Heard on the Hill

Capitol Hill Establishment Has Seen the Changing Tides of Politics

Founded in 1960, The Monocle Restaurant holds bipartisan appeal

The Monocle, located on D Street Northeast, is an institution on the Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If the walls of the yellow building that sits between the Hart and Dirksen Senate office buildings and Union Station could talk, they would have a lot to say. 

The Monocle Restaurant, owned by John Valanos, was founded in 1960 with the reputation as Capitol Hill’s “first tablecloth restaurant” and is claimed to have brought “dining out,” (instead of just eating out) to the Hill.

When President Donald Trump’s administration took over with a Republican-led Congress, the restaurant took notice.

“On the drink list, we have a GOP punch that’s selling like twice as many after Trump got in,” Valanos said. “It’s got amber rum, cognac, peach brandy and fresh lemon and a little simple syrup and some orange. It’s pretty smooth, but you can only have one. We’re not responsible if you have more than one.”

John Valanos, owner of The Monocle, credits the restaurant’s proximity and its efficiency for being a favorite with lawmakers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
John Valanos, owner of The Monocle, credits the restaurant’s proximity and its efficiency for being a favorite with lawmakers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Valanos’ parents, Connie and Helen Valanos, took on the task of turning the building, which had been standing since 1885, into a fine dining establishment.

The family can be thanked for Washingtonians being able to sit on a barstool and have a drink, Valanos said.

“When we opened up the restaurant, you actually couldn’t have a bar, you had to be seated at a table if you had an alcoholic beverage in 1960,” Valanos said. “There was a member of Congress that came in here shortly after we opened and said, ‘What do you mean I can’t sit at a bar and have a drink?’ So, he happened to be on the D.C. committee and changed the rules and then bars popped up.”

The restaurant was an instant success after the Valanos family took over.

Pictures of members of Congress hang in The Monocle Restaurant on Capitol Hill. Top row, from left, former Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern. Bottom row, from left, former Rep. Ray LaHood and Sen. Debbie Stabenow. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Pictures of members of Congress hang in The Monocle Restaurant on Capitol Hill. Top row, from left, former Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern. Bottom row, from left, former Rep. Ray LaHood and Sen. Debbie Stabenow. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The secret to their success?

“The proximity plus we give them a nice dinner or lunch and make sure it was efficient to get them back to work on time to the Senate or someone who has meetings on the Hill,” Valanos said.

Everyone from John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Donald Trump (before he was president), Hillary Clinton to Carly Fiorina, Cabinet members, and celebrities like Julia Roberts have dined there. And, of course, senators and members of Congress.

Because of its clientele, The Monocle knows how to be flexible.

“‘Hold our table, hold our table, hold our table. Hold our table another 15 minutes. Oh, by the way, we’re not coming.’ That happens regularly,” Valanos said. “We’re used to that sort of thing.”

What if there isn’t a table available when a politician walks in without a reservation?

“Then they have to wait like everyone else,” Valanos said.

“Fortunately, a lot of the times, the flow is such that we don’t overbook,” he added. “If someone is visiting, we might have a table at the last minute. We always have two or three tables that we don’t book.”

If you do pop in for dinner, Valanos has a recommendation: the recently recreated crab cake.

“We do a jumbo crab cake with lump crabmeat that’s really delicious,” he said. “I know they like the new recipe because the plate is always licked clean. The dishwasher can take off lunch.”

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