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It was kinda sad to go back to Recessions for the first time without my friend Sharon. She was the one I first had lunch with there, about a decade ago, and I’m pretty sure she was the only person who ever ate with me at the place, back when we worked together. Sharon was also the one who, when I was 25 and she was in her mid-50s, told me to start saving for retirement right then. So today I have her to thank not merely for the health of my 401(k) account, but for turning me on to the cheap, dingy charms of this restaurant, which hides in the basement of the Commerce Building (the architectural equivalent of an old trench coat) beneath the expense-account corridor of K Street NW. To find the restaurant, you just go in the building’s entrance, over the faded terrazzo floor through the lobbylined with an insipid color of mocha marble and, in this season anyway, a few faint poinsettiasfind the door to the left sloppily stenciled with the letters “LL,” and head downstairs.
By saying “turning me on” to the “charms” of the low-rent Recessions, I don’t mean to suggest that eating there had any kind of kitsch value to Sharon (who has since retired and moved away to be near her grandchildren). It was just a place to go. And even after we no longer worked for the same magazine, we seldom deliberated about where we’d meet. Once in a while we’d head over to the old, boring Barrister, now the upscale Equinox, at Connecticut Avenue and I Street NW. But we’d usually wind up at Recessions, facing each other across a cramped table clothed in pink polyester, sitting in brass-railed vinyl chairs of a kind almost nobody buys anymore. The dining room’s walls are hung with a series of old print advertisements from the early 20th century. One of them pushes a Plymouth Six for $445 (“A Safety-Steel Body Saved My Life!”). And another hawks an old Packard shown in an artist’s rendering rather than in a photograph.
Recessions feels as old as those cars, but there’s nothing terribly practiced about its anachronisms. It would be tempting to call this little comfort-food redoubt the Restaurant That Time Forgot. But with the room so crowded (the place seats about 100 peoplebefore they’ve eaten), the moniker doesn’t stick. Nobody has forgotten Recessions, but nobody really remembers it, either. The house brand of liquor is Bowman’s, for goodness’ sake, as in Bowman’s Virginia Vodka. (Go figure.) Recessions is no Ciao Baby, where snootier co-workers would insist on going in later years, but nor did it come and go within the span of my four-year stint downtown, as Ciao Baby did. (Good riddance.) It’s been here, it seems, longer than K Street itselfrecessively, if you willserving the kind of unremarkable, unfamous, unquoted trade-association employees you see on the Metro every rush hour.
And, if I recall correctly, Ciao Baby didn’t have a turkey club on toast the size of my face, either. Indeed, there aren’t many places in town that serve freshly roasted turkey breast every daymuch less with surplus bacon crumbling out of the sandwich on all sides. Most middlebrow eateries subscribe to the Wall Street Deli dictum that a humiliated, gelatinous form of turkey works just as well as the fresh stuff. I’ve got news for them: The flaky variety, oozing with L-tryptophan, rocks. And it may sound petty, but the sandwich at Recessions is actually sliced all the way through. Sandwich makers of the world: If you can’t cut it completely, don’t bother. I’ll use both hands to hold it.
Would that Recessions’ coleslaw showed such refinement. (Sharon, by the way, was the first person I ever heard use the “would that” construction in casual conversation.) The slaw is, to be honest, a disgusting, orangey mess of cabbage and carrots that must have taken a real pounding, glued together by God-knows-what. It reminds me of that flat-looking food displayed in the windows of Japanese restaurants. The second time I went back, I ordered steak fries instead. They’re thick, hot, crunchy outside, and soft inside. And the fries way surpassed the Chicken Pita Mediterranean I tried for adventure. I might as well have upended the entire plate on my head; the sandwich was too big to fold and it didn’t seem efficient to use a knife and fork.
I should have guessed the pita would come that way: Recessions’ motto is “Too Much for Your Money,” and as that promise suggests, it is not a place for dietersor folks who don’t think Muzak needed to improve on Donna Summer. The kitchen focuses on the basics, such as stuffed potato skins, Buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks, and, when you’re feeling wild, “Chicken Wing-Dings (House Special).” If too much of a good thing is wonderful, then I suppose too much of a dull thing is…adequate, right? I winced to see that the special one Tuesday was chicken curry over rice. Why would a generic joint like this want to get so specialized? Whatever the reason, it didn’t work. Given the context, the dish didn’t sound goodand it didn’t look good, either. When a woman at the bar next to me ordered it, her food appeared all too quickly, and she sent it back just as fast, with a scrunched-up look on her face.
Otherwise, she looked pretty happy, with her beau leaning into her affectionately and a huge stack of empty sugar packets in the ashtray nearby. She looked happier, at any rate, than the women behind me, one of whom was still processing a request by her guy, as she told her friend, to pay his pager bill for the month. By that time, around 2 p.m., I could hear everything, because lunch was winding down and the place was clearing out as people returned to work. Recessions is open until 10 p.m. most nights, but I don’t know what it’s like outside of lunch timeand I don’t want to know. It would spoil my noonday-netherworld view of the place. The first day I went back, a couple walked in at 2:15. They were a modern couple, mind you, but her wool stocking hat had a kind of speak-easy swoop to it. (Maybe that’s the L-tryptophan talking.) “Can we have a booth?” she asked. The host replied: “Take your pick.” While the rest of K Street was watching the billable hours go by, every booth in the house was available.
Recessions, 1700 K Street NW, Lower Level. (202) 296-6686. Bradford McKee
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