The Tasty History Of D.c.'s Restaurant Scene (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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The Tasty History Of D.C.'s Restaurant Scene

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:10
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week, we're taking a walk down memory lane with a show we are calling, "Throwbacks." Earlier in the hour, we pedaled produce with some old time street vendors in Baltimore. And now, we'll return to the theme of food, glorious food, right here in the nation's capital.

MR. JOHN DEFERRARI

00:00:26
I noticed how people tend to say that, oh, 10 years ago, there were no good restaurants in Washington. And this really annoyed me, because I knew there were a lot of good restaurants in the old days that are gone now.

SHEIR

00:00:39
So many, in fact, that this guy decided to write a book all about them. His name is John Deferrari.

DEFERRARI

00:00:45
I'm a native Washingtonian, and history writer, and I've written two books on D.C. history. The first one's called "Lost Washington D.C."

SHEIR

00:00:52
And the second, recently published by the History Press, is...

SHEIR

00:00:56
"Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C."

SHEIR

00:00:58
I recently met up with Deferrari in front of one of those historic restaurants. "The Monocle," at 107 D Street Northeast on Capitol Hill, which dates back to 1960.

DEFERRARI

00:01:07
It opened right in the heat of the presidential campaign between Kennedy and Nixon. And it's in an old circa 1885 townhouse. The only one left on this block.

SHEIR

00:01:17
Indeed. The block has changed a lot through the years, as has Washington's restaurant scene. But one thing that hasn't changed, says Deferrari, is how influential one particular D.C. resident has been on the city's eateries. The President of the United States.

DEFERRARI

00:01:30
This has been going on, as you say, a long time. Harvey's Restaurant, one of the great seafood restaurants of the city that was around for many decades, got a big lift when President Abraham Lincoln went there and enjoyed steamed oysters for the first time. People noticed when the President went places, and this has happened all through the years, even President Kennedy loved to go to fine restaurants. He went here. His favorite table was in the corner here at "The Monocle." But he also went to some new restaurants opening up in the early 60s. Sans Souci, The Jockey Club, Rive Gauche in Georgetown. The fine restaurants of his day, really got a big kick from having the President come.

SHEIR

00:02:13
Let's go back to the very beginning. What were some of the first notable restaurants in Washington, D.C.?

DEFERRARI

00:02:18
They were all on Pennsylvania Avenue, pretty much. Every -- all business was down there. One of the most notorious, in a way, was Beverly Snow's Epicurean Eating House. It featured terrapin and other exotic game. The reason I say it's notorious is because Beverly Snow was actually an African American that had been born a slave and had been freed, and the Snow Riot of 1835 is named after him because the Snow Riot was an agitation that happened amongst a lot of angry young white men who felt threatened by African American -- particularly slaves at the time.

DEFERRARI

00:02:57
And they decided to take out their frustration on any and every African American businessman they could find, and Snow's well known restaurant, his Epicurean Eating House on the corner of Pennsylvania and Sixth Street, was attacked and basically trashed. But he is certainly the most famous early restaurateur of D.C.

SHEIR

00:03:19
Jumping ahead in time a bit, you know, we can't talk about D.C.'s restaurants, through the years, without bringing up the issue of segregation. And in your book, you talk at length about how blacks were shut out of a number of D.C. institutions. Tell us more about that.

DEFERRARI

00:03:33
The fact that African Americans could not eat in white restaurants meant they had an incentive to develop their own. And there were some really fine African American restaurants, particularly on the U Street Corridor, which was the business center. Harrison's Café was a very, very fine café. Harrison was famous for his ice cream. There were others. There was Cecilia's next to the Howard Theatre, which is a well known haunt of actors. With desegregation, because blacks could now go to all the other restaurants that whites went to, this actually had a detrimental effect on African American restaurants.

DEFERRARI

00:04:14
Because there was no longer a need for restaurants to be exclusively African American. And, as a result, there really was a pretty sharp decline.

SHEIR

00:04:22
Well, let's go to the 1910s. Prohibition came to town November 1st, 1917. How did D.C.'s restaurants fair during that time?

DEFERRARI

00:04:30
Prohibition was a real blow to the restaurant business. All the great restaurants on Pennsylvania Avenue were famous for their good drink as well as their food. And many of them went out of business. Hancock's, Gerstenberg's, Welcker's and Mades. Names, which, I know people aren't recognizing, but nevertheless, they were famous at the time. They all went out of business. And it really helped propel the rise of lunchrooms and diners that began to take the place of the old style of restaurants.

SHEIR

00:05:03
You can't mention lunch in D.C. without talking about the power lunch. And you devote part of your book to this. And I think it's really interesting how you write that with these VIP's coming for these power lunches, I'm gonna quote you here, all rely first and foremost on the warmth and discretion of their hosts to make guests feel relaxed and at ease. Yes, the food also needs to be good, but it's rarely the driving factor. Can you talk about some of the power spots around town that we've seen through the ages?

DEFERRARI

00:05:29
Well, we're standing in front of one of the power spots. Certainly "The Monocle" on Capitol Hill. But, there have been a bunch of others. And I have to mention, in particular, Duke Ziebert's on Connecticut Avenue, cause a lot of people in the 1950s and 1960s are gonna remember Duke's. Duke Ziebert was a real character, the kind of person that would make anybody feel at home, but he was also kind of a good old boy.

DEFERRARI

00:05:52
And he would always be joking with his favorite clients, and this was the kind of atmosphere that fit in with the power restaurant, especially in those days.

SHEIR

00:06:02
In your book, you write about something else that sets D.C. apart, in terms of its restaurants, how it was pretty much a pioneer in terms of ethnic restaurants.

DEFERRARI

00:06:10
Well, I guess there are several generations of ethnic restaurants. There were the ones like the Italians and the Germans and the Greeks were here early. The late 19th, early 20th century. But, in terms of other ethnic restaurants, D.C. has often been the pioneer in the 20th century. A lot of the more recent arrivals have been in D.C. before the whole country. Vietnamese restaurants, for example, the very first were in D.C. Afghan restaurants, Middle Eastern restaurants. We've got the famous Mama Ayesha's in Adams Morgan, for example. We've got ethnic restaurants of all types now, and that seems to be pretty special to D.C.

SHEIR

00:06:59
John Deferrari is the author of "Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.," now out from the History Press. The book includes a bunch of authentic recipes, like Monacle Stuffed Shrimp and Watergate and Pennsylvania Popovers. It also features a number of historic photographs and images, and we have a handful of them on our website. Curious to see whose cigarette Edward R. Murrow is lighting at "The Monocle?" Want a glimpse of the original Duke Ziebert's postcard? It's all on metroconnection.org.
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