To get a sense of how popular Old Ebbitt Grill is, just look at the numbers. Last year, the Victorian-inspired saloon and restaurant across from the Treasury building sold more than $33 million worth of food and drink.
But a more entertaining gauge of its success is to pass through the ever-revolving door at any time of day (the restaurant is open from breakfast through last call, seven days a week) and take a look around the 567-seat expanse. The attendants at the host stand are as busy as air traffic controllers on the day before Thanksgiving. More telling, the marble stairs connecting the ground floor to the basement restrooms are as worn down as anything ancient you’ve encountered in Rome or Paris. More than a million visitors a year will do that to an attraction.
What pulls in the crowds? A menu with mass appeal helps. Seafood is a diner’s best bet, but various preparations of oysters, crab and mussels keep company with burgers, chicken fettuccine and roasted cauliflower presented as a main course. Old Ebbitt Grill excels at hospitality, too. This is a place where diners come for the relationships they’ve made with their minders and the minders go the extra mile to satisfy customers. Inquire about the horseradish, as a companion did not long ago, and a waiter might bring out a taste and even share his Polish grandmother’s recipe. “Just the root and some lemon juice,” the stand-up server said. “Grate it, don’t use a blender,” he added.
Dave Moran, area director of operations, likes to say the restaurant is “for everyone and every time.” He’s not exaggerating. Old Ebbitt Grill is closed only on Christmas. The rest of the time, it serves pretty much whatever purpose a diner has in mind, be it a power breakfast, a business lunch, a bar scene, dinner with the gang or a place to introduce tourists, who are treated as valued guests rather than mere numbers.
A bit of background: The saloon dates to the 1850s in present-day Chinatown and has made multiple moves since then; the owners of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group relocated the Old Ebbitt Grill from 1427 F St. NW to its present location in 1983.
I’ve never been for an early dinner that a server hasn’t told me I have X amount of time to take advantage of the half-price oyster happy hour, which runs from 3 to 6 p.m. (and again from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.). The late seafood guru Jon Rowley was instrumental in developing the restaurant’s oyster program 25 years ago — the resulting annual Oyster Riot is one of the social season’s hottest tickets. He also played a key role in germinating my passion for oysters when I was writing about food in Seattle, where he lived.
Allow me, then, to pass along the maestro’s suggested approach to enjoying bivalves. First, “taste it with your fingertips,” he instructed consumers. Cupping the shell lets us experience its chill and roughness. Next, you want to raise the oyster to your nose and inhale its ocean perfume. Finally, Rowley suggested we tip the contents of the shell into our mouths, meat and juices together, slowly chewing the oyster. The Grill’s devotion is summed up in an Oyster Eater’s Bill of Rights, printed on the menu, that assures slurpers of getting not just lab-tested oysters from farms that are inter-state-certified shippers, but also oysters that are presented on shaved ice within five minutes of shucking, with wines and ales for matching.
If a menu selection originated in the water, chances are you want to order it. There’s an ocean of fried calamari out there, and the version here — jazzed up with pickled cherry peppers and watercress tossed with lemon vinaigrette — reminds us how grand it can be. The kitchen also makes a fine, crusty crab cake, which it drops off with freshly creamy coleslaw, and trout flattered by a sheath of Parmesan. Among the newer dishes is a pink pâté combining smoked salmon, creamed cheese, sour cream and lemon. The appetizer comes with sheer bagel crisps and garnishes of pickled red onions and capers: breakfast for dinner.
Don’t fish? Don’t worry. Try the fried chicken sandwich and thank me later. Two thighs spiked like Buffalo wings and tucked inside a glossy bun with creamy slaw is finger lickin’ good (ask for the sandwich with a scoop of chunky potato salad). Roast chicken is a snapshot of someone’s idyllic childhood, the moist chicken flanked with a cornucopia of sweet carrots and sturdy Brussels sprouts and a light wash of jus. The grilled artichoke served with Calabrian chile aioli is plenty of lip-smacking for two, and if you prefer your “steak” from the garden rather than the stockyard, the kitchen does a nice job of cooking a thick slice of cauliflower, which it stages, with welcome char marks, on a bed of quinoa colored with snap peas, carrots and chimichurri.
The pasta, you should know, is made on site; pasta maker Jose Hernandez has been with the restaurant for 35 years. His successes include al dente linguine all but hidden beneath a fan of tiny mussels sauced with marinara.
Executive chef Sal Ferro, 35, worked at both Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and the Hamilton, part of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, before taking over the kitchen five years ago, which sounds like the perfect high/low/go-go-go résumé.
A restaurant of this size could be forgiven for a slip here and there, and Old Ebbitt Grill occasionally lets a patron down with a shepherd’s pie that mimics soupy meatloaf or a beef bourguignon that tastes like the meat didn’t have a chance to marry the wine. If you don’t finish a dish, someone is likely to notice. “Everything okay with the oyster stew?” asked a server, eyeing too much food left in my bowl. I told him the oysters were chewy and wondered where the promised sherry was. He asked, “Can I replace it with some clam chowder?” I didn’t take him up on the invitation, but I appreciated the concern — and the fact he deleted the cost of the stew from my bill. This is a restaurant that puts the customer first, be it with handsome salt and pepper shakers ready and waiting on the linen-draped tables or the option of house-cut french fries, small salad or fruit with the sandwiches.
If it feels harder than ever to book a table here, it’s not your imagination. The 150-seat atrium is currently closed for renovations, and it isn’t expected to reopen until early 2020. “We’re in it for the long haul,” says Moran.
Don’t let the lack of a reservation deter you from a visit. Twice in recent months I’ve shown up sans a confirmed table and waded through the huddled masses, yearning to be watered and fed, to Grant’s Bar in the rear of the restaurant. It’s a relative pocket of calm amid the clamor, dressed with 21 (count ’em!) first-come, first-served stools and a collection of paintings commissioned by the late John Laytham of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group. Artist James Harrington was invited to spend a year in the city to capture its insider moments, now immortalized in frames on the wall. The secret seems to be out. “It’s so crazy when you walk in!” a woman says to her companion as they ease into lunch in the hideaway. “I love this room!”
Some parting advice: peanut butter pie. The confection is made by folding whipped cream and eggs into the obvious ingredient, which is then poured over a base of chocolate chips and peanuts and chilled in the freezer. I always swear I’m going to have one bite, and I always end up eating my words.
It would be easy for the busiest establishment in Washington to rest on its laurels, age being one of them. At this point, however, Old Ebbitt has gone from being a watering hole to being a part of the fabric of Washington. Do you know of a more mouthwatering monument? I didn’t think so.
Old Ebbitt Grill (Good) 675 15th St. NW. 202-347-4800. ebbitt.com.
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $6.29 to $21.99, sandwiches and entrees $13.59 to $33.99.
Sound check: 77 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.