Diners at Occidental Grill & Seafood are being watched as they eat – sort of. The restaurant is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year, and the walls are lined with portraits of famous customers. Historical figures and contemporaries alike are gazing down at diners but not casting judgments. Aside from a period of closure for renovations during the 1970's and early 1980's, Occidental has been one of the city's cornerstone establishments for tourists, government bigwigs, and Washingtonians to enjoy well-crafted cocktails and classic dishes. Executive Chef Rodney Scruggs and Occidental's General Manager Travis Gray sat down with Eater to talk about the restaurant's staying power, how it's an incubator for regional culinary talent, and why everyone should rediscover this institution.
Occidental Grill & Seafood has been around for 110 years. How has it remained open while so many other restaurants have come and gone?
Travis Gray: I think it's the consistency and the commitment to the quality of the product and service. And of course, it doesn't hurt being near the White House.
How would you describe the cuisine at Occidental?
Rodney Scruggs: We're definitely American cuisine with a local bent. With my food, I like the "keep it simple" approach. But when you walk into the bones of this restaurant, you want to have nods to the past. So we have a Caesar salad on the menu but done like no one else does it. There's our great lobster bisque that no one else does how we do it. But it's that simple approach and using as many local purveyors as we can get.
What are some of the top menu items for both tourists or someone from Congress enjoying a power lunch?
TG: Well, the lobster bisque is definitely one of our top menu items. Chef Scruggs prepares it properly and does a great job with it. But it's an enemy to my waistline because I love it so much. And our crab cakes are fantastic, and I would put our crab cake up against any other crab cake from any other restaurant in the region. And we do an excellent job with steaks. We're not a steakhouse, but the chef buys great quality meat from local farms. He and his team prepare the meat properly and let it rest. When you cut into it, it's like butter.
Over the last 110 years, who has come through Occidental's kitchen and made a mark on the regional restaurant scene?
RS: After the restaurant shut down from in the 1970's until 1986, the ownership reached out to a young chef (which is kind of ironic to say now) named Jeffrey Bubin who ran the restaurant for 10 years. During the time Bubin was here, I started here as a young kid. There was Peter Smith of PS 7, and Patrick Bazin who owns Bazin's on Church. There was chef Matt Baker who was a chef de cuisine that I brought on and is now getting ready to open Gravitas. Also there's chef Tom [Cunanan] of Bad Saint who was with me for eight or nine months. We're one of those restaurants that feels like we're doing a little bit of farming for the other restaurants in D.C. We're like that minor league team with major league expectations. We've had some great people come through Occidental, and I know we'll continue to have incredible talent come through our doors.
Chef Scruggs, you started at Occidental at 18 and then returned later. What's the draw at Occidental that made you want to come back?
RS: I came here as a young kid and really wanted to be in the food industry. It wasn't like I was coming here with another career path. Food is my love, and food is what I wanted to do. And I really wanted to work for Jeffrey Bubin. He remains my mentor to this day. Everything I do, I ask myself if Bubin would be happy with what I'm doing or would he be proud of what I'm doing. It was like having a family here, and Bubin ran a really tough kitchen, and I liked that. But there's something about this place that has a romantic feel to it. So, 20 years later, when I had the opportunity to come back, I just pinched myself.
The ownership has been incredible. There's only been three owners in 110 years. We're a mom-and-pop restaurant even though we're... between two premier Washington, D.C. hotels. Travis and I have been given the keys, and the owners allow us to express ourselves in a way we want to. And I don't think there are many restaurants in the city that allow upper management to make these kinds of decisions about the restaurants.
Over the last 110 years, what are some of the more unusual items that were on the restaurant's menus?
RS: There was one pie – and I should have the name of it but I don't – and we're going to try to pull it off this fall. I've never heard of it, and I did some research. It's really not around anymore. I think we can make a great adaptation of that dessert. But I don't think there was really anything unusual on the menu because it's been a pretty classic restaurant. I would think that maybe liver and onions would be one of the more unusual things we had here.
Many U.S. Presidents have dined at Occidental. What do they like to order?
RS: I've done my research and presidents tend to be creatures of habit. There's nothing luxurious about what they often eat. George Washington loved macaroni and peas, and he loved turtle soup. Both Bushes were steak guys. But they tend to eat what everyone else tends to eat.
How are you celebrating the anniversary?
TG: We're doing Throwback Thursdays featuring classic dishes with modern twists. We're planning on having a gala, but it's not set in stone yet.
RS: And we have a few things that are undercover, and we're lifting the curtain up in a few months. I think that Travis, myself, and the owners of the Occidental don't want to go anywhere. We want to position ourselves to be around for another 110 years. There are a lot of great restaurants opening up, but we think that if everyone puts the Occidental on their rotation even just once a year, they'll find out why we've been around for so long.
In the restaurant, we're surrounded by famous people with so many portraits hanging on the walls. What are your three favorite portraits in the restaurant?
TG: Will Rogers – I just love that smile he has on his face. Jackie Robinson – he's just such a hero of mine when I was a kid. And Helen Keller – it's such an incredible picture. We still get pictures from people, and we still have space on the wall, so we can keep putting them up.
RS: Definitely one of them is the one closest to the bar, and it's of Wild Bill Cody. Just to think he actually dined here is pretty remarkable. Being a baseball fan, especially since we have a baseball team again, Walter Johnson played for the Washington Senators. And the third is General Schwarzkopf. I was here when he dined with us, and I wanted to have one quick look. He wasn't in uniform, so that was a bit of buzzkill. He was just in a suit, coat, and tie. He's just a big man.
Who do you want to see in your dining room during the restaurant's 110 year anniversary?
TG: I would like to see everyone in our dining room. We have something for everybody. If you want history, come visit us. If you want a great meal, come visit us. It's all about hospitality.
RS: Honestly, I can echo Travis's statements. For the people that live in Bethesda, Silver Spring, Arlington, Alexandria, Bowie,...just put us in your restaurant rotation. Come down and see us. I would also love to have some people from the hospitality industry come here and spend time with us. For me, I'd like to see everyone here.