Wednesday, November 24, 2010

P.J. CLARKE’S COMES TO DC

At P.J. Clarke's in Washington, three former White House photographers: Bob McNeely, David Hume Kennerly, and David Valdez.

P.J. CLARKE’S COMES TO DC
by Carol Joynt

To give a little context here, by my measure New York bars are a breed apart; there are no others like ‘em anywhere on the planet. My first New York bar was the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, the second and third were McSorley’s and Hurley’s, and then came P.J. Clarke’s at Third Avenue and 55th. At the time I was just nineteen, a breath above the legal drinking age, but free to party in public—even though my idea of a cocktail was a little wine with a lotta Coke!

The White Horse was near my apartment. The pay phone drew me in but the raw character of the place kept me, especially the jukebox, on which I played “Layla” every visit. McSorley’s, on East 7th Street, was a field trip with female colleagues from Time, just because we could; it began to admit women only in 1970. We heard it was traditional for men to urinate while standing at the bar but, darn, none did while we were there.
P.J. Clarke's DC from the outside.
P.J. Clarke's, on the right, with the White House and Washington Monument nearby.
P.J. Clarke's from inside, looking out toward the St. Regis Hotel on 16th Street.
Hurley’s, on Sixth across from the Time-Life Building, was a haunt for the print people in our building as well as the broadcasting people at NBC (they had their own phone extension). While still hard core Irish, it had midtown polish.

But Clarke’s. Oh my. Circa 1972, it was the bar among bars. There was the legend of it, including lore about the Levezzo family, the owners, who sold the air rights for a million plus to Tishman in return for a 99-year lease; the clientele, as diverse as Sinatra, Jackie-O and Jake LaMotta, plus all manner of bookies, gamblers, jocks, ad men, snobs, starlets, pols and priests; and a loyal patron who bequeathed his ashes to the place. The ambience was smoke, well-dressed drunks and bar fights.
Raw bar menu at P.J. Clarke's.
At the raw bar, the seafood platter. Oysters in the evening.
At Clarke's the burger is the thing.
Clarke's classic cheeseburger and fries.
Fries and sliders.
My first visit was in a small group from CBS News that included Dan Rather, then a star White House correspondent, enough of a known face to get us through the crush at the bar and into the back room where Frankie, the famed maitre’d, sat us at the prized table. Memories: every table packed, red checked table cloths, chalk board menus, open kitchen, everyone smoking, busy waiters, a fantastic din matched only by the buzz of being there. It was some wee hour after midnight and the burger tasted just right. It always did, every post-midnight visit thereafter for two decades.

In 2002 P.J. Clarke’s changed hands--and eras--as it passed from the Levezzo’s to new owners, who cleaned the place up, gave it a makeover and expanded it to other parts of Manhattan, as well as Chicago, Las Vegas and now Washington, DC, where it opened this fall.

The Washington P.J. Clarke’s is on 16th Street, a block and a half from the White House, and barely a block from hotels like the Capital Hilton, the St. Regis and the Hay Adams. Compared to the original, it’s sparkling. But then all new bars gleam in this era of no smoking, sobriety and good behavior.
Checking in for a table at the front door.
The bar itself set for lunch.
The bar counter lunch. The Clarke's bar at lunchtime.
Franklin Roosevelt dominates one wall ...
Teddy Roosevelt dominates the other. The art on the walls reflects Washington's political history.
The class enclosed stairs to the secluded downstairs dining room known as the Sidecar.
The downstairs dining room features white table cloths, quiet and privacy.
The open kitchen. Order up.
General Manager David Lovett scanned the walls of Washington political memorabilia and said he wants P.J. Clarke’s DC to be a Washington bar and not a New York bar. But can it be? Should it be? Over three visits—three dinners and one lunch—I was eager to feel some connection to the New York original. It's there in the familiar tablecloths, the burger, the open kitchen, the chalkboard meus, and the Men’s Room urinals, which Lovett wanted me to see because “they are identical to New York. Same dimensions.” I imagine one has to be male to appreciate this detail.

