The second-most shocking thing about Eric Cantor’s loss in a Virginia primary earlier this month was the fact that the outgoing majority leader spent more at steak houses than his obscure opponent spent on his entire campaign. It was a blast from the past, as if nearly a decade of gentrification and the reign of the hip Obamaites hadn’t happened. The city has changed and politicians now regularly venture to trendier spots in fast-developing neighborhoods, like Le Diplomate in Logan Circle (or “Le Dip” as the Obamaites call it). And yet, as a recent tour of D.C.’s steak houses revealed, the old haunts still very much matter. Not for the food, of course. But they remain essential places to raise money, trade gossip with journalists, cut deals, or conduct diplomacy. (It’s received wisdom in the Pentagon, for example, that, when the Israelis come to town, you take them out for steaks.) And most of all, they’re places where the city’s tribalism shows in the smallest of things. Says one veteran waiter: “Democrats drink more and Republicans tip more.”
Eric Cantor spent more than $120,000 at this Republican standard while fund-raising for himself and his party members. Rarely has a member of Congress been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many: Bobby Van’s is the Kohl’s of steak houses, with shabby mauve walls and banquettes as uneven as the food. At a recent power lunch, this reporter had a filet that managed to be both medium-rare and dry, and a salad that seemed to have been steeped in warm dishwater before plating. Few local politicos could unpuzzle the puzzle of why someone would want to dine at Bobby Van’s voluntarily. One fund-raiser offered the following hypothesis: “Maybe because it’s not the hottest steak house in town, they offered a discount?”
The city’s cool black-and-white newcomer occupies a grand old bank building a block from the White House. Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab is where the best parties are held and where the cool kids hang out. Administration staffers throw goodbye gatherings here, and important people, like the first lady and John Boehner, can dine unharassed: either at a round table in what was once the bank president’s old office or by deploying a series of semi-opaque panels that slide into place just so, creating privacy for the diners and a shadow theater for the mortals in the bar below.
Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel, and the king of Jordan have all been “beloved visitors,” a waiter says. So was Cantor, who spent more than $44,000 here. The restaurant was expecting at least that much from him before the November midterm election, but it will survive, given its proximity to the White House. And BLT is no stranger to unpredictability: Its flushest period last year, strangely enough, came during the shutdown. The staff claims the place leans Republican, but you’d never guess: It’s modern and sleek, with a younger, more multiracial crowd than at Bobby Van’s or Cap Grille and food that is actually delicious. But that’s the new Washington for you. “The city’s changed a lot,” says one of the staff members. “We even have Republicans that are vegetarians.”
This man cave across the street from the National Gallery of Art is a notorious Republican hangout. Here, you’ll find all manner of Heritage staffers and GOP pols, including majority leader-elect Kevin McCarthy, enjoying hearty man food. The bar is responsible for many a congressman showing up sauced for late-night votes on the floor. Back in the bad old days, Senate staffers would open tabs with lobbyists’ credit cards and press the pedal to the metal. It’s all “highly illegal” now, one Republican staffer noted over an uninspiring strip steak. “Democrats are afraid to come in alone,” said a Republican lobbyist. “I tell them we can just sit at the bar, have some calamari. It’s OK to dip your toes in the water!” If her competition enters the restaurant, the lobbyist says, the staff will tip her off with a subtly whispered “to your left.” By the front, you’ll find wine and cigar lockers with name plates. “I used to recognize some of the names,” the GOP staffer said. “They’re all in jail now.”
Opened in 1972, the Palm is the most famous of the bunch and it knows its clientele down to their psychological fibers. Every table comes equipped with a notepad (“notes taken at the palm”) to help diners keep track of calls to be made after lunch, and the walls resemble a Byzantine chapel, covered with sketches of the local saints. It should come as no surprise that you can spot Terry McAuliffe’s face three times—“early, middle, and late,” says a waiter. (Rumor has it lawyers and real estate agents pay money to get their mugs on the wall in order to impress clients.) Oh, and the food’s not bad either. Try the crab cakes.
“No one’s going to walk ten blocks to get a steak,” says one longtime Washingtonian. Charlie Palmer Steak has the best location in town, as close as you can possibly get to Capitol Hill. It was an infamous feeding ground in the Abramoff era, before ethics rules barred lobbyists from taking members of Congress out for a nice meal. Now it’s a chic shell of its former self, but the core elements are still there. It’s regularly crammed with lobbyists whose offices are in the building, and “you name it from on the Hill, they’ve been here,” says the manager. The place is as generic as its food—upscale and lifeless, “a lot of farm-to-table aspiration,” says a staffer. It’s packed for breakfast and lunch when Congress is in session and, in this reporter’s experience, deserted for dinner.
Once upon a time, this space south of Dupont Circle was occupied by Duke Zeibert’s steak house. Zeibert ran a mean power lunch, and the city’s elite sang hosannas to him when he died. The location was taken over by Morton’s The Steakhouse, which, after the turn of the century, became the favorite of neocons. Both have since gone out of style.