Per Eater theme week tradition, writer Dena Levitz spent the evening chronicling the scene at a particularly iconic D.C. location. This time around, she spent a night at Old Ebbitt Grill's Oyster Bar, known as the oldest restaurant in D.C. (and a great spot for a raw bar deal late at night).
Old Ebbitt Grill is one of those undeniable D.C. institutions. Back in the day it was a hangout for presidents like Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland. Now it straddles that rare line of tourist standby and beloved local spot where business deals and out-of-town family reunions take place in sometimes equal measure.
If this chic, historic establishment was good enough for Teddy Roosevelt, then I figured I could certainly spend an evening there. So I camped out for several hours on a recent Friday night, mostly at The Oyster Bar. Between imbibing spirits and shooting oysters, I spent considerable brain power pondering Old Ebbitt's unrivaled staying power. It's changed locations a few times, but Old Ebbitt is literally the longest-running saloon in the nation's capital, opening in 1856. Here's how my time there unfolded:
7:05 p.m. "We thought we were going to have to call a search party for you," someone yells in my direction. I'd rounded the corner and headed to The Oyster Bar, where two of my friends -— a married male-female couple — are waiting. I'm hurrying in a few minutes after our agreed-upon meeting time and they've arrived 20 or so minutes early. So by now they're apparently BFFs with our bartender Joe, who's the one poking fun at my tardiness. Joe's in the trademark Old Ebbitt uniform of a white button-down shirt, bow tie, suspenders and a long white apron.
My first drinking companions of the night are seated toward the middle of the row of stools. "Darling, I'm going to need to see your ID," Joe says. Both the idea of being called darling and, as someone in my 30s, being carded, rub me the right way,
I decide to go in a cocktail direction with my drinks and, since I've been on a Negroni kick. A Honeyed Negroni (Barr Hill gin, Campari, Combier Liqueur D'Orange, white grapefruit juice, club soda) it is.
7:17 p.m. To the left of my friends there's a couple shuffling doggy bags and fiddling with their check like they're ready to go. A couple to the right, this one in their 60s, is also taking their final sips, fidgeting. Did I drive everyone away? I theorize that it's just the happy hour, post-work crowd dying down.
By now the older couple to the right is grabbing for jackets. One of my friends reaches for the couple's umbrella to help them gather their things. "You're a gentleman and a scholar," the older man tells my friend, practically saluting. I'm struck by the fact that this throwback term is being thrown our way. It reminds me — in a good way — of a former colleague who seemed trapped in the 1930s, with the trenchcoat, cap and catch phrases to prove it. Their leaving also means I have an actual seat.
7:24 p.m. A big part of Old Ebbitt's decor is animal heads displayed on the walls and birds hanging from above the massive space. The Oyster Bar has less of these but has several low-hanging chandeliers and the addition of marine life-themed watercolors helping it to fit in with the whole ocean theme. There's an L shaped bar with about 15 stools lining the bar. There's also a partial row of stools up against the wall separate from the bar. This line of seats becomes the JV section, since customers here have to squeeze into the bar to order each round and are cut off from the action upfront.
Joe makes it his obsessive mission to give groups seats at the bar instead of relegating them to this no man's land. A group of five comes in. There's no room for them to fit at the bar... yet. But he assures them, "I've got you." Sure enough, when spots open up directly in front of him he shuffles everyone down to make room. No unoccupied seats between clusters of friends here. It's the kind of reconfiguring and mental choreography you wish someone would undertake at a crowded movie theater where strangers act allergic to sitting beside each other.
7:32 p.m. Verbal love letters to our bartender keep coming. He's either stacked the bar with preset admirers or he's really that good. I can't help but notice under-the-breath mumblings all night of things like "Oh, I like him." Joe, who mans the Oyster Bar himself the whole time I'm there, has the dance down of greeting newcomers and catching up with his regulars without leaving anyone hanging.
At one point, though, we think he's slipped up on us. We're trying to order oysters. My female friend, a vegetarian, wants to let him in on the secret that, even though she won't be partaking tonight, she's had oysters just once -- and it was at my urging. "The one time I cheated, it was with her," she says, suddenly realizing the risque nature of her statement. "I mean, with oysters." Amid her comments, Joe appears to have disappeared, missing both the story and our order. But seconds later, he's returned with follow-up questions. He's heard it all; he just engaged in four other geographically overlapping conversations while also taking care of us. At one point he yells a few Spanish phrases at a busboy passing by while keeping up conversational juggling.
