I have a like -dislike relationship with Kingbird. On the one hand, the city’s newest hotel restaurant is serving some diverting food in a room with a view, a rare twofer. On the other hand, the dining destination within the Watergate Hotel feels out-of-touch when it comes to a few matters of comfort and price.


Kingbird's Chef Michael Santoro previously worked at Blue Duck Tavern. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

You owe it to yourself to check in, at least for a meal, if only to see what $200 million has done for the waterfront dowager, which has been closed for renovations for the past nine years. Patrons stroll past the Next Whisky Bar, aglow with 2,500 illuminated whisky bottles, to a set of broad stairs that allow everyone to make an entrance. The first thing you spy is an expansive bar, the source of some well-made cocktails. Competing for your attention are a dining room set off with spiral chandeliers, tornado-shaped stainless-steel columns and, if the blinds are open, slices of towpath and the Potomac River in the near-distance.

Restaurant manager John Gilbert, late of the esteemed Fiola Mare, is one of several faces restaurant-goers might recognize, along with a few veteran servers from around town. (Their uniforms, slim black suits with red piping, befit a Broadway chorus.) Behind the scenes is executive chef Michael Santoro, 39, whose Washington résumé includes a second-in-command role at the popular Blue Duck Tavern in the West End.

As at so many new places, diners have the opportunity to graze on snacks ahead of appetizers. Kingbird refers to its collection, a chance to pad the bill with $8 to $16 small plates, as “petite bites.” I’ve tried them so you don’t have to. Sweet-and-salty potato chips — a stack of sail-like chips seasoned with honey powder and dried chilies — smack more of the former than the latter, while the not-so-“mini” duck Reubens are better suited to a tavern than a restaurant with aspirations. Do you really want to ease into dinner with a rich sandwich?

Stay with me. It gets better, by a lot, with the first course. Santoro’s risotto is creamy, cheesy and brilliant green, thanks to asparagus and peas in the swirl. Here’s the place to get your soft-shell crab fix: An homage to the late, great Jean-Louis Palladin, whose eponymous restaurant in the Watergate put the city on the food radar in 1980s, the seafood is cast in a delicate tempura and affixed to its plate with a veneer of what tastes like Thousand Island dressing flecked with dill. Santoro finishes the arrangement with a pancetta dressing and pickled shaved chayote to cut through the richness.

The master would have been proud.

Mushroom fricassee presents as an idea hatched pre-opening — say, in winter rather than the 90-degree day I encountered it. The appetizer, composed of a swarm of sauteed mushrooms and herbed Parisian-style gnocchi, is pleasant, but about as appropriate as a parka this season.

Hotel restaurants are obligated to offer something for everyone, and Kingbird, named for the aggressive and eye-catching bird, follows suit. Thus, the steak lover can mull the “Butcher’s Block,” a handful of meats and sauces at different price points. The draws include designer rack of lamb, cooked the shade you ask and every bite an encouragement to get to the bone. For the food explorer, there’s torch-shaped pasta tossed with walnuts, fennel and crumbled goat sausage, sprinkled with toasted bread crumbs for an accent you can hear as well as taste.


A torch-shaped pasta is paired with goat meatballs and gets a crunch with toasted bread crumbs. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Santoro says he wants to “rebuild Foggy Bottom” with his cooking. Dishes including his crisp fried chicken signal hope for the uneven restaurant zone. Kingbird’s centerpiece is good by itself, better when staged with a savory waffle, veined with spinach and pancetta, and a little fan of whatever fruit is prime. Foie gras on the chicken just gets in the way.

At lunch, the lobster roll impressed me with its buttery toasted brioche and claw and tail meat made creamy with Japanese mayonnaise and bright with fresh tarragon. The drag on the plate: those too-sweet chips. Superior in every way are the golden, dice-size, triple-cooked potatoes nestled in a little copper pot, a grand accompaniment to rosy slices of hanger steak sprinkled with airy sea salt.

Not all the servers are graduates of the Fabio Trabocchi School of Pampering. Lunch seems to bring out the B team, one member of which didn’t write down our order and subsequently got some things wrong, including a request for two different rosés (one was poured for both of us) and a “grain” salad translated as a “green” one. The former is luscious, a mindful marriage of quinoa, bulgur, barley, green lentils and other goodies splashed with cherry vinaigrette. To its credit, the restaurant tried to make up for the mix-ups by not charging for the wine, a gesture we appreciated but declined.

While I’m on the subject, the wine list could use some pruning, and I’m not talking about the selections, but their prices. Ninety-four dollars for E. Guigal Gigondas is a First World outrage. Wines by the glass average a shocking $20. If Kingbird hopes to attract those not on expense accounts, it needs to rethink its mark-ups.

The chairs could use some straightening out, too, and I mean that literally. The sloped and curvy seats at Kingbird appear to have been designed for the comfort of mermaids. (For the Nth time, I encourage restaurateurs to give their furnishings a test-run before committing to buying. Your customers’ backs and butts will thank you.) Easier to remedy is the soundtrack, which currently plays music better suited to a club than a dining room.


The chicken and waffle, the stars are good, but foie gras proves to be a little too much. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Kingbird scratches any itch for sweets. On the classic side, there’s clafoutis, a warm and wonderful version of the French batter cake, dotted here with cherries and garnished with tangy goat cheese sorbet. Summer meets the boardwalk in another confection, a two-toned mint chocolate ice cream bar decorated with a lacy sail of cocoa nib. Show some interest in drinks during a visit and someone might come by with gratis limoncello in frosted glasses: a nice parting shot.

The restaurant, whose flaws are easily fixable, has a lot going for it. From this diner’s perspective, Kingbird is a few tweaks, and some digits, away from a full embrace.

2 stars

Location: 2650 Virginia Ave. NW. 202-827-1600. thewatergatehotel.com.

Open: Breakfast 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Breakfast $10 to $22; lunch appetizers $10 to $18, entrees $20 to $30; dinner appetizers $12 to $16, entrees $24 to $66.

Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.

THE SCOOP

Location: 2650 Virginia Ave. NW. 202-827-1600. thewatergatehotel.com.

Open: Breakfast 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Breakfast $10 to $22; lunch appetizers $10 to $18, entrees $20 to $30; dinner appetizers $12 to $16, entrees $24 to $66.

Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.