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At the Palm, as in much of Washington, you are someone, you were someone, or you’re not worth knowing. Stature of any kind is associative, so when I’m fawned over like a war hero on my first visit to the Palm, I know the guy I’m with has got some juice. The waiter, dressed like a doctor in a white coat, addresses me as “Sir” until he finds out my name, and then it’s “Mister” for the rest of the night. When my New York strip arrives, two waiters flank me to aid in inspecting the meat as though it were a rare gem, hoping that it has been cut and mounted to my exact specifications (it has). On the way out, the maitre d’ reacts like a concerned mother when I reveal that I’m walking home. “Are you sure?” he asks. “We can get you a ride.”
Dining with a nobody isn’t drastically different from eating with a big shot. The tab for two at the Palm is always going to be around 100 bucks; the staff understands that even though neither my friend nor I will be immortalized in a caricature on the restaurant’s wall, part of our money is buying their respect. So when we’re treated like two-bit pickpockets on my last night at the steak house, it takes me a second to realize what the problem is. The waiter all but demands that we order prime rib, not the 36-ounce New York strip, the house specialty we’re hoping to share. It’s getting late, our waiter says, and he doesn’t want to hassle with a steak. As always, the meat is superb, albeit a touch overdone, but the waiter says he “can’t do anything about that.” Such is life when you dine with a has-been.
Other steak houses in the District aren’t as quick to discriminate on the basis of status as the Palm, but the issue of clout always lurks, usually as the realization that outside the restaurant you don’t have any. While red meat makes its periodic popular resurgence in most of America’s cities, in D.C., steak could never be just a trend. Power dining, a custom as entrenched in District culture as poll watching, has carnivorous connotations; steaks, unlike cigars or martinis, can’t be “back,” because they never left. Steak eating goes hand in hand with politics, because both function as great Darwinian metaphors.
A photograph of Dan Rostenkowski hangs on the wall of Morton’s in Georgetown, the former rep’s saggy visage providing a reminder of what awaits those with extreme appetites for power and beef. The popular chain steak house (officially known as Morton’s of Chicago) has no menu; instead, the waiter brings out cuts of raw, plastic-wrapped meat to the table in a ritual that a friend, who likes his steak dark red and cold at the center, likens to meeting your prey. “It’s the gentlemanly thing to do before killing a foe,” he says. Reverting to medieval notions of superiority, I figure, is all part of the game, but my friend’s delirium is notably absurd. First of all, I tell him, said “prey” is quite dead, and secondly, “What kind of insecure dip feels threatened enough by a cow to consider it a ‘foe’?”
“Shut up and eat,” he replies, and we get down to the business of discovering that there are virtually no flaws in $30 pieces of meat. I’ve been taught to believe that fat equals flavor, so I select a marbleized sirloin that leaves me no reason to think I’m wrong. My friend, as you might expect, is into size. He looks upon his 48-ounce porterhouse as a challenge, and it proves to be a formidable one. The outer crust is the only evidence that the beef has been cooked at all”Perfect!” he gushesand when there’s nothing but gristle left, he dips his finger into the juices on his plate. As a kid, he says, his mother would gather liquid remains like these into a mug for the family to sip and share like tea.
It doesn’t take many trips to a steak house to learn that the whole experience is still pretty much a guy thing. “Jesus! Ick!” is how one female friend who works on the Hill replies when I ask her what her favorite steak house is. “I never get invited to those places, first of all, but even if I did, I wouldn’t go. I imagine they make you strip down to your boxers at the door.”
There is a woman in our party when we go to Sam & Harry’s, and while she orders fish and a salad, she seems comfortable. Like most power steak joints, Sam & Harry’s, located across the street from the Palm, has a plain but distinguished-looking dining room adorned with starched white tablecloths and a wealth of
The house’s “signature” bone-in strip is the finest piece of meat I’ve ever had. Unlike most flesh, a steak is at its best after having some direct contact with fire, and the steak I’m served has been scorched by a pro who knows the difference between pink and red, crunchy and burned.
The only thing missing from the meal is glamour. As far as celebrities go, political types are pretty dumpy. And it seems to me that if you’re going to dine among the vain and powerful, you ought to be able to expect a few gods and goddesses to show up. According to my friend, Sam & Harry’s is not the place for that type of thing. “Unfortunately, the people here tend to be older,” she says. “The Capital Grille crowd is younger, much more attractive.”
She’s right about the “younger” part. It’s hobnob heaven in the bar at the Capital Grille on the Wednesday night we stop in for steaks. It would never occur to me to drop by the place for a quick porterhouse-and-beer snack, but that’s exactly what people are doing. Muscling through the crowd, I run into one woman. She’s loaded.
“He was just so slothful,” she slurs. “He was cute. I wanted to poke him.” Since the panda she’s referring to isn’t available for touching, she decides to poke me instead before eventually dropping back onto her stool and closing her eyes.
In the dining room, there’s a comfortable distance between us and the commotion in the bar. From this vantage point, the Capital Grille is easily the grandest of the steak houses. The restaurant is dimly lit, and stuffed ram and buffalo heads are mounted on the walls. Just over the shoulder of one of my friends is a life-size statue of an eagle with its wings spread and its talons poised for the kill. It’s like eating in the hunting lodge of some megalomaniacal millionaire.
It doesn’t take long for the three of us to succumb to our macho surroundings. The menus are leather-bound and heavy, presented as though they contained the Ten Commandments. My friend compares our steaks to “monuments,” and the 24-ounce porterhouse is just that: A magnificent bovine cut, aged and roughly the size of the bronto ribs that toppled Fred Flintstone’s car. Eating and then digesting this food takes time, which means that during our three-hour meal we have plenty of time to order more wine and rhapsodize that we’re deserving of these kinds of riches, that a meal like this needs to be punctuated not just with some white-chocolate mousse, but with scotch and cigars as well.
With the meal finished, our egos raging, and our stomachs swelled, it’s hard to say which is more disturbing: that we all agree the $200 tab was reasonable enough, or that after experiencing firsthand how the other side lives, we decide that we like it.
Capital Grille, 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. (202) 237-6200.
Morton’s of Chicago, 3251 Prospect St. NW. (202) 342-6258.
The Palm, 1225 19th St. NW. (202) 293-9091.
Sam & Harry’s, 1200 19th St. NW. (202) 296-4333.
The problem with the term “steak house” is that the name itself is used liberally enough that you can never be certain what it signifies. The “steak house” my grandmother used to take me to, where we had to walk through a cafeteria line, comes to mind. The largest cut of meat offered at the Shreveport Steak House is an 8-ounce prime rib, although the waiter doesn’t recommend it. He suggests gumbo instead, which arrives cold and in a dirty bowl; I can only report that it smells decent. When I ask the waiter if he serves much steak, he says, “Sure, but we’re not really a steak place.”
Shreveport Steak House, 316 Massachusetts Ave. NE. (202) 543-8613.
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