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Eating out alone can be lonely. So when I grab a barstool at Archibald’s to have lunch with myself and a book, I’m startled but a tad gracious when an employee walks by, whispers “Hello, hon” in my ear, and then gently rubs my stomach. For a moment I think I could probably sue her, but instead decide that she’s just trying to make me feel welcome. The next time the woman walks by she strokes her hands across my shoulder blades and down my spine without saying a word.

Another woman, who’s behind the bar, actually takes my order. She glances at me and my book with a combination of disgust and embarrassment—the kind of look I remember my mom giving my dad when he had the gall to crack open the paper during church. After taking my order (a Caesar salad with fried clams, which is on special), the bartender returns to the side of the bar to resume a conversation she has been having with a male customer and the woman who violated me earlier. I’d guess the man is twice the age of either woman, each of whom is pretty much naked save for three swatches of fabric covering what in any other establishment would be considered private parts. The three of them are paging through some lingerie brochures much as a family might flip through a Sears catalog looking for Christmas gifts. “Do you like that teddy?” one woman asks.

Like all strip bars (or titty bars or gentlemen’s clubs), most of the vertical surfaces in Archibald’s are covered with mirrors. Peering up from my salad (the clams are surprisingly huge), I notice the reflection of a naked woman who’s dancing behind me. Her legs are spread. Our eyes meet. She winks. I haven’t touched my book. “I just knew you weren’t gonna want to read in here,” the bartender observes as I get up to leave.

Never having been the type to indulge in the past, I always assumed that strip club menus were limited to alcohol and look-but-don’t-touch nakedness. But like other bars, strip clubs are equipped with kitchens complete with cooks and stocked refrigerators. (The Royal Palace on Connecticut Avenue is the only strip club I tried that didn’t offer food. When I ask the man at the door about the sign outside indicating that RP is a restaurant as well as a nightclub, he says, “That’s a typo.”) If, however, a club wants patrons to really settle in for a long night of much-more-than-navel-gazing, introducing food into the equation seems logical.

The differences between Camelot Nite Club and Joanna’s 1819 Club, located a few doors down from each other on M Street, are slight. They both have dress codes: Joanna’s requires a collared shirt; Camelot insists that patrons dress “clean.” Each club is long and narrow (Camelot has an upstairs for “go-go” dancing), with a stage in the middle where women dance naked for four or five selections of cheese-metal, hiphop, or dated dance music. My waitress at Joanna’s wears a black bikini; my waitress at Camelot wears a glow-in-the-dark bikini. Female strip clubs don’t have waiters.

When I enter each club alone, the host leads me to a seat directly in front of the stage. I think to tell him he shouldn’t waste such a primo spot on me because, after all, I’m only here to eat. But I figure he’s probably heard that one before.

The menus at all of the strip clubs I visit consist of typical bar food: an assortment of sandwiches, an obligatory steak or chicken dish, and your basic array of fried appetizers. I shock myself by nearly finishing the New York strip (side salad and microwaved potato included) that I have at Joanna’s. I smother it in A-1, but the meat is surprisingly tender and cooked to order. I feel the need to look up from my plate occasionally out of respect for the stripper, who, much to the delight of the crowd, is exhibiting some creative dance steps that involve a pole. When I notice I’m the only one in the club who has yet to tip the woman, I get up and awkwardly tuck a dollar into her garter. After finishing what I can of a bowl of pasty chili and a plate of dry cubed chicken, pita bread, suspiciously hard feta cheese, and quite delicious Calamata olives at Camelot, I get up to do the same. Only this time I try to hand the tattooed woman my dollar. She stares at me, amazed that I might refuse my knuckle the pleasure of making split-second contact with her thigh. Feeling like I’ve already made enough of a scene by eating in the front row, I tuck a dollar bill into her garter and head for the door.

It’s hard not to feel perverted eating alone in a strip bar, as if I have a weird fetish involving strange, naked women and bad food. So I’m somewhat relieved to have a small posse accompany me to Good Guys, the most rowdy and raunchy (save for maybe the Royal Palace) of any of the clubs. The place is packed with men staring bug-eyed at three different stages, each of which is occupied by a flexible woman who has obviously been instructed to give the crowd a good look at her crotch. One woman, an apparent gymnast, does a trick in which she folds both of her legs behind her head and is capable of performing Olympic-caliber moves on the vertical and horizontal bars. As far as I can tell, we are the only people in the place who ask to look at menus.

