Once you hit middle age, the wear and tear start showing. Just look at 1789 restaurant, born in the summer of 1962 in the shadow of Georgetown University. After its owners decided to tackle a leaky roof two years ago, they noticed a bunch of other things that needed TLC. Three million dollars or so later, the dowager of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group not only sports a new top, but it’s been made more comfortable, with ground-floor restrooms, and more casual, with a multilevel Bar & Club Room that replaces the Art Deco lounge known as F. Scott’s.
1789 also features a new chef, Tracy O’Grady, formerly of the late Willow in Arlington. A protege of Bob Kinkead, Roberto Donna and Yannick Cam — three of Washington’s old-guard standard-bearers — O’Grady is only the second woman to helm 1789’s kitchen. (The first was Ris Lacoste, who went on to open Ris in the West End.)
If it’s been a while since you’ve dropped in, or you’ve never been, 1789 is a bit of a time capsule, dressed to appeal to a demographic that enjoys country club membership and a house in the hunt country — a little old-fashioned and a lot moneyed.
Listen in with me while I’m waiting for pals to join me for dinner:
“What are you drinking, honey?” a silver-haired barkeep asks a woman of a certain vintage when she takes a seat in the new Bar & Club Room. She doesn’t bat an eye at his familiarity, but lets him know tonight’s dinner is important to her family. “My daughter is wait-listed at Harvard,” she tells him. “We’re trying to sell her on Georgetown. Her grandfather was a diplomat in the Foreign Service.”
While the 99 percent are shown respect, little things make clear 1789 is a special occasion for the rest of us. As I’m paying for my drink, the bartender lets a clutch of customers know, “The king of Qatar was here the other night!”
Here’s hoping the emir didn’t order any chilled food. The cold appetizers are nothing you haven’t seen in a hundred other American restaurants. To read the roster is to nod off, or at least start writing your grocery list in your head. A bite or two of the merely fine steak or tuna tartare at 1789 makes you wish you were eating those workhorses just about anywhere else.
The hot appetizers, in contrast, are a roll call of some of O’Grady’s best dishes. I’m particularly smitten with anything involving pasta, be it a slender white boat of tubular garganelli and lamb sausage arranged in a glistening hedge with spring vegetables, or perhaps pillowy gnocchi and steamed clams lit with colorful fresno peppers and preserved lemon, the lot tied together with a winy clam sauce. Asparagus bisque poured around a nest of fried artichokes, asparagus tips and Parmesan brittle is another satisfying way to continue an evening that always begins with a gratis bite from the kitchen, perhaps a smidgen of salmon rillettes on a suggestion of beet gastrique.
“I don’t think anyone wants filet mignon with mashed potatoes” is the new chef’s way to say tastes have evolved and diners are receptive to upgrades and riffs on tradition. Rather than offer a pork chop, O’Grady serves a rack of pork, fabulous in flavor and staged with a potato tart whose smoked Gouda echoes the smoked ham sauce around the rack. The single meatless entree, a dusky “cassoulet” that replaces the usual sausage with smoked tofu and mushrooms, is a happy memory that will probably be replaced by something lighter by the time you read this. Given an early spring that felt more like winter, the hearty combination was wholly appropriate.
O’Grady’s fondness for fish and seafood is underscored in the main course I return to most, a collection of scallops, shrimp and halibut presented as a light “minestrone.” The seafood is cooked with attention and gathered in a bowl with a shallow broth that draws on fish fumet, basil and creamy white gigante beans (hence “minestrone”) for support.
The entree average is $42, making 1789 a costly night out — and any slips hard to swallow. (Loyalists should know the signature rack of lamb is back, but the Colorado brand will set them back nearly $60). The garden-like appeal of the vegetable-strewn garganelli on a Wednesday was missing on a subsequent Sunday, when the combination of pasta and lamb sausage was overwhelmed by an emulsion of peas and cheese. Worse, a duo of duck paired a confit leg that could have doubled as a deer lick alongside purple breast meat — raw except for a sear on the surface. Service can vary, too, from spot-on to “where’s the glass of ice I asked for?”
Just before I set fingers to keyboard to write this review, a new pastry chef joined 1789. Her name is Mollie Bird, and she previously sweetened the menus at Kyirisan, Marcel’s and the Source. So I raced back. Boston cream pie, served as a many-layered cake with garnishes of star-shaped white cookies and sheer chocolate “glass,” hints of good things to come.
This Hoya is less enthused about the Bar & Club Room, lined with paintings of old-school football players, which retains the restaurant equivalent of a new car smell. Aside from a glad-to-have-you welcome from the bartender, who might announce his name and ask for yours, the addition feels divorced from the original, antique-decorated establishment. A less formal menu is expected in the near future. For now, customers seated on one of the silver bar stools or on a leather banquette order from the same menu as those on the other side of the wall, which, you should know, is louder than I remember and less demanding of its customers. 1789 held onto a dress code longer than just about any Washington restaurant, so it was a surprise last month to encounter two men wearing white Under Armour shirts in the main dining room.
“What people like about ’89 is also what they don’t: formality,” says Tom Meyer, president of Clyde’s Restaurant Group.
The key to success at the long-running show is balancing old and new — the past with the future — and doing so consistently. The restaurant has some work ahead of it. Fortunately, time is on its side.