The Garden Cafe at the State Plaza Hotel

September, 2014 – Sometimes you stumble over a jewel of a restaurant so unexpectably.  You just don’t see it coming.  That happened to me recently on a trip to Washington, D.C.

After many years of traveling to D.C., I have developed a list of small suite hotels that are comfortable for multiple day stays involving work and are relatively (at least by D.C. standards) inexpensive.  Usually a few minutes online and I have a reservation at the first hotel on the list.

But something went awry in September.  The first hotel was booked.  So was the second.  So was the third and fourth and on and on.  Not a room available at any of them.  For the first time my list had failed me.

What to do now?  One of my friends told me he had booked a hotel near the Baltimore airport and was coming in on the Metro every day.  Didn’t want to do that.  Don’t like being on a crowded train underground for that long.

I thought I’d have no choice but to go on one of those websites that buy up unreserved rooms and try my luck.  I have only used one of those sites twice and neither was a good experience.  But what else was I to do?

Then I remembered a friend of mine had told me about a hotel at which she had stayed  and liked very much.  The State Plaza Hotel.  I checked it out on line and sure enough there was space available.

I arrived in the early evening and was shown to a spacious suite.  Very comfortable for both working and resting.  Large living room.  Dining nook.  Galley kitchen.  Spacious bedroom.  It would do nicely.

I had awakened at 3:00 in the morning to catch my flight and flown coast to coast.  I was tired but more importantly I was starving.  The bellman told me the hotel’s Garden Café was open.  Off I went to find it.

The State Plaza was at one time an apartment building with two towers.  The Garden Café is located between the towers which, it seems to me, makes it difficult for anyone not staying at the hotel to find.  Of greater significance at the time, however, was that I  found it.  That was important to me . And I soon came to value the work of the kitchen staff headed by someone I only heard referred to as Chef Peggy.

I ordered a cocktail to be followed by a crabcake sandwich and fries.  While sipping the cocktail I learned that the young bartender, Mia, was enrolled in culinary school.  Food, it turned out, is her passion.  We talked food.

The crabcake sandwich was superb.  A light breading on the outside; all crab and little else on the inside.  As good a sandwich as you could get.

I decided I’d come back to the Garden Café.  As it happened I had dinner there every night, working my way through the French bistro style menu.  I would come in tired from meetings on the Hill.  Going out to a restaurant didn’t sound appealing.  I had a few things in the kitchen I had laid in for light lunches but I wanted something more substantial for dinner.  It was just so easy to take the elevator down to the small restaurant.

The food was so good and the atmosphere so friendly.  Mia, the bartender, gave us daily reports on her adventures in culinary school.  The hotel’s assistant manager, Derick Speight, stopped in most every evening to say hello.  It was like dining in the home of old friends.

The second night I opted for steak frites.  A small culotte steak, which is cut from the cap of the sirloin, arrived cooked rare as I had requested.   The fries, were exactly as I like them.  Fresh cut with skins left on.  Another excellent meal.

But it was the third night that really turned me from casual diner to a fan.  I wasn’t really hungry that night.  I’d had a large lunch with a group of long time colleagues and allies.  I really just wanted a glass of wine and something light.  I ordered calamari.

I love calamari.  And I’ve had it in some of the best restaurants in the country.  But the dish placed in front of me in the Garden Café that evening was the best I’ve ever eaten.  A breading so light the small circles of delicate seafood almost seemed to float off the plate.  And yet the calamari itself retained a nice chewiness.  To top it off, the chef had tossed in a handful of sliced jalapeno peppers to cook with the calamari.  It added a spiciness that made the calamari’s highly pleasant flavor seem to dance in my mouth.  Delectable!

While I was enjoying the calamari I noticed that someone seated nearby had ordered a burger and it looked really good.  So on the fourth night I decided to try it for myself.  It was really good.  Nice and messy like a burger should be.  Mouthwatering.  And the accompanying fries were as good as they were the other two nights I’d had them.  Freshly sliced with skins on.  So tasty.

The final night was to be another light meal.  I had to get up at 3:00 a.m. again to catch another early flight.  Back to the spicy calamari.  Just enough to be filling.  And so flavorful.

I wish this little gem of a restaurant was better known.  It’s worth seeking out.  I have a feeling I’ll be checking in to the State Plaza again if for no other reason than the calamari.  And the crabcake sandwich.  And the steak frites.  Yeah.  All those things.



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