The House Members’ Dining Room has historically served only lawmakers and their guests in a private annex on the first floor of the Capitol. But over the past year the restaurant has opened its doors, first to Capitol Hill staffers and now to the general public to dine — not like kings, but like members of Congress.
Other restaurants with tough-to-get tables may have Michelin stars or James Beard Award-winning chefs. The House restaurant, despite its privileged pedigree, has tough critics and a troubling track record on profitability.
Hankering for a bowl of “half and half and graham crackers?” Look no further than the Members’ Dining Room menu, circa 1955. Teleport back there and you’ll find a motley mix of dated options ranged from skinless frankfurters to a “braised rump of beef” with “stewed” potatoes served on the side.
Fast forward 64 years and today’s menu signals a more evolved palate: What discerning diner doesn’t crave a bourbon fried chicken sandwich with a Maker’s Mark sauce? Perhaps the gluten-free gourmand who might opt for the salmon and arugula salad instead.
Despite decades of comestible iterations, one item has stood the test of time: the bean soup. Credit former Speaker Joe Cannon, who mandated in 1904 that bean soup “be served in the House every day, regardless of the weather,” according to the House Historian’s Office. As recently as 2015, the bean soup requirement was included in menu guidance for prospective companies to take over operation of the restaurant. It’s the first item featured on the menu and is also, allegedly, gluten-free.
But back to the nods to modernity: The current menu features seasonal options rotated “quarterly,” according to Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the chief administrative officer of the House. October offers an autumn Cobb salad, and while there’s no bowl of cream, pumpkin bread pudding comes a la mode and looks slightly more appealing.
The executive district chef of the House of Representatives, Fred Johnson, oversees the culinary experience, from managing the kitchen to developing the menu. The Capitol Hill community knows Johnson best for his 400-pound gingerbread Capitol displayed outside the dining room each holiday season.
The dining room and its menu are not immune from political spats, even petty declarations from the House Administration Committee, which oversees food service.
In 2003, unhappy with the French government’s opposition to President George W. Bush’s Iraq policies, House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, ordered that french fries be renamed “freedom fries” in all House eateries.
Ney took unilateral action, ordering the word “french” stricken from all House menus, including the Members’ Dining Room. (Ney made the move even though the “french” in french fries refers to the style of cut, not the country.)
“It’s a symbolic gesture,’’ Ney said at the time. “This is just to send a message to the troops to say that here in the Capitol, we are not happy.’’
The change didn’t last long, and today, french fries are served alongside all sandwich items on the current dining room menu.
But the sides lining the dining room paint a different story. Decor includes a massive Constantino Brumidi painting that used to cover part of the walls of the House chamber. The artist is best known for the murals in the Senate-wing corridors that bear his name; this was the only fresco Brumidi painted in the Hall of the House.
The scene, which depicts George Washington gesturing toward an emissary from Cornwallis, was completed in little more than a month at the end of 1857. The large mural was covered over with wood paneling in the 1950s during a remodel of the chamber. But it was eventually chopped out of the wall and moved to the Members’ Dining Room in 1961.
A meal in the Members’ Dining Room was once one of the most exclusive in Washington. But just as members have started giving behind-the-scenes looks at life in Congress on their Instagram stories and Twitter feeds, the Members’ Dining Room is loosening up too.
The institution, first opened in its current location in 1858, has officially moved into the 21st century with a global presence on reservation-booking app OpenTable. Reservations for the public launched on the platform in late September, giving anyone the ability to book a table in the Members’ Dining Room for a meal — but only when Congress is out of session.
Opening the restaurant to public online reservations is just the latest move to make the House hideaway available to a wider audience. In 2018, Hill staffers with ID badges were allowed to lunch in the Members’ Dining Room. Before that, it was exclusive to members and their guests.
“Beginning today . . . the [Bennett] Room of the Members’ Dining Room will open to all congressional staff. This includes employees of the House, Senate, the Architect of the Capitol, Congressional Budget Office, and Library of Congress,” House Chief Administrative Officer Philip Kiko wrote in a letter announcing the change.
The letter also reminded staff that diners are expected to “dress in business attire.” Even that has changed now, as OpenTable states “business casual” as the standard set for diners.
The years leading up to the shift toward a wider range of clientele weren’t smooth. Lawmakers had long complained about the declining quality of food and service in the dining room.
Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, raised his concerns at a 2017 hearing with Kiko.
Ryan called the quality of the food and the service in both the House cafeterias and the Members’ Dining Room “a perpetual source of frustration.”
