The Carlyle Suites Hotel is one of those buildings that look as if they simply deserve to house fine restaurants. Built in the 1940s, the eight-story establishment flaunts its history, renting studios with kitchenettes, playing swing to potential visitors who phone the front desk, and proclaiming itself “Washington’s official art deco hotel.” At night, long strings of lights extending from the ground on either side of the entrance to the roof distinguish the building from the others on its block. Lately, I’ve been noticing people in the lobby and on the street outside dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns. When I finally visited last spring, it was after having passed by countless times, telling myself that I had to drop in at some point, if only for a drink.
Randolph’s Grill is the restaurant the Carlyle is stuck with, and it’s a peculiar place. Trapped in the building’s atrium, the dining room is designed to feel like a sidewalk cafe. Three of the walls mimic façades of European village houses, and the fourth shows the scene diners would supposedly viewa sloppily rendered town totally out of scale with the rest of the virtual setting. Tables and chairs are made of sturdy ironperfect for the patioand fake street lamps and trees are positioned throughout. Sometimes they even provide shade; portions of the roof can be slid open.
The effort to transport diners to a far-flung locale ends with the decor. It seems sensible, given the restaurant’s ambitious design, to expect Randolph’s to serve, if not exquisite food, at least a few creative dishes. Nothing doing. The menu, basically a condensed version of what you’d find at many sports bars these days, is roughly as imaginative as a political stump speech, only without any zingers.
I won’t soon forget the first time I choose among Randolph’s list of dreadfully banal dishes. The bruschetta arrives soon after we order it. We’re given plenty of time to pick at it and notice that the bread hasn’t been grilled. It’s soft, the same chewy white stuff that’s brought to tables in baskets. What’s different about it are the tomatoes and provolone, which by the time our waitress returns have moistened the bread to a mush. It’s an hour before the waitress decides to tell us the kitchen is out of the tuna we requested. The salmon steak we order in its place is scrawny and discolored, but it’s a thing of beauty compared to my New York strip, which is sour and redolent of the barnyard. To Randolph’s credit, the entrees are comped.
With that experience in mind, it’s understandable why lately the waiters have bothered to point out that while the grand-opening sign has been hanging outside since spring, Randolph’s didn’t “really” open until this fall. Whatever that “really” means, it’s true that I found more to like about the place on subsequent visits. Down the hall, there’s the Wave, a dimly lit gay bar reminiscent of an oceanside South Beach haunt, only not so self-satisfied. If you disregard how tacky it really is, Randolph’s dining room can be pleasurable, especially in the early evenings, when the sun shines in from above. Most importantly, the service is better. One waiter in particular is a total pro. He times his tableside appearances as though he’s been plotting his moves all day, informs us about the restaurant’s upcoming fixed-price special, and hooks us up with a round of beers just to be cool.
None of this, of course, makes up for the food, which never perks up. Chicken fingers are the best appetizer. Grilled asparagus should be blackened, but not to the extent that it is here. You could play handball with the calamari. Given its size and price ($3.95), the garden salad could qualify as a deal, but its vegetables are listless and dry, a problem that reappears in the baby green and Caesar salads.
Besides a competently prepared roasted-pepper-and-provolone-stuffed chicken breast, Randolph’s entrees are worthless. The two pastas, spinach fettuccine alfredo and penne with red sauce, both available with a choice of chicken, shrimp, or sauteed vegetables, are only a shade flashier than what you could buy frozen and zap at home. What’s more, the chicken atop my fettuccine is stiff and marbled in shades of gray. There are two kinds of pizza, but their toppings are irrelevant; the crust is so thick and doughy that even roasted garlic has a tough time penetrating the blandness. The grilled chicken breast is only slightly more appealing than what comes on my pasta, thanks to its creamy leek sauce, and the tuna steak would be passable only if it weren’t devastated by inadvisedly employed mango salsa.
In fact, there’s so little passion behind Randolph’s food that it raises the question why anyone even bothered setting up shop in the first place. The restaurant vibrates discord. A corny “French” sidewalk cafe inside a stately art-deco building that serves American cuisine isn’t “fun,” as someone in the Wave suggests one night. It’s a mistake.
Randolph’s Grill, 1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW. (202) 518-5011.
One reader, referring to herself in the plural, claims a burrito stand on the southwest corner of 15th and K NW serves “the best burritos we’ve ever had.” As if that weren’t a big enough endorsement, she adds, “and we’re natives here. So we should know.” I’m not so sure that makes them experts, but the wraps served at Honest to Goodness Burritos are certainly a breed apart. I’m thinking of the cinnamon-black-bean-chili burrito that will make you re-evaluate what you crave inside a tortilla. There are three wraps available (plain, sun-dried tomato, and spinach) and sundry hot sauces to choose from. This means everything is made to order, so you can be sure your lunch hasn’t been sitting in some steam bin since morning.
Honest to Goodness Burritos, 15th and K Sts. NW.
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