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When the Daily Grill opened in early March, the restaurant printed a promotional “newspaper” called The Daily to herald the event. “Classic American Grill Opening in Washington D.C.,” read the headline at the top of the front page. Under it ran stories about how the Daily Grill reinvigorates the traditions of old-time American eateries, how “meat and potatoes are back,” and how the restaurant’s owners created a veritable dining sensation with their other Daily Grills in Southern California.
Like much of what you read in this town, everything in The Daily has been spun beyond belief. The Daily Grill is not a classy update of the down-home neighborhood diner but a chain restaurant that’s roughly as gritty and authentic as Pizzeria Uno. Tall wooden booths, aged photographs of Washington, and a healthy offering of traditional American recipes are all meant to convey an old-school dignity, but the effect is phony. Once you have your car valet-parked and enter the bar, which is teeming with pressed white collars, the Grill won’t seem any more genuine than a spare bedroom in a suburban condo that’s been remodeled to look like an old English library.
Foodwise, the Grill employs a loose interpretation of classic American cuisine. In addition to the Daily Grill combo, a plate of shoestring potatoes and crispy fried onions that at $4.50 is one of the menu’s only reasonably priced items, the restaurant offers steamed clams, steak tartare, and two types of gourmet pizza as starters. But it’s wise to stick with the most basic appetizer orders. Someone sensitive to nuance works the fryer, and the calamari and popcorn shrimp are better than you’d thinkbattered lightly, so that some flesh can be seen through the brown coating. Both beat the shrimp cocktail hands down; ours comes to us with meat flimsy from being out of the cold for too long.
The Grill’s kitchen can be commended for its graceful renderings of most of the diner standbys. With a delicate crust shiny with butter and a chunky stuffing of fresh stewed goods, the chicken pot pie is every bit the singular achievement our waitress claims it is. And the pot roast is as it should be: stringy, just a little tough, and full of earthy flavor. Both the pork chops and meat loaf are in familiar company, the latter with mushroom sauce on top and creamy, nearly drinkable mashed potatoes on the side, the former accompanied by a dollop of applesauce. The Cobb salad is a revelation, if only for the way it comes already cut and tossed, taking care of steps that until now I didn’t realize are a total pain.
If the grill had only stuck to its purported plan of celebrating simple, time-honored cuisine, this might be a different story. But the Grill’s menu goes on forever. Dishes such as linguine and clams, angel hair pasta with tomato sauce, and chicken parmigiana are almost arrogantly bland, suggesting the efforts of a reluctant diner chef forced to cook dishes he wouldn’t normally choose to eat. Although I send it back, the broiled half chicken with garlic is never right; first, it comes too pink to eat and then, too cooked to taste. The puzzlingly overgrilled salmon filet tempts me to refer to a piece of fish as “stale,” something that hadn’t previously crossed my mind.
Adding insult to ineptitude, the Daily Grill is never particularly friendly. On one visit, a host walks us past countless open tables and seats us at a booth next to the kitchen. We figure it’s the worst seat in the house until, at our next visit, we are put at a skimpy two-person table by the wait station. When we ask to sit at one of the 10 or so vacant booths, the host complies, but he’s a jerk about it. While waiting in the bar on another night, snacking on the complimentary Ritz crackers and port-wine-cheese spread, my friend talks a big game about how he’s going to hook us up with free food and drinks. Turns out the last time he was at the Grill a valet broke the lock on his car, prompting a manager to promise to “take care” of him on his next visit. I can’t help laughing when the same manager waves my friend off as if he were a swarm of gnats.
Although I’m not old enough to have frequented the great grills of yesteryear the Daily Grill claims to emulate, I doubt that any of those venerable haunts had valet parking or a private dining room that could be rented out for special events. That the Grill has both is typical of a restaurant that tries to put a downtown shine on a tradition best covered in grime. The irony is that the bells and whistles are just what make this restaurant so relentlessly ordinary. “Kind of boring,” remarks my companion as he studies the Grill’s menu. I think that’s the idea.
Daily Grill, 1200 18th St. NW. (202) 822-5282.
Having for years suffered the assumption that there was no decent Chinese in the District, Walker, a reader, claims to have found “relief” at Friendship Hunan. While I wouldn’t consider the place any major find, the prices are right and the General Tso’s chicken Walker recommends is quite nice. Half a dozen balls of chicken come over cabbage in the lunch portion, all of them inflated by the fryer so that if you cut at the wrong place you end up with a mouthful of batter. It happens to me, but I don’t mind much, since the sauce is so supremely gooey and hot that I’d eat it on basically anything.
Friendship Hunan Restaurant, 4916 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 363-9024.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.