Later he tell me that he's been slinging drinks at Old Ebbitt for almost 20 years. That explains a lot.
7:41 p.m. Next to us we spy the illustrious Orca Platter, or as staff calls it, "the crowned jewel of the menu." Besides the crab cakes, it's the menu item I hear recommended most. A double decker throne of extravagances, the platter boasts shrimp, lobster and crab claws. It looks and sounds epic. Too bad we're not $127 platter people.
What we are is "debate whether to get a dozen or half-dozen oysters" people. This evening we go with a dozen and select three varieties. But our bartender has other plans. "I'll bring you a combination of everything," he says, more telling us than asking. The Harpswell Flat oyster is a rarity, so we're getting four of those bad boys and two of the rest.
This, by the way, is my male friend's first time trying oysters. Old Ebbitt seems like a worthy place to pop that cherry and apparently I'm some sort of oyster temptress, they decide.
7:45 p.m. My next set of friends arrives, two guys. The bar's full again so there are no seats left. They stand behind us and we rotate between shooting oysters and facing toward the circle we've formed. By now, thanks to the forced seat shuffling, I'm squeezed next to a guy in a baseball cap chomping down on a pink-centered steak that very literally makes my stomach growl. The guy may be the single person not visibly happy or overly chatty in The Oyster Bar, but he is enjoying his steak with particular gusto.
I take a mental note that he's in a t-shirt and jeans. This would probably be too casual for the more see-and-be-seen Old Bar at the front of Old Ebbitt. Here, he's right at home.
8:10 p.m. We really should have counted the number of times servers passed with heaping trays of oysters shells either destined for diners in the main portion of the restaurant, or returning to the dishwasher post-meal. The Oyster Bar can feel a bit like a staging ground with behind-the-scenes access to the oysters' journeys. That and we constantly get in the way of busboys as we stand near the bar yet clearly in their aisle to the kitchen.
8:18 p.m. I realize that our group is moving through the cocktail list in a not-so-slow manner. In particular, my second pair of friends practically does a happy dance about the cocktail prices. Compared to $14, $16 or damn near $20 at some D.C. bars, $9.95 seems like a relative steal for a whiskey or gin-based concoction.
For most selections, someone gives an endorsement or nods in agreement, whether it's another patron or Joe. To my Orange Bulleit (Bulleit rye, blood orange liqueur and black walnut bitters) order he deems it "actually good," as if surprised it made the cut.
"Actually good?" I challenge back. In truth, it is. I gulp it down.
8:23 p.m. Meanwhile, at the other end of the bar, there are several mugs filled with drinks topped by whipped cream. I wonder what kind of hot beverages are inside, especially since it's a not-especially-cold night, but only wonder briefly. The conversation in my corner has turned to Hinge versus Tinder, and I want to chime in.
8:40 p.m. The group that was previously bumped up to bar seating is now down to one man and two ladies. They fumble with their smartphones to pose for a selfie before admitting failure and asking me to act as photographer. When I do, they practically nominate me for a Pulitzer for being able to get the bar behind them, one of the walls, them and the bartender in the frame together. Clearly I'm gifted.
8:47 p.m. Soon, my married friends close their check. Joe sends them off with a milky colored shot for one of them to drink. Or he tries to, anyway. I'm meant to pass the gift their way —I think it's for me. Probably not wanting to point out my error, our bartender lets me have it — for taking the earlier group's photo, he jokes — and makes another thank you shot for my friends.
9:32 p.m. Bacon! Suddenly that's the dominant smell in the room and I imagine anywhere relatively near that section of Old Ebbitt. I have no idea from where this heavenly pig scent is emanating but I feel the need to announce its presence and to know whether everyone else is being hit by its smell. They are. "Ok, good. I thought I was maybe having a stroke," I say.
"Like smelling toast," one of my male friends corrects me, unsure if I'm making a joke or really confused about how strokes work.
10:06 p.m. Within minutes of my two male friends leaving, the bartender's back in front of me. "The whole bar wants to know," he says and slightly pauses. "Are they a couple? They were just so cute."
