If there is an epicenter of the Washington Tourist-Industrial Complex, it may very well be the Hard Rock Cafe in Penn Quarter.
At the peak of tourism season, during the warm spring and summer months, the self-styled "Embassy of Rock and Roll" caters to an audience that is 90 percent visitor and 10 percent local, according to the establishment's management team. In business at 999 E St. NW since 1990, the embassy is strategically located next to Ford's Theater, the (for now) FBI headquarters, the Washington Welcome Center and, of course, a Cosi.
"People come to Hard Rock for an experience," said A.J. Laban III, general manager of the D.C. outpost of the 43-year-old international hospitality provider. Laban was speaking at a recent dinner touting the Hard Rock Cafe's new menu. "This is the biggest overhaul of the menu since we opened in London in 1971," he said, citing the deleting of some 17 items, including such customer favorites as the Rock Your World chicken pineapple quesadilla and the Haystack Chicken Salad, all for the good of the enterprise. "This is something we feel we had to do to stay competitive. We've hit a home run with it," he said, pointing to fare such as the grilled Norwegian salmon, grilled vegetable sandwich, grilled chicken arugula salad and noting, a few times, that 98.9 percent of the food coming out of the kitchen is "home-made."
This might be the sign some foodies have been waiting for — that their obsession with the culinary arts is justified. That there is, indeed, power in cuisine.
Why else would the Hard Rock Cafe, which manifests itself as cafes, hotels and casinos; which slings Nachopaloozas from Anchorage, Alaska, to Angkor, Cambodia; which houses overnight guests from Orlando, Fla., to Penang, Malaysia; and which plays the smart money in casinos from Macau to Cleveland, want people to know that they smoke their Rockin' Wings in house?
Haystack strips in the salad are out. Arugula is in.
Alas, the Hard Rock Cafe hashers still utilize Ben and Jerry's ice cream for some of the desserts, making up some of that remaining 1.1 percent that is decidedly not home-made. A small sin, and forgivable, perhaps, given Ben and Jerry's place in counterculture lore, which is safeguarded by its current corporate parent, Unilever.
"We got some Phillies fans! That's right," the server says to a group of people coming in for lunch on a weekday afternoon. It is hard to say whether the Phillies fans had been first disappointed to find that Rose's Luxury was not open for lunch but then thankful that the home-made kitchen at the Embassy of Rock and Roll was there for them. They were quickly lost among the Hard Rock Cafe's anthropology of pop music culture.
Elvis Presley's Drug Enforcement Administration track suit. A brown vest worn by Michael Jackson. A letter from Marion Barry saluting Marvin Gaye. Lots of T-shirts and pins. The Hard Rock Cafe experience.
There are standards in this Hard Rock world, which is spreading to Doha and to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The Hard Rock Cafe website warns potential patrons that "rogue establishments" in Cabo San Lucas and Cancun "continue to operate without Hard Rock International’s permission after having their franchise agreements terminated." The company is working "to close such unauthorized locations" and consumers are warned that goods and services there "may not meet Hard Rock’s standards that customers are familiar with and expect."
A rogue might ask what is more rock and roll than running an unauthorized location. Good thing those coming to Washington do not have to worry of such matters.
"A camera thief would be in heaven here," my lunch-time companion said. Or a stroller thief. Or a comfortable shoe thief.
Do they come for the brown vest? Or the Tupelo Chicken Tenders? Perhaps now they come for the grilled chicken arugula salad. After all, there is nothing more rock and roll than arugula.