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The line for a table at Phillips Flagship starts at the reservation desk and snakes backward in amusement-park fashion. The wait is a bit of a surprise given that the restaurant seats 1,300 and that the woman I talked to on the phone promised me that when she called the restaurant’s setting “intimate” she wasn’t just feeding me a line. Turns out she was lying on both counts: The place is a monstrosity, roughly as intimate as a subway platform during rush hour. I think to ask the hostess if she’s the one who answers the phones, but she doesn’t give me a chance. She’s got some things she needs to know:

“How many?…Smoking or non?…Inside or out?…Awning or umbrella?…Close to the water?”

I end up at a table near the railing, a site the hostess says boasts the most panoramic view in Washington. “That’s what we’re known for here on the waterfront,” she says, raising her arm in the direction of the Washington Channel.

If the vista I see through a flock of boat antennas represents Washington’s finest, the city is in much worse shape than I thought. The willows on Hains Point would lend a serene aura to the setting, but they’re too far away, located on the other side of a thin strip of the Potomac that, on this hot day, is emitting an unappetizing odor. Overhead and to the west of my seat among a throng of tourists, the 14th Street Bridge can be seen and heard. Phillips, like the rest of the restaurants lining Washington’s Southwest waterfront, is situated atop a marina, so boats are also part of the scenery. But big, motor-powered vessels are just marginally interesting to look at when they’re parked.

During the summer, a period most Washington restaurant operators figure to be the dead months, restaurants like Phillips Flagship, H.I. Ribster’s, Le Rivage, Pier 7, and Hogate’s enjoy a traffic boom, thanks to the waterfront’s popularity among tourists. Why there are lines to get a table at any of these places is a mystery. When an American city fails to exploit its riverfront property in a tasteful way, it’s usually because the developers and politicians involved are interested in attracting shopping-center crowds to a setting that would be more appealing populated by mom-and-pop operations. Washington’s Southwest waterfront distinguishes itself only because its restaurants seem to have agreed that serving dull food inside hideous buildings will appeal to the broader public.

As it turns out, the broader public likes what it sees. All the restaurants (except for maybe Le Rivage, which is homely on a smaller scale) share a structural design that combines the charms of the fast-food restaurant with those of the chain motel. The restaurants specialize in seafood and serve it in pseudo-nautical settings that unwisely suggest that the fish may have been harvested nearby. Customers come to the area literally by the busload or by car; parking is almost always a nightmare.

My experiences at Phillips and Hogate’s are hauntingly similar. Both places are huge and garish, much like the few casino restaurants I’ve been to. Both have extensive menus filled with fresh seafood, although I’m discouraged from ordering from them. At Phillips and Hogate’s, people are cattle. Once you’ve been herded to a table, it’s only a matter of time before someone will lead you to the trough, otherwise known as the buffet.

When I try to order crab cakes at Phillips, my waitress looks at me as if she’s forgotten her line. “You don’t want the buffet?” she asks, using almost the same words as the Hogate’s waiter who can’t understand why I’d order swordfish.

Unlike Phillips, Hogate’s offers a buffet only at lunch, but the fare at the mass-feeding stations is nearly identical. Crab legs and spiced shrimp are favorable only because neither suffers much when prepared by the bucket. The rest of the seafood is either prosaic or just plain sketchy. When a mother in front of me says to her child, “Eat yourself to death,” I think to notify the authorities.

Which would probably be easier than waving down a waiter. Self-serve dining doesn’t inspire fawning service. So when I’m left virtually to myself during my first meals at both Hogate’s and Phillips, I figure that the staff is told not to fuss over anyone who has requested the buffet. But on later visits, when I successfully convince my servers to let me order off the menu, I find out that crummy service is yet another thing these restaurants have in common. At Pier 7, where my red snapper merely tastes as if it comes from a buffet, it’s hard to tell who’s serving whom. Not only does the waiter take away my candle, but he bums my lighter and later makes me walk clear across the dining room so he can give it back. It’s there that he hands me my bill, which I pay standing up.

Le Rivage is the most elegant restaurant on Water Street, but that’s not saying much. If the name doesn’t tip you off, the flag in the entryway (held in place with Scotch tape) should tell you the place is French. The host explains that a lot of his customers come from the nearby Arena Stage, and I suspect that’s because Le Rivage’s menu at least appears impressive. On paper, the dishes seem to have some panache—French Riviera bouillabaisse, poached trout with smoked salmon mousse, ragout de legumes Provençal sur riz sauvage saffrane. The radicchio, endive, and red oak leaf salad comes studded with smoked bay scallops, and while it turns out to be much less delightful than it sounds, the salad is still the highlight of our meal. My roasted veal loin is pallid and tough, and the mushrooms scooped over it are cold. The double chicken breast stuffed with crabmeat my girlfriend orders is just plain sad: Uncooked at the center, it reminds us of bad wedding food.

The temperature and humidity are uncharacteristically forgiving for a midsummer day when I stop at H.I. Ribster’s, so I figure it’s a good day for the place to be packed. It’s not. In fact, business is so bad that most of the employees are playing pinball when I walk in.

I can literally sit anywhere I want on Ribster’s patio, which is unique in that its view includes the decrepit, vacant restaurant next door. Ribster’s is a barbecue place attached to Hogate’s; fried shrimp is the only seafood on the menu. With unpleasant memories of past waterfront meals still fresh in my memory, I look forward to the baby backs I order, even though my table, like all the rest, is dirty. The meal is the best I have on Water Street, but in the time it takes my waitress to bring out the ribs, I finish two mugs of soda and an entire Washington City Paper cover story. One of the long ones. I ask the waitress what the problem was, and she says she didn’t rush because she figured I was a tourist enjoying the view. “Is there some place you’d rather be?” she asks.

H.I. Ribster’s, 800 Water St. SW. (202) 479-6857.

Hogate’s, 800 Water St. SW.

(202) 484-6300.

Le Rivage, 1000 Water St. SW.

(202) 488-8111.

Phillips Flagship, 900 Water St. SW. (202) 488-8515.

Pier 7, 650 Water St SW.

(202) 554-2500.

Hot Plate:

When Vesuvio’s was taken over by Wrap Works, Dupont Circle lost one of the only dives in the area where you could order a plate of delectably greasy food and a beer and still get considerable change back from a 10. Anyone who mourns that restaurant’s demise should find solace at Volare Pizza. “I’m there at, like, breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday,” writes Sanchez, a reader who appreciates Volare’s eggs and gyros. “Have you had their chicken parmesan sandwich yet?” asks another reader, who happens to get me on the phone. “Yes,” I tell her, “it’s kind of nice how the chicken is fried so much you can hardly tell what it is.” “I know what you mean,” she sighs. Call ahead if you don’t want to wait.

Volare Pizza, 2011 S St. NW. (202) 234-9150.

—Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.