going, the former executive director of food and beverage at Chef Geoff’s in Washington and Lia’s in Chevy Chase, to replicate the signatures from San Francisco but also hook in some East Coast flavor. Diners can commence fishing with the “Rhode Island” fritto misto, a golden stack of fried shrimp, calamari and oysters tricked out with thin pepper rings and garlic butter. Rich? Yeah, but nothing a squeeze of lemon can’t right. And a rival to that cioppino -- chockablock with scallops, whitefish, Dungeness crab in a tangy tomato cover — is the chef’s Chesapeake seafood stew, featuring rockfish, tiny mussels and abundant shrimp in a bath of sherry cream that could use more punch (as in both alcohol and salt). In place of the garlic bread, a companion to the signature seafood stew, Going uses cornbread crowned with a crab cake for his mid-Atlantic bowl.


Server Farhad Maleki bags up leftovers for Tadich Grill diners. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

You don’t need to appreciate fish to warm up to the restaurant. Say hello to mushrooms Rockefeller, juicy caps filled with creamed spinach and finished with broiled cheese, and double-cut lamb chops, cooked as if by one of the city’s better steakhouses. Tender calves’ liver beneath a carpet of soft onions comes with very good whipped potatoes and, like most of the meaty entrees, crisp green beans and carrots cut in diamond shapes.

Bone-in rib-eye, on the other hand, tastes of nothing but its herbed oil. (To his credit, a waiter steered us away from the $36 disappointment, recommending instead the ropier, tastier, less costly hanger steak, priced at $26.)

Portion sizes tilt titanic, as if everyone wants to go home with leftovers. A commendable exception is the “half” cioppino on the lunch list for $18.95. I, for one, would like to pay less money for sensible allotments, not just here but everywhere.

Desserts are a mix of confections purchased from Chef Geoff’s and made on site. None of what I’ve tried offers a reason to extend a meal, be it the carrot cake made with what smacks of mortar between its layers or the stiff rice pudding suffering from undercooked rice and enough cinnamon to warrant the distribution of face masks.

Tadich Grill comes to Washington with celebrity status, some baggage and a few uncommon specialties. I say, soak up the service and the sand dabs.