To be at Clarke’s before midnight was new to me, but wise because the dinner crowd thins by 11 p.m., which has mostly to do with the neighborhood, not one of Washington’s nightlife hubs. On every visit we sat upstairs in the bar.

There is a downstairs dining room, The Sidecar, closed off to the upstairs by a beautiful smoked glass and green iron “cage.” The Sidecar has white tablecloths, lots of wood and leather, and is quiet and secluded. If you want to not see or be seen, this is probably the most discreet restaurant room in town, and would be ideal for a private party.
Clarke's bread is dense and chewy.
The New Harbor Sauvignon Blanc is a good pour at $8 a glass. The P.J. Clarke's Bloody Mary is spicy and comes with olives, lemon and celery.
An order of signature Deviled Eggs come on a bed of pickles and cost $5.70.
The Wedge Salad.
Salad of shaved Brussels Sprouts and Smoked Bacon.
Patrick Joseph Clarke's Chili - "fully loaded."
The Maryland Jumbo Lump Crabcake with parsley sauce is jumbo and nicely lumpy at $16.70.
Pan Roast Chicken Breast with chunks of asparagus and thick bacon.
Cut open, the Beef Short Ribs with roast onion, celery root, carrot and apple.
Cheese cake with blueberries and whipped cream.
Chocolate walnut brownie with vanilla ice cream and fudge sauce.
My first visit to Clarke’s DC was with three former official White House photographers, David Hume Kennerly (President Ford), David Valdez (President Bush ’41), and Bob McNeely (President Clinton). They admired the political photographs and particularly the painting of President Theodore Roosevelt. We feasted on oysters (East Coast, small, briny, delicious), the wedge salad, beef stew, burgers and steak frites. It felt very much like a “guys night out” and the guys felt at home. Kennerly had the steak frites, which he liked except for the too-thin shoestring fries. He sent them back for the house fries, which were fine. Pumpkin pie for dessert. Clarke’s serves it year round.

My next visit was a “girls night out” with Ellen Charles, Sally Hosta, and Myra Moffett. Again, delicious oysters and salads. The room was filled and lively, with football on the big TVs over the bar. We felt at home but between the four of us we didn’t know anyone there, and assumed most of the patrons were from the nearby hotels.
P.J. Clarke's general manager David Lovett came to the U.S. from Ireland when he was 21. Lunch partner James Spellman, just back from two weeks in China.
It was a similar experience when I returned a week later with Jon Moss, in his 20s, who now runs the famous Georgetown Cupcake but formerly managed Nathans, the Georgetown bar I owned and closed in 2009 in its 40th year. Nathans was as close as a Washington bar got to being like the old P.J. Clarke’s, and by that I’m delicately hinting at the wear and tear. So, Jon and I admired all the new stuff, the money on the walls, the matching tableware and working fixtures. If only ...

In fact, when I returned for lunch this week with my globetrotting pal Jim Spellman (just back from China), and we were joined by Lovett, I asked, “Why didn’t you put Clarke’s in the old Nathans space? It would have been a perfect fit.” His Irish face creased with a knowing smile. “We looked at that space more than a few times, but Georgetown rents are just too high.” He doesn’t rule out a future Georgetown location, though, meaning possibly two Clarke’s in Washington.
David Lovett: "You have to see the Men's room to check out the urinals. They are the exact same size as in New York." CJ: "I wouldn't know but if you say so."
Bottom line: I hope it catches on with people who live in Washington. We have too few traditional bars like Clarke’s. It’s a welcomed break from the trend toward lounges, the same way Sinatra is a refreshing break from “house” music, and bourbon on the rocks is a break from a sage and ginger sake martini. The room is handsome, the food satisfying, the New York connection faint but sincere and the urinals are, well, man size.

PJ Clarke's
1600 K Street NW
Washington, DC 20006
202.463.6610
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