US Election Dispatch: Old Ebbitt Grill and Tunnicliff's Tavern, Washington DC, USA
675 15th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
+1 202 347 4800
222 7th. Street, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003
+1 202 544 5680
by T.N. Toost
The weekend jaunt came at a strange time. Talking in the car, it emerged that each of us had the sense of being in the calm before the storm, that our lives had not yet been as affected by the credit crunch as they would be, that we did not know of the horrors that awaited us – but we knew such horrors would come. I imagine it must have also felt like this for relatively affluent Americans in November 1929.
There is a good chance that relatively affluent Americans at that time casually ate breakfast in the Old Ebbitt Grill, one of the oldest restaurants in Washington. These days there are two ways to see the Ebbitt: as a great history-steeped venue for power breakfasts, or as a place that is kitschy and overdone, as if they’ve manufactured the restaurant’s past in order to impress patrons. Epic, patriotic paintings hang on the walls next to animals apparently shot by Theodore Roosevelt; mirrors, wood, subtle lighting and subtle darkness are all carefully orchestrated to give the impression of age and power and impressiveness.
The only other people present on the morning of our visit were an older man and a much, much younger woman. They were comfortably close on one side of the booth, a blackberry pressed to her ear while she talked self-importantly and he waited in his dark, tailored suit. It felt empty in more ways than one, like we were yet more tourists participating in a traditional tourist activity, gawking at the old stuff and trying to “feel” the history of the place.
The food came quickly. The waitress said that my Eggs Chesapeake was their top seller. The poached eggs were perfect, as were the crab cakes, but everything was too small. I was done with each egg/crabcake combination within three bites, and the home fries lasted almost a minute. I was hoping to be inspired by flavours, if not volume, and both ultimately failed. It was like the food was supposed to be satisfying merely because of the surroundings.
Early on Sunday, in contrast to the Ebbitt’s emptiness, Tunnicliff’s Tavern was packed and lively. Outside, several dogs joyfully barked near where their owners sat; inside it was a madhouse, with groups of people clustered around the door, waiting for open tables. Not being particular, we sat at the bar. Next to us was a still-drunk Southern boy with three plain girls, all tapping Blackberries. Somehow I got the impression that they were all in the know of something to different degrees, like the blind men and the elephant. The barmaid, a pretty and round-faced girl from Belarus, came over with our coffees and a Bloody Mary, which made the long wait for our food much easier.
When my farmer’s omelette arrived I was starving. Words cannot convey the inspired magic of the mashed potatoes wrapped in egg that was firmly cooked but neither greasy nor buttery. The side of home fries was, for the price, pitifully small, and a bit cold, but still better than Ebbitt’s. After I’d eaten three of the four pieces of toast, the waitress realized that she had forgotten to give me butter; she laughed, and said I should tell her if I wanted anything, and paused suggestively before walking away.
Looking around, I realized that this was the real place for power breakfasts because, in Washington, it’s the middlemen who hold the power. The pyramid on a dollar bill is an appropriate symbol: while it’s the politicians who get all the attention and applause, they would be nowhere without the support of the massive numbers of people at the base. At the same time, between the people and the politicians is a giant network of staff and secretaries and interns and lawyers who do the research, take the calls and read the bills that the congressmen vote on or the President signs. It’s like the signs you get hanging above secretaries’ desks saying, “Do you want to talk to the boss or to someone who actually knows what’s going on?” These people didn’t go to the Ebbitt for breakfast. They knew that the food was overpriced and that their friends wouldn’t be there. They knew that without other people there isn’t any power. They came to the long tables at Tunnicliff’s to forge bonds that would span administrations.
And it’s the bonds between people that really make the difference.