Boozy lunches and late-night binges, soaked up with Nat King Cole’s favorite burger, followed by the inevitable trips to Frank Sinatra’s favorite urinals—this is what dining at P.J. Clarke’s is supposed to be all about.
The name alone should inspire a bleary-eyed hiccup or two.
Fans of the AMC drama Mad Men will recognize the handle as the frequent haunt of the ever-thirsty employees of fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper. But its pop-cultural cachet dates back decades before Jon Hamm and company began tossing back cocktails and racking up Emmys.
Established in 1884, the original P.J. Clarke’s remains a venerable New York institution, never budging from its pioneering spot in Midtown Manhattan; a modest two-story brick vestige of the gritty old city, surrounded by glassy skyscrapers.
Consider it the Big Apple equivalent of Old Ebbitt Grill, if Old Ebbitt had never left Chinatown and that teetotaler Theodore Roosevelt had been a raging lush.
When this quintessential Old New York saloon opened its gleaming contemporary D.C. outpost near the White House last October, it could have brought some of that trademark debauchery with it. The implications would have been huge: finally, a place where high-powered K Street lobbyists can knock ’em back like they’re Madison Avenue ad execs from the 1960s.
Of course that didn’t happen. No decadent comeback for the three-martini lunch. Not in this economy, at least.
Around lunchtime, you generally won’t see three cocktails at a single table, let alone in front of a single person. You will spot a lot of glasses of water, iced tea, and soft drinks. “This is the sixth Diet Coke I’ve refilled for the same guy,” gripes one black-tied server on a recent Monday afternoon. “It’s ridiculous.”
Perhaps the most sobering thing about P.J. Clarke’s D.C. spin-off, however, isn’t the usual boring storyline about another refugee from edgy New York struggling to survive in socially conservative Washington. It’s the stunning pole-shift in marketing.
For years, various operators have tried to force a New York aesthetic on the D.C.-area food scene—New York-style pizza, New York-style bagels, to name a couple of obvious examples—often adopting the very words “New York” as part of the trade name, or just incorporating Lady Liberty into the logo. It’s as if the trappings of the Big Apple should be enough to get patrons lining up; if you can make it there, restaurateurs seem to figure, you can definitely make it here.
P.J. Clarke’s isn’t one of them. For once, a New York outfit isn’t resting on its New York laurels. Quite the opposite: this is an established Manhattan brand trying to co-opt a decisively D.C. aesthetic.
From the outset, the proprietors attempted to downplay the restaurant’s New York roots and strike a local tone. As a former manager told The Washington Post last fall, “We want to be considered more a D.C. restaurant with New York ties than a New York restaurant in D.C.”
That probably sounded like pandering at the time, something every carpet-bagging chain formally announces as it steamrolls into town, snatching yet more territory and business away from the locals. But P.J. Clarke’s has at least tried to look the part.
Oh, sure, you’ll notice several elements of the original décor, ranging from the old-school checkered tablecloths to the antique urinals in the men’s room. (The current owners reportedly had moldings taken of the original piss pots—which Sinatra apparently spoke highly of—in order to outfit every newly built outpost of the old saloon with exact replicas.)
But nothing screams New York. (No autographed glossies of Old Blue Eyes, for instance.) The walls are hung with ancient-looking portraits of presidents and monuments, interspersed with even more antiquated images of the defunct Washington Senators baseball club.
The localized artwork, coupled with old-fashioned fixtures and furnishings, lends the place a sort of permanence it has yet to truly achieve. Unsuspecting guests might just assume the place has been around for 60 years, not six months.
“I think we certainly resemble a D.C. restaurant,” says current manager Emily Hines.
One D.C. restaurant in particular, maybe. For even more local scenery, the restaurant hired familiar face Norm Taney, the former daytime bartender at Old Ebbitt, to instill some D.C. cred and wry humor at the taps. “Martinis are like tits,” Taney tells me, when asked about the glaring cocktail gap at lunch one day. “One is never enough, and three is too much.”
It might all seem like window-dressing—if not for some notable differences on the D.C. and New York menus.
First and foremost is the crab cake, which looks and tastes nearly identical in both locales and is comparable in size and style to the popular version at Old Ebbitt (but rings up a whopping 10 cents cheaper). In New York, however, the menus describe the item as simply “‘handpicked’ jumbo lump crab.” D.C. diners are presented with something a bit more tailored to their regional tastes: “Maryland jumbo lump crab,” a dubious descriptor to say the least. (With the globalized seafood trade what it is these days, even Old Ebbitt isn’t so bold as to promise local crab in print.)
Executive chef Michael DeFonzo, based in New York but currently stationed in D.C. while searching for a local toque to take over, insists the lump meat here is the genuine, locally sourced blue crab variety. Well, mostly, anyway. “Sometimes we have had to supplement it with Carolina [crab],” DeFonzo says. “But usually, even if we do that, we mix ’em.”
Customers in New York, meanwhile, take whatever lumps they can get. “Maryland crab meat does make it up to New York, and I do use it when it’s available,” DeFonzo says. “I’ll also use Carolina and I get some hand-picked crab from Georgia.”
The difference in service comes from the perceived differences in the consumer. On this point, DeFonzo speaks like a typical New Yorker: “I can’t believe people from Maryland eat Maryland crab meat all the time. I mean, you guys eat anything else?”
Additional variations on the D.C. menu skew heavily toward Southern-style fare. You won’t see shrimp and grits listed in Manhattan, for instance; nor will you find the tender and tasty barbecue beef brisket platter, served with cole slaw and a slice of moist cornbread, a specialty of the D.C. sous chef Duane Loftus.
Other recent New York imports have been reluctant to repurpose their menus for D.C. tastes. “We decided long ago that we’re not doing pulled pork,” says Marc Glosserman, CEO of Hill Country, the New York-based Texas-style barbecue joint, which opened last month in Penn Quarter. “We’re a lot closer to pulled pork country… and that’s probably the type of barbecue that people in this area are used to. But what distinguishes Hill Country from other barbecue restaurants is precisely that we try to adhere as closely and meticulously as we can to one style of barbecue, and that’s central Texas.”
P.J. Clarke’s has its limits on going native, too; the kitchen isn’t putting any regional spin on its signature burger, served atop a thin slice of onion, not vice versa. “I’ve interviewed many a chef who wants to tell me how to do our burger better,” says DeFonzo. “I just say, ‘Some things you don’t fix.’”
Even with the local tweaks to both menu and décor, some people will always associate the brand with its city of origin. “We certainly have a few P.J. Clarke’s followers that are either transplants down here or just down here on business,” says manager Hines.
But, she says, the place is beginning to attract local celebrities, name-dropping House Speaker John Boehner and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley as recent patrons.
Leave it to the New York luminaries, though, to uphold the saloon’s liquid legacy. “The guy from NBC’s To Catch a Predator, Chris Hansen, he comes in all the time,” a nighttime bartender informs me one recent evening. “He drinks a lot of Guinness.”
P.J. Clarke’s, 1600 K St. NW, (202) 463-6610
Photos by Darrow Montgomery