“Oysters were the fried chicken of the 19th century,” John DeFerrari said as we waited at the Old Ebbitt Grill the other day for our orders of the briny delicacies.
What John meant was that oysters were once cheap and plentiful, especially in our area, so close are we to the Chesapeake Bay. If you went out to eat at a District restaurant in the 1870s, odds are it was an oyster restaurant. Back then, John’s Restaurant (at Seventh and D NW and no relation) used to advertise: “To prevent squalls and bring peace and happiness to your family, carry home with you a box of those superior fried oysters from John’s restaurant.”
Imagine wasting an oyster on a kid today.
I learned about Washington’s oyster-filled past in John’s new book, “Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats” (The History Press). It’s a smorgasbord of local history, from the earliest days of taverns and hotel dining rooms, through the tearoom craze and up to the haute cuisine of the late 20th century.
John, 53, grew up in D.C.’s Crestwood neighborhood. When he’s not furloughed, he works at the Government Accountability Office, but he’s always been interested in history. In 2009, he started a blog called the Streets of Washington, whose entries were collected in his first book, “Lost Washington, D.C.” Two years ago he started work on this one.
“Restaurants had appeal because they’re commercial places,” John said. “There’s advertising out there — postcards, matchbooks. You could track them. At the same time, they’re mirrors of the way people were living.”
Plus, as far as John could tell, there had never been a book that examined Washington’s restaurant history in depth. So he dove in. He spent a lot of time in the Washingtoniana room of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown looking at old newspapers, and a lot of time scouring eBay for ephemera.
When John was a kid, he loved going to the Hot Shoppes on Connecticut Avenue, opposite the old Chevy Chase Ice Palace.
“Most people preferred the Mighty Mo, but I loved the Pappy Parker’s fried chicken,” John said.
Hot Shoppes — the vanished cornerstone to the Marriott empire — is in his book. So are such old favorites as Ben’s Chili Bowl, Sholl’s Cafeteria, the Blue Mirror (both Grill and Cafe), Duke Zeibert’s and Harvey’s, which, naturally, started as an oyster house.
It’s possible John doesn’t mention your favorite restaurant. Thousands have come and gone over the years. He says he touches on around 200, with profiles of about 50 or 60.
In the city’s earliest days, African Americans were instrumental in advancing restaurant culture. Men such as Beverly Snow and James Wormley became synonymous with fine dining. In the 1910s and ’20s, tearooms, many opened and operated by women, helped restaurants become more than smoke-filled dens of testosterone.
John said he’s not a foodie. Neither, really, were Washingtonians back in the day. Most old newspaper accounts of restaurants barely mention what the food tasted like, focusing instead on the decor and “atmosphere.”
That may be because the cuisine was pretty much the same. Oysters were part of a triumvirate of menu items that were common in the 19th century. At a fancy meal, the shellfish would usually be followed by some terrapin soup and then canvasback duck. There aren’t very many of any of these animals left, so you don’t see them on menus today. Plus, terrapin soup sounds like it was pretty awful.
“I did get curious what canvasback duck tasted like,” John said. His longtime girlfriend is a vegetarian, so he’s not likely to find out any time soon.
Cuisines may have changed, but the reason we like restaurants hasn’t. “I think restaurants are so much more important than the food they serve,” John said. “They’re an important social experience.”
They’re where people fall in love, or out of it, where friendships are made, reunions are held, milestones are celebrated.
What has changed, John thinks, is the way we approach a fancy meal now. “It’s like going to a museum or to the theater. It’s performance art that involves tasting.”
Speaking of tasting, our oysters arrived: three Raspberry Points each and three Harpswell Flats.
I prefer them without cocktail sauce or mignonette, so I just spritzed each with lemon, lifted the shell to my lips, then slurped it back. Eating a good raw oyster is like kissing a beautiful mermaid. It’s the taste of the sea.
The Old Ebbitt oysters were lovely. And, Jeff Bezos: Please approve my expense account. I can hardly write about D.C.’s restaurant history without writing about oysters. And I can hardly write about oysters without eating some.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.