“The food is still terrible and the prices are still too high,” Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told the CAO at the same hearing. (Today a hamburger goes for $15.)
While the website for the dining room says, “The dining room, service and menu embodies the prestige expected by its members,” lawmakers wondered as recently as last year if the dining room should be replaced with a brand-name restaurant.
In an appropriations conference report released in 2018, lawmakers directed the CAO “to explore applying the branded option concept to the dining room in an effort to provide consistent service, better food selection, and quality food to members and their guests.”
Wasserman Schultz pushed Kiko in 2017 for answers as to why food and service throughout the House was so bad, despite being just a few years into the contract with Sodexo — a change that was supposed to turn things around for House dining.
Kiko testified that while a quality monitoring system was underway across the House, special attention was put on improving the Members’ Dining Room.
“We have spent a considerable amount of effort on the Members’ Dining Room,” he told appropriators. “We have a new chef who’s very good. We’ve been trying to have better food offerings. We’ve been trying to have it so that you get your food faster. It’s not cold.”
Even two years before the official move to open the restaurant to the public, Kiko was laying the groundwork to increase satisfaction and draw to the dining room. He pointed out that members bring guests and constituents to the dining room and that the food and service needed to meet expectations of a fine dining experience.
“We basically said, look, this is supposed to be a premier service. It’s not supposed to be a middle service,” Kiko said, describing his directive to Sodexo and management of the dining room.
The dining room has gone through transformations before. In 2015, with the introduction of a new food service contractor, Sodexo, for all cafeterias and eateries in the House, the Members’ Dining Room moved from à la carte service to a buffet style. It wasn’t a popular move. It is back to offering à la carte service, with seasonal menu offerings and local produce highlighted for guests.
The same week that reservations first opened up, more than 60 had been booked for 180 patrons, according to Anderson.
The expansion of potential clientele keeps the CAO from either closing down during recess or remaining open but empty.
That has the potential to change the long-standing dynamic at the restaurant: It doesn’t make money. A 2014 report from a consultant group contracted by the CAO confirms that the financial loss of the Members’ Dining Room regularly exceeds the annual revenues. The restaurant brought in $210,000 and lost $225,000 in 2012, and in 2011 it brought in $210,000 and lost $328,000.
When the House sought a new food service vendor in 2015 to replace Restaurant Associates, the call for proposals cautioned that the Members’ Dining Room had “operated under the current business model for decades and traditionally, it loses money on a routine basis.”
Prospective contractors were warned that they’d have to continue operation of the restaurant that “has not been financially successful” and is generally kept afloat by profits from other House eateries.
The 2015 call for contractors specifically stated that the dining room did not need to provide service on any days when the House is not in session or is only in a pro forma session, but Sodexo and the CAO have flipped that expectation on its head.
Warning: Yelp reviews ahead
The opening up of the Members’ Dining Room will likely bring with it a new consideration: reviews and ratings. There are currently no reviews of the dining room on OpenTable, but with reservations filling up, that’s likely to change soon.
Diners likely won’t stay silent for long. Sodexo has yet to claim the Members’ Dining Room page on popular review site Yelp. The only review on the site is dated 2007 and takes a swipe at both the former House food services contractor Guest Services and former House CAO Jay Eagen, without much feedback on the food itself.
The world of internet reviews is not a forgiving place, and critics may cite a garden herb pasta with chicken being labeled as vegetarian on the menu, along with misspellings of calamari and pumpkin.
Confidentiality is a key standard for operation of the Members’ Dining Room.
For lawmakers constantly in the public eye and with every visitor, reporter and constituent armed with a smartphone camera, just a few moments of privacy can be a relief. So even during recess when the restaurant will be open to the public, members who stick around still have the option to dine in a private members-only room in the restaurant.
Service with a smile doesn’t cut it when the clientele may be discussing sensitive political or legislative plans. Waitstaff also need to keep whatever they overhear, however juicy, to themselves.
“Contractor management and staff must be cognizant at all times of the customer base being served in the MDR and must maintain the highest degree of confidentiality as to the individuals, activities and conversations that take place in the MDR,” reads one of the documents detailing the needs of the House for potential food service contractors.
Other standards outlined for operation of the dining room include urgent attention to any and all customer complaints and creative and innovative menus and styles of service. There are also tight timeline goals for serving patrons, to make frequenting the dining room a more attractive option for lawmakers with packed schedules.
Goals for service include customers being greeted at the host stand within two minutes of arrival and seated within five minutes of greeting. And if longtime hostess Doris Cherry is at her post, she’ll see to it that this standard is met with a warm smile.