A friend orders a sandwich of pastrami, which turns out to be leather-tough. Two others in the group order the crab cake and club sandwiches and leave their plates virtually spotless. Perhaps because of the nature of the dancing and the man sitting across from me who smells of sweat, I find myself for the first time (and not the last) worrying about cleanliness. I leave my hamburger, overcooked and covered with cheese, bacon, and onions, half-eaten.

When the gymnast walks past, she spots the smelly man and gives him one of her cards. Beaming, he whispers something in her ear and holds her by the wrist. The woman, startled but polite, takes the card and flips it over. “This is my schedule,” she says. “You should call a massage therapist. I’m a good girl.”

With a dancer called Chocolate (she’s black) who dances to “I Feel For You” (she looks like Chaka Khan), the best that can be said of the Hanger Club is that it at least tries to be creative. Several nights a week the club even stages male dancers. The Hanger Club is not, however, famous for its food, and the staff isn’t going to tell you otherwise. Temporarily forgetting where I am, I have visions of a charcoal-striped fillet when I order the tuna sandwich. The bartender has to look at my menu for proof that such a dish actually exists. I ask him if he takes many food orders. He shakes his head and smiles. “I don’t eat here. She eats here,” he says, gesturing toward the dancer. “I eat before I come.”

A few moments later, a dumbfounded cook—who I also notice is the guy who takes out the garbage and, I think, introduces the dancers—comes over to conference with the bartender about my order. I ask if there’s a problem.

“No problem,” the cook assures me. “I just wanted to make sure it was right, because I know that she doesn’t eat this,” he says, gesturing also toward the dancer.

I don’t imagine that the Hanger Club is a regular stop on the health inspector’s rounds. So when my sandwich arrives, I think about how long the canned tuna, which comes with lettuce, strips of bacon, and slices of egg, might have been sitting around in its mayonnaise. Fearing the worst, I take just a few bites of the sandwich and instead concentrate on a basket of fried mushrooms the bartender advises me to dip in ketchup. I watch the dancer do her act for a crowd of seven men who never even bother to clap. Their lack of enthusiasm strikes me, now a reluctant expert on strip-bar etiquette, as rude.

By the time I make it down to the 1720 Club, I’ll admit my constitution isn’t up for another strip-joint meal, even though the special of fresh-grilled monkfish with green beans is tempting. Instead of food, I order a Coke, sit at the bar, and stare blankly at the entertainment while chewing on a straw. After a while, I start talking with a man a few seats down who’s having a beer and a burger. He tells me he comes here because it’s convenient to his work and the food’s “good

and cheap.”

He says nothing about the dancer, who he watches with a fatherly smile. One woman comes and sits down next to him, touches his hand and engages him in small talk. After she leaves him to go take off her clothes, the man elbows me.

“I like her,” he says. “She’s just so nice.”

Archibald’s, 1520 K St. NW. (202) 737-2662.

Camelot Nite Club, 1823 M St. NW. (202) 887-5966.

Good Guys, 2311 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 333-8128.

Hanger Club, 6410 Old Branch Ave., Camp Springs, Md. (301) 449-6970.

Joanna’s 1819 Club, 1819 M St. NW. (202) 296-2191.

1720 Club, 1720 H St. NW. (202) 338-1774.

Hot Plate:

One reader who says he has a daily kabob habit swears that Moby Dick in Bethesda is the reason he doesn’t “plan on quitting.” While the kubideh and lamb are indeed luscious, especially when eaten with the raw onion and fresh parsley served on the side, Moby’s main attraction is its pita, made big as a pizza and tacked up on the wall for display. The freshly baked bread is sturdy and never cracks when wrapped around skewered meat or used as the shell for one of Moby’s vegetarian sandwiches. If you order something with rice, ask for the cook to go easy on the butter.

Moby Dick House of Kabob, 7027 Wisconsin Ave., (301) 654-1838. —Brett Anderson

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