Elizabeth White at Cork Wine Bar
Elizabeth White at Cork Wine Bar Credit: Darrow Montgomery

When restaurateurs are ready to open new spots in D.C. these days, they often ask themselves one key question: What would millennials want? “We are looking for a young, fun, exciting, and very vibrant feel,” Hakan Ilhan told City Paper when he announced he was opening a casual restaurant called Lazy Kate’s in West End. Everything, from the design of the space to the price of food and drinks, is done with younger diners in mind. 

But according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers from 2018, 12.1 percent of D.C. residents are 65  or older. Many of these roughly 85,000 Washingtonians are retired and ready to spend their disposable income and free time exploring D.C.’s surging dining scene. 

“Pretty much every restaurant is chasing the same demographic—the so-called millennial generation—which means they’re all competing against each other and there are people like me who have money and go out every day,” says Julia, a Northern Virginia resident. She thinks restaurants could “clean up” if they spent more time targeting senior diners like her. “Right now, I feel like nobody is going after my business.”

She has a running joke with her husband about the kinds of restaurants she gravitates toward. “For a long time we went to brunch at The Lafayette,” she says, describing the restaurant inside the Hay-Adams Hotel. “One time I said to him, ‘This is such a great place, how come it’s not jammed?’ He took out his little phone thingie and did Yelp on it. The first review that came up was a negative review saying it was ‘stuffy and overpriced.’ Ever since then he’s said, ‘You like restaurants that are stuffy and overpriced.’” 

Julia is fed up with a few things about D.C. restaurants. She says there are too many kids, dogs, people “yakking” on their cell phones, and distracting televisions. Other diners who are between 60 and 85 years old have even more ideas about how dining out has changed and what restaurants can do to be more welcoming to their demographic. 

According to D.C. resident Elizabeth White, who writes about financially vulnerable older adults, millennials and seniors aren’t so different, especially when it comes to a chief concern many diners share—affordability. “Younger adults, like older adults, are dealing with flat and falling wages and escalating costs in housing,” she says. “Trendy restaurants are springing up and many people can’t afford the entrees. When a millennial says, ‘I can get two glasses of wine, but can’t afford to eat,’ it doesn’t mean they don’t want to eat.”

White’s writing focuses on people who, like her, were doing well but then hit an “icy patch” and are now figuring out how to have a “textured and interesting life” on a more modest income. She authored the recently released book 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal.

“I used to be able to go to all of these places,” White says. “Now if I go to Le Diplomate, I can afford to divide an entree with a friend.” Trout amandine is her go-to at the bistro. Another regular order is the kale salad at Lincoln, which fits in her budget if she skips the salmon on top. You can also find White at Cork Wine Bar eating fries with a glass of cider. White calls sweetgreen “her McDonald’s” and favors the location on W Street NW, where, she believes, they stuff salad bowls to the max. 

“I can get, out of a salad, at least two meals and sometimes three,” White says. “For older adults who are often on a fixed income and may not be in their high-earning salary years, the ability to take some home matters.” 

Dining with large groups can be anxiety inducing, according to White. “I’m often wanting to order and carefully control what I’m paying for,” she says. Recently she ate at a restaurant that serves small plates with 14 other people. She and three others asked to pay separately. “Our group was around $27 per person and theirs was $86 per person. That difference accounts for the fact that they needed four orders of Brussels sprouts and bottles of wine.” 

Sharing small plates in a group setting can also be challenging for older diners with special diets. Nancy, a D.C. resident, has allergies and sensitivities and her husband has trouble swallowing and requires soft foods. Most of the couple’s meals come from the cook they contracted through local company Elder Nourish, which specializes in customized dishes for older adults who are aging in place. 

Nancy is a returning customer at DeCarlo’s Restaurant near American University, which accommodates her requests. Other restaurants can be inconsistent. “The Capital Grille is uneven,” she says. “One of the problems is it can vary sever by server. There are some who really care and will put up with what they get back from the kitchen.”

Like White, Nancy likes to split an entree with a dining companion. She favors restaurants that are willing to divide the dish and plate it in an attractive way instead of leaving the divvying up to diners. “That’s something with older people that’s highly valued,” she says. “You remember that and want to go back.”

