City Paper is not for tourists
Annie Katinas is the kind of woman who doesn’t speak. She talks. When I ask where I can find her, I’m told, “Just follow the voice.” Which I do, all the way to the rear of the restaurant that bears her name, Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse. She’s audibly wedged into a booth, sipping iced tea and blabbing with her sister Sophie, the restaurant’s bookkeeper. Annie starts talking about the old days before I even get a chance to ask about them.
“Oh, things have really changed,” Annie says, and she should know. Her brother, George, a self-taught butcher who’s now retired, opened the restaurant 50 years ago. Soon after, he hired a few of his sisters, Annie among them, to work the front of the house. In that time, Annie has seen the restaurant go from Paramount Steakhouse to Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse, from its original location at 1519 17th Street to its current one at 1609 17th Street, where it’s been for 13 years. “Right after we finished moving,” she recalls, “I just bawled. It was like losing a part of myself.”
The restaurant’s history mirrors that of its neighborhood, and Annie has an exhaustive menu of memories, many of them not too tasty: “After the riots, everything was kind of like shaky in the area.” There was
the time her late sister Sue got robbed, the time the man at the Fox and Hounds got killed with a sawed-off shotgun, the time two men at a nearby liquor store suffered a similar fate. “It was so bad at one point that in the mornings we had to push the homeless out of the doorway,” she says. “We had a dishwasher that was a deaf-mute, and he was so loyal to us. One time we got robbed, and he was sleeping [at the old location] at night. He had never gone home sometimes he didn’t have a home. And the robbers were shooting at him, and he never moved.” Sophie cuts in: “They got scared and they left.” Annie: “They were more scared of him than he was them. He couldn’t hear the guns.”
Annie is a round, great-aunt-looking figure who dispenses all of the above information in less time than it takes for a decent waiter to bring water. She’s a geyser of memories who refers to the restaurant as “her life.” Today, such a life, while fairly calm (Annie enjoys a three-day workweek, during which she spends most of her time behind the bar), is also increasingly rare. The steakhouse itself, an old-school meat joint that serves baked potatoes inside tinfoil, is rendered anomalous just by existing. In an age where corporate juggernauts linger behind even the smallest businesses, there are still family-run restaurants, but few pass through generations.
Mom and Dad Katinas came from Greece, stopping off in New York long enough for Mom to give birth to George, the eldest and only male in what would be a brood of six. They had no other family in the States. Dad, who ran a produce stand, squirreled away enough money either to send his son to college or to help him open a business of his own. “George was the one who sort of took care of the family,” Annie says. “He wanted his family never to be hungry and helped everyone make a decent living.”
Over the years, just about everyone in the swelling Katinas clan has worked at Annie’s, and today it takes a while for Annie to recall who even really owns the place. (George does, although he’s passed the reins on to his sons, John and Paul.) The staff is a knot of family members and others who might as well be family, including 13-year manager Peter Alexas, who, when Annie shouts for him from across the dining room, answers, “Yes, Mom.”
Annie’s menu has hardly changed over the years. Although it offers a bewildering array of simply prepared beef and seafood dishes, none would pass muster with Martha Stewart. Cooked carrots and cole slaw are typical sides, and hamburgers remain one of the restaurant’s most popular items. The onion rings are delicious, and on weekends the restaurant serves a “24-hour brunch.” Annie’s is the type of steakhouse where you can shamelessly ask for A-1, French fries, and a beer to go along with your porterhouse. “It’s just basic food,” Annie shrugs. “It’s nothing you think you’ve never tasted before.”
Given the discrepancy between how little the restaurant has changed over the years and how much its neighborhood has, it’s somewhat remarkable that the Annie’s story doesn’t end with its eventual demise in the face of gentrification and changing tastes. Annie herself refers to the strip along 17th Street differently from “ghetto” to “downtown” to “Dupont Circle” depending on the era she’s chronicling. Today, 17th is the focal point for a huge portion of D.C.’s gay community, and manager Alexas estimates Annie’s clientele is somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent gay men. The restaurant is a virtual landmark as the one truly gay-friendly beef emporium in D.C.
If you fixate on stereotypes, the hetero-macho sensibility of a steakhouse might not seem to fit into the context of 17th Street. And hulking chunks of beef wouldn’t seem a big draw among a body-conscious demographic. But everyone, even the toniest guppie, has an appetite for the occasional down-home, hold-the-pretentiousness night down the block. During lunch in the sunny front dining room recently, a woman dropped into a booth and immediately introduced herself and her family to a neighboring diner: “Hi Bob. This is Steve. This is my sister Mary Jane. My husband’s in the john. We’re on vacation.”
Annie brags that she keeps customers for decades “like that fella over there,” she says, pointing across the room to Dick McLean, who later stops by our table to offer, “This is the best restaurant in the whole city. I’ve come here for over 30 years, from when I was a graduate student at Georgetown. And my mother, who’s 92 this month [and standing next to him], used to come here before that, when Annie’s was down the street.” A few minutes later, a man who goes by the name of Fred “the jeweler” pops his head into our booth: “I don’t mean to butt in on your conversation, but I heard years being passed around here. Two years ago, I had an anniversary dinner here with my other half. And we first started coming here when we first started dating. And two years ago was our 20th anniversary.”
“All I know from when I started here is that no matter who walks in that door, they’re all treated equally,” explains Alexas, “regardless of who they are or what they are. We cater to everybody, whether they’re gay, whether they’re straight. We don’t advertise as a gay restaurant. A majority of our clientele is gay because they come here, they feel comfortable, and they can be who they are. They can go up to you and hug you and kiss you. Try doing that at another restaurant down on Pennsylvania Avenue. Or at Ruth’s Chris.”
Annie will leave the restaurant about the same time she departs this mortal coil: “You know how some people refuse to leave their houses because they’ve been there all their lives? That’s how I am with this place.”
Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse, 1609 17th St. NW, (202) 232-0395.
“You know that theater in Arlington where you can order pizza and beer and stuff?” one reader asks, referring to the Arlington Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse. He recommends sticking to beer and saving room for a post-movie meal at Rincome, a Thai restaurant across the street. It’s not bad advice. A recent meal there featured a plate of crisp-fried soft shells hidden beneath a web of almost raw sliced onion and strips of lemongrass, all of it swimming in a sweet goo of a sauce that’s nicely balanced by a squirt of lime. A dessert of fresh mangos served over coconut-milk-drenched sticky rice is enough to make you appreciate summer again.
Rincome, 3030 Columbia Pike, Arlington, (703) 979-0144.