All photos Laura Hayes
All photos Laura Hayes

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Considering that I needed a Google consult on the hand rankings of Texas Hold’em en route to the MGM National Harbor casino, I took a seat at the lowest stakes table after weathering a two-hour wait inside the dizzying, dazzling spaceship of commerce that’s been dropped awkwardly astride a ganglion of highways overlooking the Potomac River.

It was a risk to sit at a no-limit table, especially because my luck tends to run about like what Alanis Morissette describes in “Ironic,” but I was on a mission.

I changed money into chips, and whatever I had left after two hours of calling, folding, and infrequent betting would be my budget for dinner at the MGM National Harbor’s various restaurants.

Those restaurants are stamped with big names like Fish by José Andrés, Voltaggio Brothers Steak House, and Marcus by Marcus Samuelsson. But I took comfort in knowing that, should I be left with just $10, there was also a Shake Shack.

At the poker table, I was the lone female gambler. My marks consisted of men who looked like knock-off versions of celebrities like the UFC’s Dana White (across from me) and Mark Wahlberg (immediately to my right). Turns out, poker is not a party, so you don’t need icebreakers like telling strangers who they look like. At least one person offered in jest to give me a $5 chip per wisecrack.

My two hours were marked by highs and lows. I won a total of six hands, and at one point I had a medium stack of chips in front of me. But then, as my self-imposed time limit was drawing to a close, I blew it. In a true rookie move, I got way too invested in my pocket aces and lost out to the Dana White lookalike.

My heart sunk because I knewin that one greedy handthe Voltaggio Brothers Steak House had become out of reach. There would be no seafood tower, no Carolina gold rice with sea urchin, no 22-ounce T-bone with a side of something called “umami cereal.”

Alas, there I was after 120 minutes with $80 to my name and a desperate need for a break from the sounds of slot machines and winners screaming after each hand of Baccarat.

After perusing menus, I learned I had a fighting chance of having a somewhat decadent meal at Fish. Plus I wanted to see what Andrés would make with the ocean as his inspiration. 

The menu is heavy on local oysters and other raw bar selections ranging from mundane middle neck clams to more challenging geoduck and abalone. All too rich for my blood (and budget), much like a no-limit poker table.

So instead I sprung for tuna tartare mixed table-side ($26) and a curious entree of braised lamb neck with fried oysters, crispy potatoes, and oyster catsup ($32). That left me $16 to spend on a “Gopalito” cocktail with gin, amontillado sherry, lemon, Asian citrus, honey, ginger, and sesame. 

Just like at the poker tables, seats at Fish were in high demand. At 7 p.m. the host was telling potential patrons that no tables would be available until 10:45 p.m. But there were bar stools ready for the taking.

This positioning, however, planted me in front of a mural that was a real head-scratcher. Why was there a little girl underwater dressed in a miniature version of Kellyanne Conway’s Yankee Doodle inauguration outfit and holding an umbrella? Why does she need the umbrella? Where’s her scuba gear? Is she OK?

In any event, what’s clear is that spending your winnings (or whatever you have left) at Fish is a safe bet.