On a Tuesday night late last month, an older gentlemen in a brownish Gingham jacket ambled slowly into the quiet and stately Westchester Restaurant, looking somewhat concerned. He told hostess Ayse Muslu that he had members of his family coming to visit for a post-Christmas gathering. “I have a party of 10. Can you accommodate us?”
For most restaurants, a last-second party that size might be difficult to manage at 7 o’clock. But Muslu looked around the robin-egg blue walled dining room, with mirrored columns: There was next to nobody there. Aside from the tasteful Audubon bird prints and the sound of the PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill coming from Muslu’s front-desk computer, it was just me, my dinner partner, and an elderly man sitting alone reading The New York Times a few tables away. I was enjoying a cup of chilled cucumber soup, already contemplating what flavor parfait I would order for dessert—chocolate, strawberry, or butterscotch.
Although regular patrons might take offense at the term, the Westchester perfectly fits the definition of “old school,” from the matching gold accents on teacups, saucers, and creamers to regular menu offerings like veal française, to the parsley sprigs used for plating decoration. The bow-tied and vested waiters, members of Muslu’s extended family, are soft-spoken, attentive, and smile as they make measured chit-chat with the bevy of septuagenarians and octogenarians that eat and reside in one of the District’s most distinguished apartment buildings.
While it’s not necessarily unusual to come across apartment buildings, new and old, with street-level commercial spaces (including eateries) that serve residents and the general public, the Westchester is unique. The complex of buildings off Cathedral Avenue, on a hill between Wesley Heights, Cathedral Heights, and Glover Park, is the last of the city’s grand apartment houses whose original dining room is still open to the public. These spaces were once commonplace in the city’s hotel-like residences, home to “cave dwellers”—a dated term to describe a proud, proper, and powerful class of native Washingtonians—and transients, including the two cabinet members, 31 congressmen, 12 senators, and 14 judges who lived at the Westchester at the beginning of World War II.
Once upon a time, the Cairo, on Q Street NW, and the Altamont, on Wyoming Avenue, boasted rooftop restaurants with first-class views of the D.C. skyline. At the massive Ontario apartment complex in the Lanier Heights section of what is today known as Adams Morgan, residents could pay a $30 monthly fee for three meals a day from the Ontario Café.
That’s all according to James M. Goode’s authoritative history on D.C. apartment-house living, Best Addresses, which was published in 1988. At that time, there were just six such dining rooms left in the city, including restaurants in some of the city’s ritziest buildings, like the Kennedy-Warren and the Broadmoor on Connecticut Avenue. Back then, Alban Towers, three blocks east of the Westchester, was home to Primavera, a “snappy eatery,” as Goode described it, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Many of these early apartment building dining rooms fell on hard times and closed during the Great Depression, converted to storage, special-events space, or subdivided for additional apartment units. Others closed as modern kitchens made daily cooking more routine than popping downstairs for a bite to eat. Some still survive as apartment-turned-hotel restaurants, like those at the Renaissance Mayflower, Omni Shoreham, and the Churchill. While you can get a flavor of what apartment house dining was like 70 or 80 years ago, these hotel dining rooms cater to more modern tastes.
The Westchester, meanwhile, embraces the past. A luncheon menu from 1936 posted on its website lists an “omelet with minced ham” costing 35 cents. (Today’s omelet with ham and cheese will set you back about $9; adjusted for inflation, those 35 cents in 1936 would be worth $5.51 today. Some nightly dinner specials, like prime rib or sea scallops, come in north of $20 these days.)
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While finding the Westchester’s dining room can be a bit tricky—look for signs at the third lobby entrance on the right as you round the sunken garden—once you’re buzzed in at the porté cochère, you walk into a time machine of sorts.
The spacious blue-gray lobby is handsomely decorated, and there are plenty of seats and couches from which to admire the Art Deco accents (in what can be best described as a tasteful architectural fusion of classic styles from 80 years). At night, the golden aura of light coming from the dining room naturally draws would-be diners up a short flight of stairs to the restaurant.
Compare that to the unceremonious entrance to the Pines of Florence, a street-level Italian restaurant in a yellow-brick apartment house at Connecticut and Wyoming avenues in Kalorama Heights. The low ceilings there, along with the fake interior brickwork and wood paneling—with marker-scrawled table numbers—might make you feel as if you walked into your grandpa’s old basement rec room, if your grandpa likes recorded Beethoven, which was playing during a lunch visit last month. The Westchester certainly benefits from its architectural setting.
