April 8, 2015
If you live in Houston, you take out-of-town guests out for Tex-Mex or barbecue. If you live in Baltimore, you take them out for crab cakes. Where do you go if you live in D.C.? For generations of Washingtonians, the easy answer is Old Ebbitt Grill. Unlike some other cities, D.C. isn’t particularly famous for any specific food (unless you count the half smoke), but Old Ebbitt Grill is as Washingtonian as the Lincoln Memorial or for that matter, its across-the-street neighbor, the White House. The building, which for over one hundred years has operated as either a hotel or a restaurant or both, still flaunts its flamboyant Victorian décor with pride. Patrons enter through a door flanked by marble columns and belly up to an old world bar decorated with mounted animal heads. (There has been no official confirmation to the rumor that the walrus, whose head is prominently displayed next to the bar, was bagged by Teddy Roosevelt, but it continues to persist all the same.) Gold urns, brightly varnished wooden stools, wrought iron chandeliers, and several massive paintings in ornate frames provide additional flourishes.
These days, though, the most prominent feature at Old Ebbitt Grill is the crowd of people waiting for tables at almost any hour. Tourists have long since caught on, which means that standards of formality are increasingly relaxed. It isn’t uncommon to see families or sometimes even school children decked out in “I Heart D.C.” t-shirts. Still, the place hasn’t lost favor with the locals; sharply dressed politicians and lobbyists still come out in droves, especially for happy hour specials (which include half price oysters and other raw bar items). A second happy hour, which begins at 11 p.m. and sometimes last until 3 a.m., has made Old Ebbitt something of a late-night destination – a bit of a rarity in this part of town. The massive space, divided into a series of hidden dining rooms and bars, is constantly bustling with activity. A hallway also connects Old Ebbitt Grill to its next door neighbor, the Hamilton, an equally ornate, even larger combination restaurant, bar and music venue, owned by the same umbrella company (Clyde’s Restaurant Group). With consistent crowds like these, it comes as no surprise that Old Ebbitt Grill is one of the District’s most profitable restaurants.
While the interior furnishing certainly doesn’t hurt, Old Ebbitt hangs its hat on traditional American food – and its raw bar is still one of the best around. Waiters emerge from the kitchen improbably balancing five plates of oysters, clams and shrimp on one arm. The somewhat legendary Orca Platter ($126.95) – a massive pile of lobster, crab claws, clams, oysters and shrimp – remains a favorite with the after-work crowd. But the kitchen’s signature dish is — and always has been — its Crab Cakes ($18.95 for a single; $27.95 for a double), large patties that hold together with almost no filler. Rockfish ($18.95), another local delicacy, is perfectly crisped on the outside, and accompanied by a colorful array of sides: red onions, beet puree and orange vinaigrette. While seafood is tried and true, the kitchen also nails basic American favorites like steaks and burgers. The Riot Burger ($16.50), whose toppings include an inspired blend of crispy fried onions, horseradish mayo, and pickled shallots, is hearty and satisfying.
Seats can usually be found somewhere in the vicinity of the main bar, even when tables are scarce elsewhere. A full slate of beer and wine is available, but the vintage atmosphere seems to invite patrons to test their barman’s knowledge of cocktails. Of course, the martini or old fashioned is a perfectly fine choice, but the bar isn’t afraid to get creative. Their Scottish Cobbler ($9.95), for example, is a flavorful explosion of whiskey, peach schnapps, Fireball and ginger beer.
To be sure, there are newer, more cutting-edge restaurants in D.C., but Old Ebbitt Grill wears its oldness with pride. As tapas bars and fusion bistros come and go, this venerable institution continues to endure.