Comfort Food: In Praise Of Familiar Places And Communal Dining

“The Official Preppy Handbook” wasn’t the bible for me that it was for many. But at least part of the fun of reading it was recognizing the places and things that may have already been in our lives. In particular, I have been lucky enough to enjoy many of the “trad” restaurants mentioned in the book first-hand, and recent events have given me reason to think about why they were important to us in the first place. (By accidents of birth and otherwise, I’ve never lived in a town that didn’t appear on the Sampling of Suburbs list in Birnbach’s book). I’m not sure what, if anything, to make of that, but I digress.

During my school summers, I rowed stroke seat in a club men’s 8 that was a mixed-bag of ages: myself and a classmate were teenagers, a couple of guys home from Wesleyan were in their early twenties and the rest were in their forties – including a local industrialist and former special forces officer. A highlight of each summer was the big regatta hosted by the venerable Potomac Club in Georgetown. The racing was exciting, and drinks on the club porch afterward in the shadow of the Key Bridge were abundant. But the indelible memory to a 17-year-old without a fake ID was of being planted firmly within a pack of older teammates and shuffled in and out of Clyde’s (“The definitive Prep bar. Maxwell’s Plum with a big dose of young attorney.”), The Tombs (“Very collegiate. Dark, downstairs, beer.”), and the dearly-departed J.Paul’s. Thirty years on, Clyde’s now has eight locations, and is part of a restaurant group whose brands include the Old Ebbitt Grill and The Tombs itself. At its gargantuan outpost attached to the Verizon Center, where the Capitals and Wizards play, you’re as likely to find yourself seated at the bar next to a fellow eating his chicken wings in an Alex Ovechkin jersey as someone in khakis and an OCBD. But I think both types are drawn there for the same reason. Those places made an impression on me during the Reagan administration: yes, the clubby dark wood, leather banquettes, and formidable bar are impressive; but even more so a feeling that you are in a place which is simultaneously familiar yet very special.  You’re not in a dive bar with hipsters, or a sports bar with screaming maniacs. The Capitol Hill staffer in the Squeeze suit, the guy in the Duck Heads, and yes the guy in the Ovechkin jersey, can and do find common ground within five minutes of conversation. It happens every night in these places. I know: I’ve usually been the guy in the Duck Heads.

On the other hand, my college town of Baltimore has a proudly different vibe and not just because of its industrial history. Its residents are less transient than in DC, and families there are multi-generational, often within the same home, whether it’s a 1920s manor near Sherwood Gardens or a row house in Little Italy. Some of its trad hangouts are still going strong. The Mt. Washington Tavern (“lacrosse hangout, preps live here.”) recovered from a recent fire and its new incarnation remains a beautiful space in a boho neighborhood with an upstairs atrium, and is the place for Mother’s Day brunch and post-Preakness meetups. Although the horse race’s home at the Pimlico track is precarious, and it may end up moving. Alonso’s on Cold Spring Lane (“great pizza”) still draws a strong Loyola & Hopkins crowd, and can – happily – be said not to have gentrified much, although the beer case at the front is now full of craft beers, and the one-pound hamburger appears to be gone. Currently residing in the Where Are They Now? file, unfortunately, is the Crease in Towson (“An abundance of rugby shirts and Top-Siders. Crowded, collegiate and post-collegiate.”), which appears to have moved from directly in front of the lacrosse goal to a bit further out and is now under new ownership and called The Point. And the Harborplace itself (“Baltimore’s Quincy Market … one pavilion is food, the other Prep clothing”) is currently in receivership – another casualty of 21st-century retail trends.

Here in Annapolis, I’m happy to report that the old spots endure as they always have: McGarvey’s (“sailors seen downing burgers”) remains the place both for Friday afternoon dark-and-stormies at the bar with weary fellow dads, as well as post-church bloodies at brunch with the fam-damily 36 hours later on Sunday.

Why are we drawn to these familiar places, now as much as ever? Is it because the patrons wear their khaki pants and rumpled oxford shirts just so?  Of course not  (although they do still wear them). Is it because the oysters Rockefeller or the crab bisque tastes like it always did? With any luck, each still does, although will nostalgia ever really allow things to be as good as they were? The sad irony is that, right now none of us are enjoying these places that bring so much comfort. We’re cooking for ourselves and our families, and mixing cocktails at our home bars or kitchen counters, waiting for the plague to pass. The other night, I felt as patriotic as I ever have (in a municipal sort of way), when I went to pick up takeout from my local café. As we came and went, other patrons and I nodded to each other, happy to support a place that we all enjoy so much. And once home, the food was delicious. What was missing, of course, was Frank asking about my day as he poured a glass of wine while I ate at the bar. Or the neighboring table sharing their expectations for the show they were going to see at Maryland Hall after dinner. 

