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Simulating a Dockers commercial isn’t easy. For starters, you have to have known people for long enough to have something to reminisce over, and you have to get several of them together at the same time. To facilitate the requisite bonding, it also helps to be a guy, preferably a well-to-do guy eager to express how being a well-to-do guy does nothing to compromise your status as a severely regular guy.
Lacking in several of these departments, my ad hoc group of coed bonders ventured into Georgetown, where we hoped some prewashed atmosphere could make up for our shortcomings. The snow aided our cause: We had the Manhattan Bar and Grill mostly to ourselves, enabling us to choose a table flanked on one side by a window looking out on M Street and on the other by the bar, where some stragglers sat on stools and stared with envy at plates they had no part in emptying.
With the exception of a conversation between two friends regarding the $100 cocktails they downed while visiting Yale, our event wasn’t nearly as nostalgia-driv-en or as cheesy as we had expected. With its cut-marble tables (both circular and square), soft light (from both candles and fluorescents), and penchant for mood music that passes as tasteful (think Sade), Manhattan’s aspires to splitting the difference between Georgetown’s snootier, high-priced eat-
eries and slimy frat-bore haunts. On the snowy night,
a father-daughter pair, a couple clad in baggies and chains, and my own group of jabbering clowns all blended in like models in a photo.
As with any exercise in post-collegiate musing and seafood dining, having an East Coast native who fancies himself a man of the sea is invaluable. Our rep from the Connecticut shore segued from banter on beachside crab boils into full pan mode with the arrival of Manhattan’s appetizers. “They’ve been on ice for like 10 hours,” he commented of the puny peel-and-eat shrimps. “They’re hard as a rock.” One bite into the clams casino the snobbery grew contagious (“could be more crispy” was the general consensus). But not being one to shun anything baked with butter and bacon, I gladly polished off all uneaten portions.
When the time came to order main courses, our server responded to questions like an eager-to-please corporal. “We’ve had the same chef for the last seven or eight years” is how the waiter finally responded to probing that seemed to question the skill in the kitchen. The merlot recommended from among the few bottles we felt we could afford (as a general rule, young and hungry types don’t drink white) came and disappeared almost as quickly as it was ordered.
Manhattan’s entrees hover around $15, relatively high by our terminally broke standards, but in this case hardly overpriced. Conn-man took breaks only to breathe while he made quick sport of a pile of walnut pesto linguini topped with mussels and juicy smoked salmon. Another guest was bragging about his in-the-flesh encounter with one of the vice president’s daughters. While he gushed “she’s hot and totally cool,” something similar could have been said for his Norwegian salmon steak, jazzed with mango chutney and sweet pepper butter. My mixed grill provided a pleasant overview of the kitchen’s offerings: grilled fillets of salmon, tender swordfish, and tuna served with pepper collie, garlic, and lemon butter sauce. When another companion had eaten all she could of a marinated tuna steak with cracked coriander, I took the pasta with ginger soy sauce that it was served on and never gave it back.
Returning to Georgetown after such a successful evening seemed like pushing it; the rounds we made of the bars around M Street after our Docking reaffirmed our common belief that this wasn’t the part of D.C. where we’d normally choose to spend our nights. Still, we returned to Manhattan’s, the group reduced to two, and without a lick of appetite between us.
“It’s definitely a totally different atmosphere today,” my friend noticed. If you factor in our fresh vantage point from the restaurant’s rear and a packed house of post-Valentine daters, she was right. But after letting our helpings of lobster bisque, creamy clam chowder, and mussels marinara do their work on our senses, it was clear we were in the same spot. “I’m so into these chairs,” my friend confessed, noticing the antique-looking leather seats for the first time.
Our waiter qualified my order of horseradish-crusted flounder by saying it was a relatively new special, which left me expecting something less than great. But the thing had character: A generous portion of fish was packed with enough horseradish that several bites had me thinking I could use leftovers to remove the nail polish from my pinky (don’t ask). The swordfish club sandwich was considerably less abrasive and, with three hunks of sourdough to go along with the one piece of meat, a little bready.
As the jazz combo started to jam in the corner in which we had staged our regular-guy conference the other night, we made our way past the now-packed bar to leave. Manhattan’s had managed on consecutive nights to morph itself to suit our needs. The candlelit, strictly business trip even had the creepy feel of a pleasure outing. “If that was a date,” said my friend, “it was one of those weird comfortable ones.”
Manhattan Bar and Grill: 3116 M Street NW. (202) 333-4733.
The verdict on the hummus rolls at Cafe Deluxe was easy to come by: Whatever the doughy, garlic-infested sticks lacked in texture was made up for by the fresh mixed greens with herbed vinaigrette they were served on. The real debate raged over the graffiti scribbled on the bar tables. One conspiracy theorist suggested, noting a logo-perfect ode to the restaurant and the suspicious lack of profanity, that Deluxe had hired out pros to give their tables some G-rated street cred. Another admitted the offerings all were a bit “contrived,” but were hardly entertaining enough to be the work of anyone on a payroll. Investigation revealed that the tables and their lacquer-preserved rants came from Tortilla Coast, a restaurant that was closed last March and owned by the same proprietors. Incidentally, a new Coast is currently under construction.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail. CP