For Washingtonians of a certain age, these grand old apartment restaurants would bring back memories. A decade ago, I sometimes escorted my native Washingtonian great aunt, who passed away last year, and her friends on their regular Friday night dinner outings in the wilds of Upper Northwest. A lover of local history, I would sit attentively and eat up stories of D.C.’s past, including tales about places like the Kennedy-Warren, whose piano bar is now for members only, and the Woodner on the edge of Mount Pleasant. The latter opened in 1952 on 16th Street NW as a modern marvel, the largest apartment building in the city and the first of its size in the world to have central air conditioning. One of my Friday night octogenarian lady friends spoke fondly of “the old Woodner” and its late Italian restaurant, which closed in 2002. “Oh, I used to just love Fio’s,” my great aunt’s late sorority sister said while we had dinner one night.
“Used,” of course, was the operative term. The Woodner and its neighborhood demographics have changed. The building has aged and lost its glitzy sheen. While you can still be dropped off at the circular driveway and waltz into the building’s grand lobby, today’s Woodner is a much different place. Fio’s is now Sangria Café, which caters to a largely Latino clientele, many of whom live in the building or in the surrounding neighborhood.
In the history of D.C. apartment building restaurants, Fio’s was an odd bird. As a Washington City Paper cover story on Fio’s closing documented at the time, many of the Woodner’s residents shunned the homestyle Italian restaurant, run by a family with ties to the late and beloved A.V. Ristorante Italiano on New York Avenue near Mount Vernon Square. “Outsiders. That’s who [Fio Vasaio] caters to. People from outside the building,” one elderly resident told City Paper in 2002. “I’ve never known Fio. He was never friendly enough to know. He just didn’t like the building residents. But he’s lasted all these years because outsiders came in.”
Compare that with the Westchester, which has its most loyal following among residents.
But it’s not a place outsiders should fear. While more youthful diners might get a kick out of the Westchester as a historic relic, there are many things to like about chef Hakki Muslu’s classic cooking and presentation: Lamb chops are perfectly seared and not overly sauced. The veal française is delicately crispy. The eggs Benedict, which can be ordered at dinner, nails its thick Hollandaise sauce, with plenty of lemon juice.
The chef, who comes out to greet his patrons in his kitchen whites and tall, pleated toque blanche, features plenty of dishes from his native Turkey, too. A recent Izmir köfte special, comprised of lamb meatballs, rice, and a seasoned chunky tomato sauce, has perfectly balanced flavors—nothing too strong. If she were still alive, it’s a dish I could even imagine my fussy great aunt, who was mighty proud of her damnation of strong, dominant flavors, liking. And if she didn’t like it, she would not have hesitated to let the chef know.
The Westchester is the type of place where a chef can get to know the tastes of his patrons, who live just down the hall or upstairs. The Muslus have run the dining room since 1992. Hakki Muslu’s tenure at the Westchester goes back 32 years, when he was worked the kitchen under the previous management, which also owned the Broadmoor’s now-closed Csikós restaurant, known for its Hungarian fare. The Muslus have had plenty of time to get to know their loyal customers and their particular tastes and favorites. On a recent visit, my dinner partner was amazed by the staff bringing out a Manhattan-like cocktail for one older gentleman, without prompting soon after seating.
If the Westchester seems overly stuffy, clubby, and unfriendly to outsiders, it’s not. At first, I felt somewhat uncomfortable being the youngest adult in the room. And when I dipped a long spoon into a parfait glass, causing the semi-liquid mixture of ice cream, butterscotch, and whipped cream to ooze unceremoniously downward onto a perfectly fitting saucer doily, I feared that a nice lady a few tables away—who for all I knew could have read Emily Post’s Etiquette cover to cover—would have sneered at me. (I certainly could imagine my great aunt, bless her heart, critiquing my parfait performance with a snide, “My, look what a mess you’ve made!”) But there’s a warmth and balance about the Westchester that puts me at ease and makes me want to return to this out-of-the-way gem from another era.
More restaurants in town could take a few pointers about service and hospitality. The Westchester, after all, has had time to get it right.
Westchester Restaurant, 4000 Cathedral Ave. NW, (202) 333-1882
Pines of Florence, 2100 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 332-8233
Sangria Café, 3636 16th St. NW, (202) 483-6905
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery