Union Station is a glorious stage in need of a worthwhile production. There’s no doubt that the structure itself is a marvel, and it certainly serves the purpose for which it was originally built; the ease with which you can drop in and then be zapped out to points north and west is one of the true boons of living in D.C., not to mention the East Coast. But let’s face it: The place is too massive to exist solely as a depot, and its auxiliary attractions could use some work. I’d shop in Union Station’s stores only if I happened to wake up in the terminal naked. Its movie theater is a bad trip. And the restaurants (the food court doesn’t count) that don’t manage to coast on mediocrity are just plain cursed, particularly the ones that have occupied the vast space where Thunder Grill currently resides.
The first meal I ever ate in that colossal corner was at Sfuzzi; that I barely recall the experience is far from a ringing endorsement of the restaurant’s food. Then there was Coco Pazzo, a well-regarded, high-end chain that defied the reputations of its other branches by serving utterly horrendous Italian fare. It lasted but a
couple of months. After Coco departed, the dining room existed as party rental property until, I assume, its handlers discovered that, in spite of the economy, there are few people who can afford to have enough friends to fill the place.
Any restaurateur who sets up shop in the station is going to have to deal with the tricky issue of size: It’s a hurdle that doubles as an asset. People who sit down to eat somewhere between Union Station’s marble floors and its arched, skybound ceiling should, under the right circumstances, go home rhapsodizing about one of the most awe-inducing mealtime settings in Washington. Technically, you’re eating inside, but at some select tables—at Thunder Grill, America, or Center Cafe, which props its diners aloft like martinis on a tray—the indoor view seems as infinite as a landscape.
The challenge with the setting is in keeping diners from feeling alone in an echo chamber, and that requires people. Lots of people. There is a precedent for making it work: The refurbished Grand Central Terminal in New York is home to some surprisingly well-reviewed restaurants, some of which are filling up with actual locals, giving the old depot a chance to be more than just another tourist stop-off. Ark Restaurants, which operates Thunder Grill, Georgetown’s Sequoia, and the aforementioned Union Station restaurants, hopes to enjoy similar success in D.C., although, unlike its counterparts in New York, the grill isn’t geared to engage discriminating palates.
Not to say that the food doesn’t present some interesting talking points—who would’ve thought that the same restaurant that failed at salsa could churn out respectable mole?—only that Thunder Grill’s Mexican menu is meant to be a quick read. The ruling assumption seems to be that the only way to fill the restaurant’s 500-plus seats is to entice patrons with affordable food (more than half the entrees are priced under $10) that everyone can agree on. To that end, the menu succeeds in hitting a wide target audience. The enchiladas are saucy and/or cheesy where appropriate. Vegetarians could do much worse than the fresh and voluminous jicama-and-orange-strewn salad. Beef heads will like the hearty (albeit wimpy) chile con carne and its chopped-not-ground sirloin. And the moist roasted salmon, served under a hail of sweet, steamed baby clams, should keep the food snobs in your group (“We are not eating at that tourist trap!”) from griping too loudly.
Given that it resides in such a public domain, the grill’s populist platform makes certain sense. Yet I can’t blame the populace for not jumping on board. Although the restaurant isn’t technically a chain, it’s run like one. Nothing on the menu is markedly better than or different from anything you’ve already had 300 times before. The staff is enthusiastic, but not about working here. One night, we find out where our waiter is from, what his last job was, his plans to get a gig on the Hill, his favorite kind of beer—pretty much everything but his phone number. By all accounts, he’s a good guy, but when we actually need him—for water, salsa, another round of his favorite beer—we need to send out a search party. One waitress who hears a diner’s complaint about her burrito being too dry responds, “I’m not surprised. I don’t think the chicken quesadillas have enough chicken in them.” The same waitress confesses to me that she’s never tried the banana “pinata,” a dessert. “But it’s cute,” she says, and she’s right: It looks like a mini calzone, or a pillow you might give to your doll, plumped with banana and brown-sugar-rum sauce set against a scoop of mint-crowned vanilla ice cream. The dessert is also unnecessarily oily, and it tastes as if it’s been sitting around waiting to be ordered for a week.
If even the restaurant’s staff can’t recognize how stunning it is, it seems doubtful that customers will, either. Not once in my four visits is the place full enough for the upstairs to even be open. Which is a shame. A walk up the Gone With the Wind staircase and into the second-level dining room, with its curvaceous ceiling and cornucopia-impersonating lampshades, and perhaps then up to the third level, where you can dine on a balcony next to the stone statues overlooking Union Station’s main hall, is the kind of experience that could inspire people to punctuate their meal with a marriage proposal, just for effect. Instead, the stock scene at the grill is of people eating nachos around the bar. Granted, the nachos are good, especially the ones topped with pinto beans, which are musky and vaguely sweet after being stewed in dark beer. But if you want company eating them, you’d better bring your own.
Thunder Grill, Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, (202) 898-0051.
The setting at the Alamo Grill is more of the kind where I’d expect to find a menu like Thunder Grill’s. It’s grottolike, with Texas-border decor and tables you can move to suit your needs. The food is passable to pretty good; the chile relines are hot and addictive but don’t stay with you for days, and the taco salad actually contains vegetables that taste fresh. Food, however, is beside the point for the margarita-loving reader who pointed me in Alamo’s direction: “It’s the only place where I can eat lunch with my boss and tie on a buzz,” she says.
Alamo Grill, 1063 31st St. NW, (202) 342-2000.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.