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Meal Ticket: Sticking With What Works

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Having recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, Tunnicliff’s Tavern, an unassuming congressional watering hole, doles out its modern American persona with the likes of a super grilled cheese with tomato, bacon, onion and fries and a smoked gouda mac and cheese.

The bar — which feeds attendees a steady diet of tongue-in-cheek philosophy via chalkboard (“I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat” — Will Rogers; “People with no weaknesses are terrible. There is no way to take advantage of them” — Anatole France, were two deep thoughts that recently caught our eye) — is home to grizzled retirees who spread their paper out across adjoining seats while nursing an adult beverage or meet pals to drain beer after sweating beer while dissecting whatever SportsCenter highlights or news interviews flash across the overhead TV screens.

The tented patio is the weekend playground; that’s where friends lazily linger over slowly dwindling entrees, hoisting boozy Bloody Marys in salute to lost-in-thought colleagues or waving cheerily to neighbors shuffling past with bags full of carefully balanced groceries dangling from outstretched limbs. Things are more fluid within the main dining room, with Type A personalities sticking strictly to business while the more leisurely inclined meander through the menu while weighing in on pop-culture happenings.

Cook estimated that on any given day, about a quarter of the crowd is die-hard regulars. “We pretty much know where they are going to sit and what they’re going to order,” he said of the flood of familiar faces staring back at him during a typical shift.

According to Cook, a number of lawmakers enjoy cloaking themselves in the relative anonymity provided by the bustling tavern environment. “I think this is a place that they just like to chill,” he said, noting that staff is instructed to “just let them be.”

Sure enough, we overheard one distressed pol wish for a reprieve while marching past the front door.

“I just want to turn into Tunnicliff’s,” a House member begrudgingly informed staff while dragging his feet toward what looked to be a working dinner at the adjoining Acqua al 2.

Open Wide

Although Cook maintains that Lahlou is a wiz in the kitchen, chef John Quintana remains the driving force behind Tunnicliff’s modern American persona.

Daily specials run the gamut from New England clam chowder and Guinness pie to chicken tacos and catch of the day compositions.

Jumbo lump crab cakes are adequate, revealing loosely packed patties of binder-free crustacean threaded with herbs and baptized in drawn butter.

Fried cod is better, each batter-dipped hunk of tender fish perfectly delicious on its own but rendered even more appealing après dunk in lemony tartar.

The super grilled cheese, a Stoney’s knock-off, gets the job done. Each bite of oversized sandwich benefits from piquant raw red onions, rich American cheese, crunchy hickory smoked bacon, lush tomato and generously buttered Texas toast.

Dairy heads can indulge in mac and cheese featuring shells swimming in a sea of savory cheddar, salty Parmesan and smoked gouda (much appreciated), complemented by a block of cake-sweet cornbread.

The Texas burger piles a ton of extras onto a cooked-to-order, half-pound beef patty. The grilled meat is smothered in sweet barbecue sauce, tangy coleslaw, smoky bacon, gooey cheddar and caramelized onions — a drippy medley that’s great for your dry cleaner but unfortunately makes it tough to enjoy any of the individual flavors.

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