The best places make us feel at home, even with strangers, and regardless of whether they ever appeared in TOPH. (Although would the new Polo Bar in Manhattan have made the cut, or is Kanye there too much?) I’ve never studied it, but am aware of the particularly English concept of “third place” – you have your home, your workplace, and your pub. This third place fills a different need than the other two. We can’t go to the places that make us feel that way right now. But, for the ones that survive this trial, we ought to go back to them as soon as we’re able. Indulge a little. Buy a round for the bar. And talk to your neighbor. — PAUL DOUGHERTY

26 Comments on "Comfort Food: In Praise Of Familiar Places And Communal Dining"

  1. This makes me miss Nye’s Polonaise, which stood on Hennepin Avenue just shy of the Mississippi in Minneapolis, on the edge of a historically Polish and Ukrainian neighborhood. Closed and demolished several years ago, a victim of neighborhood gentrification and rising rent, there was nothing vaguely ivy, preppy, or trad. about it. Mercifully not an undergraduate hangout, but neighborhood working class Minneapolis. Just a few minutes on foot from my grad student digs at the time, the drinks were reasonably priced, the food was actually pretty good, and they had live music on Friday and Saturday evenings. It was a fun place to congregate with a bunch of friends during two-three hours early on a Friday evening for what we liked to call ‘Nordic Happy Hour’ given the focus of our respective studies and/or the national origins of several of the participants. Good times.

  2. Charlottesville | March 27, 2020 at 12:32 pm |

    Paul — What a delightful and well-written post. I always enjoy your comments, and am so pleased that you have given us a longer entry. It taps directly into my heart, both in nostalgia for the Washington of 30 years ago, and for the currently shuttered local watering holes and grills. Restaurants are occasionally touched on in the comments, but I don’t think there has ever been a full-blown post devoted to the subject, and I thank you for remedying that oversight.

    To your list of special DC spots of long ago, I would add the downstairs bar at The Occidental and the Round Robin Bar at the Willard, places where my wife and I spent a night or three each week in the late 80s and 90s. I would love to spend an evening with the barmen of the time, Jim Hewes at the Round Robin (who even has a Wikipedia page these days), Lindsey from the Old Ebbitt and Tom Howard from the Occidental, and hear them ask again if I want my usual. Drinks usually led to dinner at the bar and conversations with the regulars. Very nice times.

    Like you, my wife and I have been trying to do what we can to support or local favorites by ordering takeout, and tipping generously. But of course it is not the same as sitting at the bar and chatting with staff who have become friends over oysters and martinis or a burger and a draft. With the tight margins and high rents of the restaurant business, I fear that some of our local favorites may not make it. I am thankful that my wife and I are healthy and able to work, but I do miss having a round at the local.

    Very best wishes to you.

  3. This is a beautifully written piece, Paul. I appreciate it on two fronts: as an exploration of the trad world and culture beyond clothing, which I find to be an interesting topic that is too-rarely explored (except in the case of jazz), and a reflection on the importance that restaurants hold in our lives. There’s been much ink spilled over the decline of American social institutions (church memberships, rotary clubs, bowling teams, etc) and I feel like independent restaurants and bars are some of the last social institutions that can really glue a community together.

    It’s funny how the pandemic sees us all changing our behaviors. Aside from pizza or American-Chinese food, I’ve long railed against take-out and the lazy millennial obsession with having everything brought to your door, in large part because physically entering the restaurant and just enjoying its space—whether it’s a steak house with leather banquettes or a dingy dim sum joint in an underlit basement—is half the joy of patronizing a restaurant in the first place.

    My old sentiments don’t quite apply to the current situation, and my wife and I have been trying to help those restaurants that matter to us most hang on with take-out dinners. Picking up take-out for your usual is a nice way to help them stay afloat, but I’d encourage readers to also look into how restaurants are supporting staff through GoFundMe drives, Venmo, and other fundraising measures.

