- - Thursday, June 14, 2018


An occasional feature about fine dining and where to find it.

The year 1789 was the year the U.S. Constitution became the charter envied throughout the world. It was the year the French Revolution began. But neither of these events inspired the name of one of Washington’s oldest restaurants.

1789 Restaurant was named for the year that Georgetown University, the oldest Jesuit institution of higher learning in the United States, was founded by John Carroll, later Archbishop Carroll. He obtained the deed to 60 acres of land on the hilltop overlooking the little village of Georgetown.

But 1789 Restaurant is not quite as old as the university. It dates only to 1960, almost 200 years later, when Richard J. McCooey, a Georgetown alumnus, and a faithful alumnus he was, bought a Federal-style building dating to the mid-1800s at the corner of 36th and Prospect Streets NW. It was on a block with several other commercial enterprises — a laundromat, a barbershop (with a peach tree in the backyard producing fruit rivaling the best in Italy (or Georgia), a small grocery store and a preppy clothing store.

The basement of the building became The Tombs, a casual restaurant geared to the university students. The name came from a line in a poem by T.S. Eliot, “Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town,” who “lunched at the tomb.” Mr. McCooey’s nickname during his years in the Air Force was “Bustopher.”

The main floor became the 1789 Restaurant, an elegant restaurant with working fireplaces, a cozy bar and Currier & Ives prints on the walls, frequented by parents of students and, through the years, by movers and shakers from just about everywhere, including the likes of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Mr. McCooey subsequently bought the laundromat and the barbershop (and the peach tree), which he turned into a prepping room for the restaurant’s bakery, and F. Scott’s, for several years a chic and popular Art Deco supper club reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s. Photographs on the walls recalled the era.

In 1986, Mr. McCooey sold his restaurants to Clyde’s Restaurant Group. The shops, except for the grocery store, are gone. Mr. McGooey died in 2014, after several years as the designer and decorator for other Clyde’s restaurants. He had a keen taste for the attractive, the historical and the whimsical. 1789 Restaurant still reflects that taste.

The Tombs continues to be a meeting place for students and faculty members, and F. Scott’s is available only for private parties. 1789 Restaurant remains an elegant, expensive Georgetown favorite, now under the helm of Executive Chef Tracy O’Grady, who has worked with several imaginative Washington chefs, including Yannick Cam, Roberto Donna and Bob Kinkead.

Chef O’Grady’s menu is strong on seafood, both in first courses and as entrees. Her appetizers show creativity and excellence, treats for both tongue and eye. They’re served hot and cold, scallops, hamachi crudo, a classic steak or tuna tartare. Other hot appetizers include a creamy asparagus bisque, gnocchi and clams, duck ravioli; and lamb garganelli, a tube-like pasta.

A dish of two lovely, lightly seared plump sea scallops, tender on the inside with a buttery, slightly crisp exterior, could not be better. They are served with a few grilled slices of cauliflower with a splash of cauliflower cream and a smear of carrot emulsion. A pretty and refreshing spring salad mixes Boston lettuce, slivers of hearts of palm, strawberries, sunflower seeds, pickled shallots and yogurt in a light vinaigrette. Winners all.

Seafood choices are varied, ranging from a scallop, shrimp, halibut “minestrone,” to salmon, swordfish or tuna. Carnivores can choose between a rack of lamb — long the signature entree of the restaurant — a duo of duck breast and leg, rack of pork and a beef tenderloin.

Chef O’Grady’s menu does not currently offer the usual chicken, and there’s only one vegetarian dish. On one recent rainy night, the vegetarian offering was an English pea and ricotta agnolotti in a fragrant broth with fresh bits of spring vegetables. The agnolotti left something to be desired. Not only was the filling a trifle bitter, but the pasta was undercooked and tough.

The beef tenderloin, however, was a rich, fine piece of meat. The filet was accompanied by a delicate potato-celery root gratin and Brussels sprouts. The sprouts, like the agnolotti, alas, were tough and undercooked.

The 1789 offers a five-course tasting menu at $95 per person. That menu includes smoked salmon, the English-pea agnolotti, yellow tilefish, tournedos Rossini topped with foie gras, and a dessert. With suggested wine pairings, the five courses are $150.

Desserts, all at $12, are good but not adventurous. They include creme brulee, a cookie plate, carrot cake, and ice creams and sorbets. Diners are presented with tasty little complimentary truffles at the end of dinner.

The restaurant has a wide-ranging wine list of primarily French, Italian and California wines, but several wines from unexpected places, such as Lebanon and South Africa. Wines by the glass are popularly priced.

On special occasions, such as Mother’s Day or Easter, 1789 is open for brunch. Appetizers are priced from $17 to $20, main courses from $32 to $47. 1789 Restaurant is open Monday to Thursday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Valet parking is complimentary, and street parking is sometimes difficult.

1789 Restaurant, 1226 36th Street, NW. 202-965-1789.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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