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

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Edward R. Murrow offers Helen Valanos a light at The Monocle, one of D.C.'s restaurants with deep roots.
Monocle Restaurant
Edward R. Murrow offers Helen Valanos a light at The Monocle, one of D.C.'s restaurants with deep roots.
Constantine “Connie” Valanos and his wife, Helen, opened The Monocle in the thick of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race.

If there's one thing that's been irking D.C. resident, blogger and historian John DeFerrari over the past few years, it's what seems to be the prevailing attitude toward D.C. restaurants.

"I noticed how people tend to say that 'Oh, 10 years ago there were no good restaurants in Washington!' This really annoyed me because I knew there were a lot of good restaurants in the old days that are gone now," DeFerrari says.

So many, in fact, that he decided to write a book all about them. It's called Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.

D.C. restaurants with old roots

One such historic restaurant is The Monocle, at 107 D Street Northeast on Capitol Hill, which dates back to 1960.

"It opened right in the heat of the presidential campaign between Kennedy and Nixon," DeFerrari says. "And it's in an old circa 1885 townhouse, the only one left on this block."

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.

"This has been going on a long time," he explains. "Harvey's Restaurant, one of the great seafood restaurants of the city, got a big lift when President Abraham Lincoln went there and enjoyed steamed oysters for the first time."

DeFerrari says President John F. Kennedy had an especially major impact on D.C.'s eateries.

"President Kennedy loved to go to fine restaurants," DeFerrari says. "He went here [The Monocle]. His favorite table was in the corner. But he also went to some new restaurants opening up in the early 60s: Sans Souci, the Jockey Club and Rive Gauche in Georgetown. The fine restaurants of his day really got a big kick from having the President come."

Oysters were the signature dish of Harvey’s Oyster House, which received a major business boost after President Abraham Lincoln visited.

Story of restaurants is story of the city

DeFerrari says D.C.'s restaurant scene began with public eating houses, or taverns. When restaurants came along, in the early-to-mid 1800s, the majority of them clustered on Pennsylvania Avenue. And one of the most "notorious," he says, was Beverly Snow's Epicurean Eating House.

"It featured terrapin and other exotic game," DeFerrari explains. "And the reason I say it's 'notorious' is because Beverly Snow was actually an African American, and the Snow Riot of 1835 is named after him."

As DeFerrari describes it, "the Snow Riot was an agitation that happened amongst a lot of angry young white men who felt threatened by African Americans. And they decided to take out their frustration on any and every African American businessman they could find."

Consequently, Snow's restaurant on the corner of Pennsylvania and Sixth Street "was attacked and basically trashed," DeFerrari says.
The issue of race was also intertwined with Washington's restaurant scene in the days of segregation.

"The fact that African Americans could not eat in white restaurants meant they had an incentive to develop their own [restaurants]," DeFerrari explains. "And there were some really fine African American restaurants, particularly on the U Street Corridor, which was the business center."

Some of these eateries included Harrison's, famous for its ice cream, and Cecilia's, a well-known haunt of actors from the Howard Theatre.

But with desegregation, DeFerrari says, something interesting happened.

"Because Blacks could now go to all the other restaurants that whites went to, this actually had a detrimental effect on African American restaurants, because there was no longer a need for restaurants to be exclusively African American. As a result there really was a pretty sharp decline."

Mahaboob Ben Ali and his wife-to-be, Virginia Rollins, opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958.

Power lunches and ethnic flavors

Speaking of declines, DeFerrari says Prohibition (which came to D.C. on Nov. 1, 1917) dealt a sharp blow to many of the city's restaurants.

"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," DeFerrari says.

Among the casualties were such famous names as Hancock's, Gerstenberg's, Welcker's and Mades. But their dissolution had an unintended benefit, DeFerrari explains, since it "helped propel the rise of lunchrooms and diners and informal restaurants that began to take the place of the old-style restaurants."

And speaking of "lunch," one can't mention that particular meal in Washington without bringing up the "power lunch." As DeFerrari writes in his book: "Throughout the city's history, VIPs have gravitated to certain eateries... and avoided others."

DeFerrari says The Monocle has definitely been counted among the power spots, as well as Duke Zeibert's on Connecticut Avenue.

"A lot of people from the 1950s and 1960s are going to remember Duke's," he says. "Duke Zeibert was a real character, the kind of person that could make any person feel at home. But he was also kind of a good old boy. 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."

Another aspect of D.C.'s restaurant history that DeFerrari covers is the rise of ethnic restaurants.

"There are several generations of ethnic restaurants [in D.C.]," he says. "There were ones like the Italians and the Germans and the Greeks, [which] were here early in the late 19th and 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."

[Music: "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" by Waring's Pennsylvanians]

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