The Hot Plate: It’s Restaurant Week and Impecunious Diners Cheer

Posted August 8, 2008 at 2:51pm

While the marble halls of the Capitol have emptied out for summer recess, restaurants on the Hill are kicking off one of the busiest seasons of the year: Restaurant Week.

[IMGCAP(1)]Beginning today, nearly 200 Washington-area restaurants will offer three-course meals at bargain prices — just $20.08 for lunch and $35.08 for dinner.

Held each year in January and August, Restaurant Week attracts all kinds of diners, from foodies to bargain hunters, eager to sample restaurants that may otherwise be beyond their budget.

This summer, as restaurants struggle to make profits despite rising food and fuel costs, Restaurant Week’s fixed price for dinner has jumped $5. Lunch went up just a penny.

Restaurants nationwide are experiencing low sales, but late summer is especially rough for those on Capitol Hill.

“August tends to be a quiet time because Congress is not in session,” said John Valanos, who has run the Monocle for the past two decades. “This brings in business.”

And that means that reservations are highly recommended, especially at the pricier joints. Capital Grille, which is serving only the $20.08 lunch, says it is already fully booked. Bistro Bis, which will feature Restaurant Week prices at lunch and dinner, is nearly booked as well.

Thomas Townsend, the general manager at B. Smith’s, says his Union Station restaurant typically experiences a 30 percent increase in business during Restaurant Week.

Customers stream in to the restaurant to sample sophisticated Southern cuisine. An average three-course meal is normally about $45.

“You really can’t beat this kind of atmosphere for $20 for lunch,” Townsend said.

Favorites include the lemon-peppered catfish served with macaroni and cheese and Southern-style greens, and B. Smith’s signature dish, “Swamp Thang,” a medley of sautéed shrimp, scallops and crawfish in Dijon cream sauce over a bed of collard greens. Head chef James Paige II will also prepare a vegetarian lasagna and salad especially for the week.

Hot Plate suggests B. Smith’s take on the Southern classic Bourbon Street Bread Pudding, which is drenched in a sweet bourbon cream sauce and topped with a strawberry dipped in cream.

For those who want to dine away from the bustle of Union Station surrounding B. Smith’s, Hot Plate recommends heading south about a mile to Belga Cafe, known as “a little bit of Brussels on the Hill” with its sidewalk seating and extensive selection of Belgian beers.

Just be careful not to order “French fries.” Belgians are still bitter that the French get the credit for inventing their national side dish; at Belga they’re known by their proper title, pomme frites.

Belga dishes up mussels and pomme frites by the truckload. Each week, the restaurant goes through 2,000 pounds of potatoes and 1,800 pounds of mussels. In fact, a staffer is employed at all times to peel potatoes by hand.

During Restaurant Week, Belgian Executive Chef Bart Vandaele serves his own innovations such as duck confit in a waffle, as well as traditional Belgian favorites such as steak tartare.

But the award for best deal goes to two of the Hill’s steakhouses: the Capital Grille and Charlie Palmer’s Steak, where an average check can easily break the bank.

Although Capital Grille is serving smaller portions, during Restaurant Week it will offer sliced hanger steak served over truffle chive mashed potatoes, which goes for $39 on the regular menu.

And at Charlie Palmer’s, where an average dinner check is $85, guests can try the roasted pork loin or the sirloin and short rib duo prepared according to Executive Chef Matt Hill’s progressive American style, using locally grown produce and meats.

Assistant General Manager David Lavery said the steakhouse’s staff loves Restaurant Week. “It gets us out there to people who are maybe new to the area or maybe who have not experienced Charlie Palmer’s before.”

For restaurants like the venerable Monocle, which fills its tables with Congressional and lobbyist types when Congress is in session, Restaurant Week is an opportunity to serve some new faces. In June, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington named the 48-year-old restaurant “Voter’s Favorite” out of all Washington-area restaurants.

“I think people just voted on a comfy place where they felt some tradition and represented Washington,” Valanos said. “It has charm and history. … It’s the kind of place you like to call home.”

At least eight Capitol Hill restaurants are participating in this month’s Restaurant Week: America Restaurant, B. Smith’s, Belga Cafe, Bistro 525, Bistro Bis, Capital Grille, Charlie Palmer’s and the Monocle. The event is co-sponsored by Destination DC and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and runs through Sunday. Restaurant Week prices do not include beverages, tax or gratuity. For more information and a complete list of participating restaurants, visit restaurantweekdc.org.