- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

What's not to like at the Palm? The Palm shouts "Washington" the way 21 shouts New York, or Chasen's or the Brown Derby once shouted Hollywood. It has been serving excellent American food for three decades on 19th Street NW, entertaining politicians from the White House and the Hill, lawyers from K Street, newspapermen and familiar talking heads from television, and even the occasional president of the United States.
The food is good, and the prices are reasonable. The portions are what one awed foreign visitor calls "festive American excess." Muhammad Ali once dispatched a 6-pound lobster with the ease with which he dispatched Sonny Liston; a slightly smaller lobster once got the better of Washington lawyer Paul Porter. The late Edward Bennett Williams and Vincent Fuller plotted the defense of notorious clients in a booth in the back room. Many Page One scoops originate here. This is mover-and-shaker central.
General Manager Tommy Jacomo, who has been here for 30 years and knows about 90 percent of his customers, has the gift of making those he doesn't know feel important, too, not always easy in a city where the cultivation of egos is what it's all about.
The Washington Palm is one of 18 restaurants in a family-owned chain, possibly the oldest such chain in the United States. Opened in 1926 on Second Avenue in New York by Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi, the original Palm was called "Parma" in honor of the owners' native city. Accents being what they are, the name became "Palm," and the food metamorphosed from pasta to steak and lobster.
The gigantic lobsters that have become a specialty of the Palm were introduced by third-generation owners Wally Ganzi and Bruce Bozzi in the 1970s. The location of the Washington Palm was suggested by a young U.S. ambassador to the United Nations named George H.W. Bush (who went on to establish a family chain of his own).
The custom of decorating the walls of the establishment with caricatures, a signature of the restaurant, started with the founders, who had no money to decorate their restaurant. They invited Gotham's newspapermen there were more than a dozen dailies in New York in that golden era of newspapers to draw a cartoon in exchange for a plate of spaghetti. Today famous and sometimes not-so-famous customers find their cartoon likenesses on the wall.
The menu has expanded in recent years; so has the wine list, once notoriously inferior. Waiters who once greeted customers with jocular insults now josh in a gentler way, perhaps in deference to our less-robust age, when tender feelings are bruised easily. The Palm is fun and festive.
When you sit down to lunch (but not to dinner), a bowl of kosher pickles, pickled tomatoes and fresh radishes quickly comes to the table, accompanied by a basket of Italian bread and delicious dark and chewy pumpernickel raisin bread.
Served at lunch is an old favorite that used to be called chicken salad but now is called what it always was, turkey salad. Nice-size chunks of white breast of turkey with crisp slices of celery in a creamy mayonnaise make a tasty luncheon entree.
The eight salads on the lunch menu include a salade nicoise made with fresh tuna, an oriental chicken salad, a classic chef's salad and "Gigi salad," a combination of shrimp, tomatoes and lettuce. A "Monday night salad" is added at dinner, but despite its intriguing name, it disappoints. It's an uninteresting combination of chopped lettuce, white and green onions, tomatoes, radishes and anchovies. The traditional wedge of iceberg lettuce is better, served with two serious slices of ripe beefsteak tomatoes under an excellent blue-cheese dressing.
At lunch, the chopped steak is a double portion of excellent, juicy ground steak, cooked exactly to order. Accompanied by an order of hash browns or cottage fries or with the Palm's fabulous creamed spinach, it's a wonderful meal, simple and first-rate. The spinach is not too rich; it's nicely garlicky and has a lovely fresh taste.
Veal piccata, one of the reminders of the Palm's origins, is a bargain at $13 at lunch, compared to $21 at dinner. The veal is tender and perfectly cooked, with a delicate lemony butter sauce. It's a dish that suggests the other Italian specialties (for example, linguine marinara, veal Marsala and veal parmigiana) should not be ignored.
The filet mignon is also considerably less dear at lunch ($19) than in the evening ($31). Like most of the entrees at the Palm, the filet is enormous and could be shared easily by two diners who like their steaks cooked the same way.
The lobster bisque is a fine way to start a meal. It's a real bisque, rich, thick, creamy and truly tasting of lobster. Oysters Rockefeller (oysters on spinach topped with hollandaise sauce) make still another splendid appetizer tradition.
Steaks, prime rib and lamb chops (three double chops) are special. Cooked without fail to the customer's wishes, they're served plain, without sauces or sides. The sides, including the spinach, potatoes or terrific threads of fried onions, can be ordered to be shared by the table to round out the meal.
Crab cakes are simple, made almost entirely of fresh crab without binder and without annoying bits of shell. But it is to the lobsters that diners seem to gravitate. On a recent evening, the restaurant was serving 4- and 5-pound lobsters at $21 per pound. Expensive, but of excellent quality.
The New York cheesecake is a classic dessert, and the Key lime pie is sharp and sweet, as it should be, although the crust when we tried it tended to sogginess.
There's a choice of good California wines by the glass as well as an extensive list of bottles. The coffee is good and strong, and the food won't let you down. Tommy Jacomo runs a high-class joint.


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