WASHINGTON — A TV at the bar shows Ken Starr on Capitol Hill, talking about a president’s impeachment. Liver and seafood Louie are on the menu, and the martinis are cold.
This is lunchtime at the Monocle, the restaurant that sits just steps away from the Senate office buildings on a recent January afternoon, but it was a scene that could easily have unfolded decades ago.
The Monocle, housed in a bright-yellow circa 1885 town house, seems to sprout up from the parking lot that surrounds it like a flower from a sidewalk crack. It has served senators from a young JFK to today’s cast of characters — and still seems untouched by time.
Elsewhere, dining out in Washington can be a political act. Trump courtiers and wannabes might mill around the lobby of the hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue that bears his name. The president’s sworn enemies gather at the Eaton hotel, which proclaimed itself to be the headquarters of the resistance.
But the Monocle remains an oasis of civility, despite its location practically in the trenches of the partisan warfare that has intensified over the past few weeks as the impeachment trial grinds on.
“You might say it’s a little bit of a throwback,” says former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who frequented the restaurant when he was on the Hill and still pops in for an occasional meal. “But the way things are these days, quite frankly I think we need a little throwback. It’s a special place.”
The Monocle isn’t a culinary utopia where Republicans and Democrats yuk it up together, engaging in the kind of cross-aisle socializing whose demise misty-eyed old-timers lament. Rather, it’s a place where people of all political stripes dine side by side, bar stool by bar stool.
Partisan bickering? “You check all that at the door,” says owner John Valanos, a regular be-suited presence in the carpeted dining room, along with longtime maitre d’ Nick Selimos.
Frequently, Valanos says, the attorneys arguing both sides of a Supreme Court case dine there at the same time, often surrounded by family and colleagues. Surely he takes pains to seat the parties in opposite corners?
Not really, he says with a shrug. Depending on who books the table, they might not use names that would be a tip-off. Not that it matters, though. “They all know each other,” he says. “A lot of them are friends.”
This is the ethos that defines the Monocle.
“It’s harder to stab someone in the back if you just had lunch with them,” says former senator John Breaux, who says that the restaurant offered a lower-stakes venue for hashing things out with colleagues. “Conversations can be hard when you’re on the floor, but it’s much easier when you’re being handed a drink by John and Nick over there.”
More than a dozen fundraisers are held in the dining room and upstairs private rooms every week when Congress is in session — for candidates of both parties. When the women of the Senate gather for bipartisan dinners, they sometimes book a private table there.
The clientele here is dotted with VIPs, though not of the flashy variety. This is not a see-and-be-seen kind of hot spot. It’s not Georgetown’s Cafe Milano, where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump do date nights and foreign leaders huddle with Cabinet secretaries.
The odd celebrity sometimes pops up, but this is the kind of place populated by senior staffers, congressional reporters, lawyers and lobbyists who wouldn’t merit even a “spotted” mention in Politico’s insidery Playbook. Even senatorial sightings feel so dog-bites-man that they don’t even seem newsworthy. For Hill denizens, that’s just part of the scenery.
Of course, patrons still expect discretion, and Valanos and Selimos happily oblige. They don’t court paparazzi or drop a line to reporters after a particularly boldface appearance and are wary of sharing even the most innocuous of stories.
And so the powerful folks keep coming, just as they have since Valanos’s parents, Greek immigrants Connie and Helen Valanos, opened the restaurant’s doors in 1960. The Obama Cabinet met there for dinners on the recommendation of then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She had fond memories of dining there as a girl when her father was a congressman from Ohio in the 1960s, she told Valanos.
The staff keeps a stash of chocolate sauce especially for Chuck Grassley, the senator from Iowa, who likes it over his ice cream. They stock a special granola from local bakery Baked & Wired to top yogurt and fruit, the preferred breakfast of Susan Collins, the senator from Maine.
Other restaurants are frequented by the Capitol Hill crowd, of course, and a number of on-campus cafeterias, including the white-tablecloth Senate Dining Room. Republican and Democratic clubs nearby, on the House side of the Capitol building, each offer a restaurant.
But the Monocle, says former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, is different. He sees it as Capitol Hill’s version of the cafes you’ll find in small towns in his home state of South Dakota. “There’s always that little place where everyone goes for coffee or lunch or supper that’s the gathering place for the community,” he says. “The Monocle has always been that.”
Not that food is really the point here, but it’s good. Such classics as steaks and salmon are among regulars’ favorites. And anyone imagining some kind of plush, wood-paneled power-lunching clubhouse might be disappointed. The décor is unobtrusively middling, like a nice hotel lobby, with white tablecloths and waiters in vests and ties nodding at tradition. Photos — many black and white — of members of Congress line the walls. “It’s not this glamorous place, but it’s comfortable,” Daschle says. “There’s nothing that stands out from an aesthetic standpoint — it’s just like that cafe.”
Although the Monocle might court its regulars with warm service, its location explains its longevity. Senate denizens need only cross a parking lot from the Dirksen and Hart office buildings to reach its doors. Senators can easily make it from the dining room to the floor within the 15 minutes allotted for votes.
“When you need a break, you can sneak over there instead of going to the Senate dining room,” Breaux says. “I’m from Louisiana, and so I always think it’s important to have a good meal.”
And the fact that its only next-door neighbor is the headquarters of the Capitol Police gives a feeling of extra security in an era where protesters have accosted diners in restaurants around town. Through the windows facing the sidewalk, a parade of uniformed and plainclothes (those earpieces are the giveaway) officers is a daily occurrence.
During the impeachment trial, the dining room has been quieter than usual, Valanos says. Staffers and senators are mostly stuck in the Capitol building, where they’re existing on takeout and cafeteria fare during the short dinner breaks.
Knowing what’s on the congressional calendar is part of Valanos and Selimos’s jobs. Recesses mean the members of Congress skip town, but the staffers and lobbyists remain. Late votes might augur a big night at the bar.
Over the decades, Valanos been able to buck at least one of the tides that have roiled the restaurant industry in Washington: fickle, trend-chasing diners. His clientele isn’t looking for haute cuisine or obscure ingredients. There’s barely any turnover among the staff, so waiters have been serving the same diners for decades.
Modernization comes slowly here. Valanos is planning to start offering a takeout menu this spring, a nod to the proliferation of such delivery services as Grubhub and Uber Eats.
He’s cutting back on red meat himself and knows many of his patrons are, too, so he’s working on adding a few more vegetable-forward options.
“You have to keep up with the times,” he says. “In some ways.”