American. The ultimate insider's restaurant, the Monocle has long been the favorite commissary of those who haunt the Hill. As breezy as it is busy, reservations are as in-demand as interns.
Book a table online at The Monocle
Connie Valanos and his wife, Helen, opened The Monocle on Capitol Hill in October 1960, just as two young senators who were friends and regular customers, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, were battling it out for the presidency.
The Greek-American couple operated The Monocle until 1989 when their son, John, and his wife, Vasiliki, took over the restaurant. He estimates that half the people who have served in Congress since then have eaten — or drunk — there.
The Monocle is just a stone’s throw from the rear entrances to the Hart and Dirksen Senate Office buildings on D St. N.E. and turns its back on the Capitol.
But it certainly doesn’t turn its back on new and old customers, many of whose photos line the walls, including every president since Kennedy, although not all were in the White House at the time. (Not all ex-presidents are as popular as JFK; Valanos once found Nixon’s photo in the Ladies Room, taken out of its frame and ripped to shreds.)
Asked the secret of the restaurant’s continuing popularity for over four decades, the young Valanos attributes it to the restaurant’s personal touch.
He noted that Maître d’ Nick Selimos, a native of Greece, has been greeting customers for 27 years. “He’s terrific with names. He makes people feel comfortable. And our waiters give people attention right away. The worst thing that can happen is if you have to wait 15 minutes for someone to notice you’re there.”
Valanos added, “ There’s nothing more satisfying than to have someone after eating here say, ‘You have a great restaurant. We enjoyed the food and the service and we’ll tell other people about it, and we’ll come back ourselves.’”
Valanos estimates that three quarters of his customers “are people coming to the Hill to do business or to show friends or family what Washington is all about. They stop to see the photos on the wall, to experience some of the history that makes us unique. They say this is where JFK dined, where Mark Russell taped his CNN shows. You can just see a lot of excitement in their eyes.”
The Monocle doesn’t have a star chef, but rather “a team of very good chefs,” according to Valanos. “Most of them have worked here for a long time and have very good techniques. They will test certain specials, and if they sell well, we put it on the menu.”
One such special features plump Chesapeake Bay oysters, baked in a light curry sauce with a little chardonnay.
But the old standbys like crab cakes, porterhouse steaks and soft shell crabs, and desserts like blackberry crumble with ice cream never go out of favor.
“The simple foods sell well here,” said Valanos. “We’ve tried to introduce nouvelle cooking and it didn’t work. People expect something simple, of high quality but not complicated.
Almost any week night, you can find a private dinner or political fundraiser in one of the two second floor dining rooms. One of those private dinners is when all 13 woman senators gather for their quarterly dinner. “That’s what drives business,” said Valanos. “We’re usually booked six weeks out when Congress is in session.”