I scan my surroundings. By "the whole bar" I figure he must mean the handful of 20-somethings sitting by the part of the bar where the L curves. I haven't talked to them since I've been here, given the distance separating us, nor had my friends. But I guess we were being talked about.
Before I can answer, Joe clarifies that he was hesitant to even ask, that he only wondered and definitely meant it as a compliment. "Oh, I figured. Yes they are. It's cool," I assure him. A quick text to relay the exchange to my friends proves that they, too, are flattered.
10:27 p.m. Things are beyond chill and everyone seems busy sipping drinks. A white-haired woman pokes her head into the area from around the corner with a few other middle-aged women in tow. A few customers sitting at the bar ask if she's coming over to sit.
No, she shakes her head. They're exploring the digs post-meal. "We had everything. I'm just showing them around because she's from France." It seems inexplicably important to her to point out that the guest is from France as opposed to just any other place that's not Washington.
10:33 p.m. A Caps game is on the TV overhead. I had no idea until I was alone without explicit drinking companions. Two seats to my left, a couple in hockey jerseys, who clearly know about the game, are trying to explain what makes a Devils fan different than other fans. They also begin an extensive web search for U.S. hockey players who are, by background, Belarusian.
This same couple, too, switches away from beer and wants to give martinis a whirl. They experience Bombay Sapphire for the first time. At some point they speak of "floating on a pimento raft" and debate whether to have their martinis made "filthy dirty" or just "dirty dirty." Maybe it's foreplay.
10:41 p.m. The Oyster Bar becomes the swankiest take-out area I've ever seen. A security guard orders wings to go and paces around until the to-go order is up.
10:49 p.m. Up until now the musical selection had, save for Blues Traveler, faded behind banter. But "My Girl" playing causes every other person in the bar area to sing out loud to themselves. The Oyster Bar never rises to a party atmosphere, more like contained reverie. Yet this is almost an "Almost Famous" lip syncing moment.
10:51 p.m. Earlier I put out a Hail Mary on Facebook inquiring whether anyone wanted to keep me company. Well, a former kickball teammate (can we get more D.C.-tastic?!) answers the call. I've started to close my tab. But once this friend arrives he convinces me to stay put at The Oyster Bar for one more round.
11:00 p.m.: Old Ebbitt's is known for its late night happy hour, which starts at 11. Other times when I've stopped by the Corner Bar to take advantage of food and drink specials it's been lively, a second pop of action. Not so much on this night, at least not at Grant's Bar. Things are calm with a steady flow of patrons.
11:03 p.m. A promise I'd made to my married couple friends was that I'd stop by each of Old Ebbitt's four bars by night's end — if for no other reason than to remedy the confusion many of us had about which bar was which. Alas, I don't fulfill this promise; but we do switch to Grant's Bar, arguably the most hidden of the four. This one sits on the other side of Old Ebbitt's atrium.
The crowd, by my best guess, is an industry one along with couples craving an after-dinner drink. Our bartender is female and fades a bit more into the background than Joe.
11:25 p.m. I've switched to beer and end up listening to my friend tell stories of dates that, at first, he was unsure whether they were dates and of his experience bartending on New Year's. The stories fit the setting. He's talking, I'm listening except for a few dashes to the bathroom on the lower level, which seems miles away. Seal broken —damn! "You know there's a bathroom over there," he motions, after my second or third time overlooking it. I tell myself that everyone overlooks the bathroom within Grant's Bar.
11:48 p.m. Grant's Bar has two defining pieces of artwork. The first is a mural covering most of the ceiling. The second is an oil painting behind the bar of a naked woman reclining near a lily pond. That's the one that was in our sightline our whole time at the bar.
The next day I wonder if my cocktails caused me to imagine that the woman was without clothes. But a quick Google search shows my memory wasn't playing tricks on me.
12:22 p.m. The time has come for me to leave. My friend spots me on my beer, and I basically abruptly leave him. I've started sending copious texts and fantasizing about the Orca Platter to an embarrassing degree, and there's something about Old Ebbitt that makes me want to stay on my best behavior, or at least not my worst. It's not that the longstanding saloon is stuffy or pretentious; quite the opposite. The devotion to serving guests and making sure they're taken care of with well-crafted drinks in hand and in a civilized, friendly setting is like nowhere else. I don't want to ruin it.
"For God sakes this is a presidential watering hole," I tell myself. I straighten up, grab my purse and use my best posture to slink out.