Historic D.C. restaurants brim with tales
In a tiny half-booth in Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, nicknamed the “rumble seat,” John F. Kennedy perused the Sunday morning newspaper after attending mass. Nearby is Booth Three, where he and Jackie Bouvier were seated when he proposed marriage to her in 1953.
Harry and Bess Truman and their daughter, Margaret, often dined in another cubicle, which Margaret later incorporated into one of several mystery novels she wrote.
Years later, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Speaker of the House of Representatives Sam Rayburn frequented a booth at Martin’s, sharing a meal and discussing political tactics.
These scenes, which played out over several decades, provide flashbacks in time at Martin’s Tavern, one of several history-rich restaurants in Washington, D.C. Today, residents and visitors to the nation’s capital may dine at those same tables at some of the city’s oldest eateries.
The fact that Martin’s Tavern has remained in the same family since it was established in 1933 adds to its appeal. So do the cozy, dark-wood bar, stained glass light fixtures and vintage paintings of Washington that adorn the walls.
Both Kennedy and his political rival Richard Nixon were among numerous luminaries who entered the doors of the Monocle, frequenting the Capitol Hill establishment when they were battling to become president.
John Valanos, whose parents opened the restaurant in 1960, estimated that half of the members of Congress have come there for food or drink over the years.
The Monocle’s walls are covered with photographs of presidents and members of Congress, past and present. The second-floor dining room is a favorite with cabinet members.
The food, according to Valanos, is “simple, of high quality, but not complicated.” Popular favorites include porterhouse filet mignon, jumbo lump crabcakes and, for those on a tighter budget, littleneck clams linguine or a gourmet burger.
Old Ebbitt Grill
The original Old Ebbitt Grill was founded in 1856 by William Ebbitt, who purchased a boarding house whose guest registry included several presidents-to-be.
Following a number of moves and iterations, Old Ebbitt ended up at 675 15th Street NW, near the White House. Regular patrons include politicians, entertainers and others who enjoy its history and décor.
The setting mimics that of the restaurant in the 1960s. Animal trophies said to have been shot by President Theodore Roosevelt look down upon those seated at a replica of the bar. Ceiling murals, oil paintings and carved waterfowl decoys add to the atmosphere.
The Tabard Inn continues to combine lodgings with luscious food, as it has since 1922. During World War II, it served as a boarding house for Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES).
Located on a quiet block just south of Dupont Circle, the 35-bedroom inn occupies three Victorian-era rowhouses. The lack of an elevator and of TV sets in guest rooms add to its throwback appeal.
Breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner are served in the intimate dining rooms and covered patio, and light fare and beverages are available in the cozy fireplace lounge.
The atmosphere is different but no less nostalgic at the Iron Gate Restaurant, across the street from the Tabard Inn, named for its decorative entrance gateway. The edifice was constructed in 1875, and the builder’s wife planted the wisteria vines that still shade the garden patio.
The dining room occupies a former horse stable built in 1898. Over the decades, the location has been a tea room, wedding reception hall and hangout for the writer Tom Wolfe, who frequented the patio.
The 1789 restaurant is named for the year its building was erected. In 1960, a Georgetown University alumnus opened a bistro called The Tombs in the basement, which catered largely to students and faculty (and still does).
The upstairs evolved into the elegant restaurant which serves classic French cuisine. The ambiance includes American antique furniture, refined early American relics, a fireplace and a gas chandelier.
A “Parliament Clock” dates back to colonial days, when the English legislature enacted a tax on watches, and gargoyles behind a bar were salvaged from a 16th-century monastery in Ireland.
Annie’s Paramount Steak House
Annie’s Paramount Steak House has been family-owned and operated since it opened in Dupont Circle in 1948.
It was started by a Greek immigrant named George Katinas and his five sisters. He later added Annie to the name to honor that particular sister’s devoted service to her customers.
Early on, Annie’s became known for offering a welcoming environment to all, including those in the LGBTQ+ community. It has received the James Beard Foundation’s “America’s Classics Award” for its “timeless appeal…and quality of food that reflects the character of its community.”
A colorful, revolving mini-carousel in the front window was designed and built by Paul, George’s son and current owner. Paul’s daughter Georgia, who serves as manager, explains that “Paul likes to incorporate fun and whimsy into the place.”
Annie’s has no internet service for customers and no TV sets over the bar. That way, a waiter explained to me, “People spend their time here speaking with each other.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl
No story about venerable places to sup and sip in Washington would be complete without reference to Ben’s Chili Bowl. Since 1958, that unassuming restaurant has been serving down-home fare, including half smokes, hot dogs, sweet potato pie and, of course, chili.
In its early days, it became a favorite among jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. Barack Obama visited its original U Street location several times, and it has since opened franchises in Nationals Park and Reagan National Airport.
The James Beard Foundation honored it among “eateries that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape.”