You cannot call in favors with Genevieve Villamora. You can’t press a twenty into her palm. Everyone who wants to eat at her Filipino restaurant, Bad Saint, must queue up to get in.
Everyone. Including Cissy Marshall.
On a recent evening, Villamora opened the door to Bad Saint to find Thurgood Marshall’s 88-year-old widow among those waiting in line.
Marshall, Villamora recalls, “was the loveliest.” But who she is doesn’t change the new rules of Washington dining.
“We have had high-profile guests,” says Villamora, whose restaurant was recently ranked the second-best in the United States by Bon Appétit. “But they come in the same way as everyone else.”
More and more owners in the city’s booming restaurant scene are adopting this ethos.
Look closely at those endless “Hey, Isn’t That. . . ?” gossip-column items: The old “power” restaurants frequented by this city’s version of the royals are surprisingly few. Sure, there’s a fresh crop of big, luxe new dining houses: Le Diplomate. Maestro’s and Joe’s. Rasika West End. Fiola Mare. And there are the classics, tried and true. Cafe Milano. Tosca. The Palm. (Always, always, the Palm.)
How the incoming Trump administration will affect the D.C. dining scene remains to be seen, particularly given that the president-elect himself has a taste for McDonald’s, meatloaf and Oreos, and not small plates or Mid-Atlantic, foraged cuisine.
Inside his massive hotel just blocks from the White House, on Pennsylvania Avenue, is a steakhouse, a class of eatery that has long reigned in Washington.
But on the whole, it’s as if the city has been drained of the kinds of places where your name and ever-so-slightly Botoxed mug might net you fawning attention, and your favorite wine is poured before you’ve even ordered it.
The notion that we are still that sort of power-dining town, Villamora says, is “an easy cliche about the Washington restaurant scene.”
The inevitable caravan of new staffers and return of the Republican establishment to Washington might return the power restaurant to prominence. But there’s plenty of evidence that it won’t.
Restaurateurs say that the congressional schedules of recent years have lawmakers spending more time at home than hobnobbing in steakhouses in Washington. And when they are in town, they’re going Dutch, thanks to ethics rules that read like commandments.
But the most noticeable threat to the spend-and-be-seen crowd? All the new restaurants.
The hot Washington restaurants name-dropped by Bon Appétit and Michelin aren’t the sorts of places where lobbyists post up with a steak and a cigar. They’re on Barracks Row or Ninth Street NW, in Shaw, even in an alley once known as an illicit skateboarder hangout. There’s Kyirisan in Shaw; Maketto on H Street NE. Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan. Bad Saint, a 25-seat nook of a restaurant, is in Columbia Heights.
And if few of them are rolling out the red carpet for the media elite or the usual lawmaking suits, there are some that even dare to shun them outright. Shaw Bijou, which opened this month amid a storm of angry hellfire over its pricey tasting menu, recently announced a members-only program. But rather than sign up the usual suspects, the owner told Washingtonian magazine that the restaurant’s VIPs will be selected on the basis of nebulous factors intended to preserve the place’s coolness.
“Otherwise it’s going to become a boys’ lobbyist club,” said Kelly Gorsuch, “and that’s what we do not want.”
The winds of change have blown the truffle shavings right off the city’s power-dining scene.
Danny Festa, general manager of Morton’s steakhouse, on Connecticut Avenue, has seen it all from the perch he has occupied for almost 20 years. Morton’s was once Duke Zeibert’s, which was, for the better part of 40 years, the preferred watering hole of Washington bigwigs like Jack Kent Cooke and Larry King, and, oh, every president there was, thanks to the proprietor’s fawning attention to the power set. (The food, wrote The Washington Post’s dining critic, was less of a draw.)
Morton’s has tried to carry on the tradition. But the swinging, partying congressmen and -women? Well, they’re not what they used to be, either.
There was a time, Festa says, when newly elected politicians “packed up the family and the station wagon and moved into town. Whether you were Republican or Democrat, you lived in the same neighborhood.” And often, he says, when the Washington workday was done, they played together, too.
“They drank more, they ate more, and it was fantastic,” says Tim Whitlock, Morton’s chief operating officer. “People would order gin — just a glass of gin!”
Lobbyists and politicians and presidents would simply call Danny and request a seat for themselves and a Secret Service contingent.
Today, the political environment, coupled with dramatic changes in the congressional schedule that require lawmakers to be on the Hill just a couple of days a week on average, have transformed the robust, chummy dinners of Washington’s power heyday.
“They’re not getting together,” Festa says. Sometimes, he says, they barely look in one another’s direction across the dining room.
Johnny’s Half Shell, once the go-to destination for political fundraising events, quietly closed down on Capitol Hill this year, noting that its customer base disappeared on weekends as lawmakers flew home to their districts. (Johnny’s has moved to a much smaller locale in Adams Morgan.)
This also happened: 2007 ethics rules quashed high-dollar lobster dinners paid for by lobbyists.
“After we passed the ban on wining and dining,” says Craig Holman, who helped write the language as a government affairs lobbyist for the advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen, “all these other lobbyists had to do what I do, which is schlep over to the Capitol and try to get some face time with the lawmakers in their office.”
Ask restaurateurs who the power diners are these days, and they’ll tell you it’s foreign dignitaries and Saudi princes, and occasionally, the rare celebrity from out of town.
Some restaurants, of course, continue to cater to power. Before Oprah brunched on the Fiola Mare patio recently, the talk-show goddess’s people called owner Maria Trabocchi’s personal cellphone. She quickly set aside not one but two tables for Oprah (and Gayle, naturally) to choose between.
Fiola Mare and all of Trabocchi’s handful of Italian restaurants also have private rooms for those who’d rather dine behind closed doors. “That’s fundamental to become a power player,” Trabocchi says. “You have to offer private space.”
Most of the myriad new restaurants — some with square footage so limited, dining there is like being crammed into a coach-class airline seat — lack the trappings that large security details demand, says Cedric Maupillier, chef and owner of Convivial, a French boîte that took up residence in Shaw last year. “We don’t have a private room or a special back door. And that’s what the Secret Service look for,” he says. What agents are not particularly excited about, he says, are the floor-to-ceiling windows so trendy these days.
“I have a feeling that the Shaw neighborhood is in a Secret Service booklet, probably on a red page,” Maupillier jokes. “Like, ‘Do not go there.’ ”
The new, mostly casual restaurants offer nowhere to light up a cigar. And, like Bad Saint, some of the hottest ones refuse to take reservations.
Rose’s Luxury owner and chef Aaron Silverman concedes that he has received requests from high-profile people hoping to cut the epic line to dine at his acclaimed Capitol Hill restaurant. But Silverman, who has said that even his parents wait for a table, has stuck with a single rule since the restaurant opened: “Everyone is treated the same.”
With one exception. “I think the only people who haven’t waited,” he told Food & Wine Magazine, “are Michelle and Barack.”
Villamora admires the city’s remaining power restaurants, the elegance with which they remember favorite dishes and seating preferences and keep Manhattans chilled. “That’s an art form,” she says.
“We work to know our guests as well, and to take as good care of them as we can. But,” she says, “it just looks different here.”