March 28, 2013 – After lunch I wondered why I had stayed away from the Old Ebbitt Grill for so long. I hadn’t been there in several years. Not sure why I went back on this day. I only know it had been a morning of meetings on Capitol Hill and I thought I had earned the right to treat myself. The Old Ebbitt is, and always has been, a treat.
In a city full of historic destinations the Old Ebbitt is among the most historic. It’s been around for a long time. Since 1856, in fact, when William Ebbitt opened a boarding house and subsequently a saloon, the city’s first, at a now forgotten location. Franklin Pierce was president when Ebbitt opened his boarding house and saloon. Pierce, incidentally, is the only sitting president ever ticketed for DUI. He was home in New Hampshire celebrating Christmas. The local constable thought, quite correctly, that he had been celebrating a little too much to be driving his buggy.
From the beginning Ebbitt’s was a favorite hangout of the powerful and those who hover around them. President McKinley was said to have lived at the boarding house while still a Member of Congress. The saloon, in its subsequent incarnations around town, was a favorite of Presidents Grant, Andrew Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt, Cleveland and Harding. Today the clientele mixes high-powered lobbyists and business people with awestruck tourists out to see the sights and suburbanites in the city to visit nearby shops.
For a few decades in the mid 20th century the Old Ebbitt was located on F Street. By the ‘60s the owner had begun to run into tax problems, which finally came to a head in 1970. That was when IRS padlocked the doors and put the business up for auction. The owners of Clyde’s of Georgetown wanted to buy the Old Ebbitt’s collection of beer steins and the mahogany bar for their own restaurant. But when the piecemeal auction failed to produce enough revenue to pay off the tax lien the IRS offered them a good deal on the whole business. They took the deal.
In 1983 the Old Ebbitt moved into its current location across 15th Street from the Treasury building, just about a block from the White House. Though it’s crowded with customers most anytime of the day or night, the Old Ebbitt exudes a quiet elegance. I sat in a chair at a small table, nestled against one end of a long, green velour banquette.
A large gas chandelier glowed above the mahogany bar with other gaslights, some of which I was told were once D.C. street lights, scattered about the room. Over the mirror behind the bar the bar stretched the row of beer steins that attracted the Clyde’s people to the tax auction. A few big game trophies cast their dignified gazes down on the bar customers. It’s been rumored that Teddy Roosevelt himself scored some of those trophies. Well, maybe.
The artwork on the walls alone is worth the visit. On the wall across from the bar hang three large paintings. The first depicts the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. The second captures the White House with a fireworks display in the background. The third is the most striking of all. “The Three Bathers” by the American artist and illustrator Howard Chandler Christy. It was Christy’s illustrations of Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders for Scribner’s magazine around the turn of the century that had as much as anything to do with the hero worship that eventually landed Teddy in the White House.
I had ordered half a dozen raw oysters for a starter. Wellfleet oysters, harvested from the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts. Though small by Gulf and Pacific standards, the Wellfleets are a deliciously briny oyster that transport the senses to the sea. A refreshing precursor to the pure comfort food entrée soon to follow.
As to that, I’ve always loved liver. It’s one of my favorite comfort foods. My mother tells me that when I was a boy she served it because it was cheap and that I liked it from the beginning. Most people don’t like liver. I think there are a couple of reasons for that.
First, the name. Liver. Not a pretty word. It doesn’t roll lightly off the tongue. Nor does it have the auditory appeal of, say, lobster, or king crab, or filet mignon. Unfortunate.
Second, too often the first experience with liver is not pleasant. When not prepared properly liver tastes about as good as an old boot. No, that’s wrong. That’s an insult to old boots. Overcooked liver is awful. Liver cooked well is a delight.
The liver served at the Old Ebbitt is ambrosial. Cooked perfectly, just slightly short of medium. Fork tender and creamy. A mild, pleasing taste that lingers daintily on the palate. Accompanied as liver should be with caramelized onions, resting on a soft mound of mashed potatoes with three slices of bacon criss-crossed over all. A few pieces of flawless crisp-tender flowerets of broccoli on the side. Delectably satisfying.
As evening approached I was still content with lunch. I skipped dinner. It would just have been a disappointment.