For some senior diners, service can make or break an outing. “It’s great when the waitstaff knows the menu and can recommend either what they like or what’s popular,” says Debra Lee. She co-authors a monthly restaurant review column with her husband, George McLennan, for Lake Barcroft’s neighborhood newsletter. “When you go to a new place and look at the menu, what do you pick? It’s frustrating when waitstaff don’t know the menu.” 

The couple frequents Bastille in Alexandria, Istanbul Grill in Ballston, and Buena Vida in Clarendon. While Lee says food quality comes first, McLennan thinks service is the most important component of a night out. “We went to Buena Vida for the first time and picked a table that was over in one corner away from the noise,” McLennan says. “We came back two weeks later and the general manager said, ‘It’s so good to see you guys again, we have your table waiting for you.’ For me that kind of thing makes a big difference.”

Jacquelyn, a D.C. resident, favors attentive service and has found it lacking from time to time. “People who work in restaurants may not be as interested in you as they used to be,” she surmises. “When you come in the door, everyone is really nice welcoming you in, but then you don’t see them anymore.”

She recognizes that some restaurants are “very, very busy,” but would still like servers to check on her table more often. “My daughter says she doesn’t like them to keep coming back, but I like for them to know I’m still alive and in their restaurant.” 

Jacquelyn habitually dines at El Golfo and Mi Rancho in Silver Spring, Busboys and Poets, and Woodmont Grill in Bethesda. She seeks out El Golfo because in addition to serving a mash-up of Mexican and Latin American food, they host live music during dinner hours—a tradition she worries has fallen by the wayside. 

D.C. is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cuisines, where you can find everything from Uighur and Ethiopian to Georgian and Burmese food. That means older Washingtonians can taste the world without the burden of travel. Lea Mesner, who lives off H Street NE, is working her way through them all. 

Growing up in Nebraska, Mesner says she wasn’t exposed to food from other countries until high school. “I went on a bus trip to New York City and discovered real Chinese food,” she recounts. “This led me on this whole track of finding all of these interesting foods in my life once I got out of Nebraska. I’ve allowed myself to live where good food is.” 

Mesner is a regular at Thamee, Maketto, Sticky Rice, and Sospeso in her neighborhood. She ventures out to dine at Jaleo, Ambar, Union Market, and Johnny’s Half Shell, among others. She calls D.C.’s evolving dining scene exciting and is happy to see smaller, more intimate eateries replace sprawling dining rooms. “With the intimacy, I get to know some of the owners and managers as well as some of the chefs and become fans of theirs.” 

She has just one request for staff: “Restaurants may need to help waitstaff work on patience. Sometimes we’re easily confused or we can’t understand them. Sometimes it’s because of the noise or we can’t see the menu. I appreciate it when people make an effort because part of my happiness is going out and having good food.” 

Mesner’s comments highlight two of the biggest pain points for older diners: noise and low-lighting. Another is high-top seating.

“The biggest challenge for seniors with hearing aids is that you cannot eat in most restaurants because the noise level is too high,” Nancy says. Her strategy is to visit some of her haunts like Pesce and Al Tiramisu, both in Dupont Circle, during lunch, when there’s less din.

“The aim of new restaurants to create noise and buzz and excitement is seniors’ knot,” Nancy continues. “You need tablecloths, carpeting, and tables that are well spaced and not on top of each other. Those old fashioned places are few and far between.” 

McLennan calls too-close tables “New York-style dining.” Worse than tables snuggled together is the high-top seating that’s trending as restaurants build out bigger bar areas.

“I don’t like them myself,” Lee Cohen says. The D.C. resident is in his 80s and hits all of the hot spots. He’s already dined at Punjab Grill, Seven Reasons, Via Sophia, Anju, and Queen’s English. “They aren’t real easy for older people to get up and down,” he says. 

Some older diners report seeking out restaurant happy hours because prices are lower and they occur early in the evening, but bar areas are often dominated by this style of seating. Senior diners also wish restaurants would create a place to sit while waiting for a table or take-out that’s not at the bar, where they feel pressure to spend money. 

Senior diners are always paying attention to value. Whether that means noticing how a trio of small plates doesn’t always add up to the same amount of food as an appetizer and entree for the same price or staring down drink pours. 

“The only thing that really irritates me is when they serve you a huge goblet with a tiny bit of wine at the bottom,” says D.C. resident Barbara. “I don’t go back. Give me a full glass of wine like I pour at home. A quarter of an inch doesn’t do much for me, especially knowing the price.”