Now that we’re into our fourth or fifth year of nonstop stories about everyone but you and me getting rich as hell, it’s hard to feign amazement at Washington’s infatuation with steakhouses. As far as status symbols go, steaks are pretty easy to understand: No hard drive. No lease-with-option-to-buy decision. The best ones aren’t even complicated by a side dish. More interestingly, whereas steakhouses were once arbiters of power (remember when eating at the Palm could be trumped by not needing a reservation to eat at the Palm?), they’re now populist. Status is now as easy to obtain as a table at Morton’s. And where there’s not a Morton’s, there must be a Ruth’s Chris.
The troubling thing for steakhouse proprietors, I would think, is that the economy spawning the new beef emporiums is also holding them below the standards of the steakhouses we all learned to fetishize in the first place. I’m not talking about a dearth of dry-aged beef—there are still plenty of cows out there. But the appeal of Washington steakhouses used to be that they offered an entree into a secret society, one in which no one’s a vegetarian and everyone drinks at lunch. The secret of this secret society was that the people serving its members provided the aura. A classic steakhouse waiter carries himself (they’re usually guys) like an English butler pitched slightly downmarket: Unflappable. Sturdy posture. Not averse to vulgar humor if the moment calls for it, but otherwise a font of yes-man pleasantness in a world dominated by coarse insubordinates.
Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, one of two notable steak joints to open here in the past two months, is a New York import and, from the looks of things, very much of the old school: The spread of dining rooms is full of dark wood and leather and bull statues; trays groaning with iced shellfish and lit-up magnums of Chandon double as monuments to conspicuous consumption; and the waiters are all dressed like butchers, only in beige.
But even though I run into John McLaughlin during one meal (a classic steakhouse sighting, indeed), Van’s archetypal aura is mostly veneer. It’s a bitch to find help capable of serving fine beef with the proper nuance—even when the economy’s crummy—and the new generation of steakhouses, not to mention the high-end restaurants that compete with them, haven’t found a solution.
The waiter my first night at Van’s is a ball of nerves. When asked to deliver his spiel on the sirloin, he gamely sets his feet, lifts his hand before a squinting eye, and says, “It’s…” and nothing more, as if the proper body language would make up for the fact that he has forgotten his lines. Unfortunately, the food that follows isn’t deserving of any more ceremony than it gets. The escargots come sizzling but chewy. And the sirloin, though nicely charred, varies in doneness from left to right instead of from the outside in—a sign that the “mega heat” grill that our waiter touts could use some fine-tuning.
The service is more assured on subsequent visits, although the peculiar faux pas never seem to end. One guy asks if we’d like to order wine and doesn’t stick around for our answer. Another says, “An excellent choice” in response to everything, including things that don’t involve a choice. The food is even quirkier: Hash browns are brown but not crisp. Mashed potatoes are cold. The Caesar’s a soggy mess. The crab cakes are pitch-perfect, and the swordfish on special imparts the musky-sweet kick of Indian spicing, but both bring into question Van’s claim on the steakhouse moniker: Of the 18 entrees on the dinner menu, only four are actually steak, and the best beef I try comes in the form of tenderloin medallions swathed in a winey demi-glace. It’s a rich, buttery treat, without a doubt—but demi-glace?
Whereas Van’s shyly hints that the steakhouse of the next millennium will be neither as beefy nor as manly as its ancestors, Maloney & Porcelli comes out and says it. A spinoff of the fiercely old-school Smith & Wollensky, itself a New York transplant, M&P suggests a bright Napa Valley bistro more than a dark den of masculinity. Its sunken dining rooms are all soft tones—sunlight, flowers, blond wood—and during dinner one night, I swear to God the women on the stools to my right are debating the virtues of self-gratification with the bartender. A secret society of boys this is not.
As far as steakhouses that aren’t really steakhouses go, M&P lies at the top of the heap. Granted, our dry-aged sirloin is more style than substance—handsome but far from funky. But the culinary spirit of the classic steakhouse genre lives on in the crisp, buttery hash browns and, more profoundly, in the “crackling” pork shank—a mammoth cut of juicy meat on the bone wrapped in enough fat to keep an Eskimo warm all winter. Except for a listless take on paella (even the parsley-saffron aioli can’t bring it to life), the nonsteak items suggest that a wider-scoped steakhouse may actually be a good thing. A plate containing peppery salmon “pastrami,” a few puffy salmon “knishes,” and some dainty rounds of salmon tartare becomes a sprightly dissertation on uncooked fish. The sole is filleted, dusted in Cajun spices, flash-fried, and then laid back on the plate with its head—a little precious, but delicious nonetheless.
The servers at the bar are ruggedly charming, conversant enough in old-school lingo that they refer to Fred Thompson’s date as his “niece.” The service on the main floor is less crackerjack, but I almost warm to it anyway. Our waiter one night starts off dinner by opening a bottle of Frog’s Leap zin and exclaiming, “Oh, my favorite,” before presenting a cork with the word “ribbit” printed on its side. It’s cute. And then the appetizers arrive, not a few minutes after we order them, and a few minutes after that, our entrees. No one knows who gets what. Then a server drops some silverware behind me. He blames a colleague. As the two bicker tableside, I long for the days when serious professionals could take home hundreds of dollars in tips—and deserve them.
Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, 809 15th St. NW, (202) 589-0060.
Maloney & Porcelli, 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 478-8300.
The fact that 1409 Playbill Cafe is a neighborhood bar in the classic sense doesn’t keep it from feeling licensed to tweak old formulas. Take its “Naomi’s fries”: One reader insists that “Naomi, whoever that may be, was clearly stoned when she thought it up.” His evidence? Melted cheese. Salsa. Sour cream. Bacon. Hard-boiled egg. Granted, I prefer my waffle fries a little less encumbered—say, with a squirt of ketchup and a little salt. Naomi’s version doesn’t change my preference any, but you’ve got to admire her pluck—and boldness with a bulb of garlic. If you dare go to the Playbill, I recommend taking some advice from the reader: “Say a couple Our Fathers and Hail Marys as an advance penance, and don’t count on any loving for at least 12 hours.”
1409 Playbill Cafe, 1409 14th St. NW, (202) 265-3055. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.