  4. john carlos | March 27, 2020 at 2:17 pm |

    Paul, I agree with the other comments about your post, very well written and timely for me. Friday is usually a special day, a day to wind down after a busy week of practicing law, and a day to look forward to a weekend full of sports and having drinks and dinner out. Except this morning didn’t feel that way I think because without work, Friday is just another day. Hopefully, this ends sooner than later. I, too, have been getting take out dinner’s from a long time neighborhood hangout here in San Antonio. It’s a place where they call you by name and where a blue OCBD or madras shirt with khakis and topsiders are the norm. In fact, I spent $70 for dinner for myself the other night (far more than I’m used to). The tab did include a bottle of wine, all of which I was happy to do to support them. Btw, when I picked up the order, it was accompanied by a handwritten note and a happy face from the staff thanking me for my support. Again, thanks for your timely post. It brightened my Friday, so much so that I intend to read it numerous times before the day is done.

  5. To me the OPH captures this world where prep and private schools in a wide variety of places but especially on the east coast and country (and city, especially sports) club culture intersect, and it is definitely the world that current ivy marketing means to evoke. And which you write about well.

  6. I wonder if it is through this strand that blue blazers came to be worn everywhere.

  7. Annapolis – A drinking town with a sailing problem

  8. ^Well obviously a blazer is a nautical garment in origin and in other countries mostly worn around related contexts, and the type worn at school typically aren’t worn thereafter except as part of this strand of American style and various Japanese and other international variations on it.

  9. The 80s scrambled everything up, with far more blazers worn, for example, in London.

  10. elder prep | March 27, 2020 at 4:26 pm |

    Ted, see p. 160-162 in TOPH for any needed directions. Paul’s mention of Clyde’s is especially nostalgic as I spent too many afterworks at the Georgetown location. Still have a Clyde’s ashtray and matches.

  11. The Earl of Iredell | March 27, 2020 at 4:45 pm |

    Growing up in Baltimore I especially enjoyed Hausner’s and Miller Brothers, and the takeout from Hasslinger’s and Harley’s. But that was a very long time ago . . . “Nightly, nightly, once over lightly, and ever so politely, it’s the Harley Show, music outta Baltimore ” and “Go to war, Miss Agnes!” . . .

  12. Richard E. Press | March 27, 2020 at 6:41 pm |

    Bravo—delightful read.

  13. Thank you all for the kind comments – they truly mean a lot, coming from this group.

    @Charlottesville: your memories of DC hotels, and staff who became friends, reminded me of many fun nights spent at the Town & Country lounge at the Mayflower when my wife & I were first dating. Two memories in particular are of finding myself sitting next to Tucker Carlson one night as he chain-smoked and held court (this was during his Crossfire days when he was more interesting), and the other was ordering drinks and appetizers one night, only to find out from our waiter that it was the very last night of the bar: it was to be converted into a new restaurant, never to return. It was bittersweet.

    Richard & Chens (and anyone else who’s been there): is the Polo Bar in Manhattan comforting & special, or is it too ‘see-and-be-seen’? I’ve heard it described both ways.

  14. Charlottesville | March 28, 2020 at 2:54 pm |

    Paul – The Town & Country at the Mayflower was just up Connecticut from my office in the mid-to-late 80s, upstairs from Duke Ziebert’s. We always enjoyed the T&C too.

    I have been to the Polo Bar only once, to meet Christian for a drink before my wife and I had dinner downstairs. At that time, admittance required a dinner reservation, but if that is no longer the case, I think it might be quite enjoyable. My midtown preference, however, would probably be a seat at the bar in the front room at ’21’, which I think is surprisingly friendly. It is comparable in decor (and unfortunately in price) to the Polo Bar, but its clubby decor goes back to its speakeasy days and was not put together in the last few years by a design team trying to mimic the look. The bartender even remembers me from one year to the next, which is surprising. The King Cole bar at the St. Regis, with its 1906 Maxfield Parrish mural is also a good bet just a block or so away on 5th.

    Not sure if PJ Clark’s is still what it was in earlier days, but it definitely had the comfortable old tavern feel. I also recommend Minetta Tavern downtown for a terrfic burger and nice bar, but it can get quite crowded. I hope they all weather this current storm.

    One of our local favorites is able to sell drinks to take out and there are a few tables outside where one can sit, so my wife and I plan to try that tomorrow evening for cocktails, weather permitting.

    Hope you are enjoying some sun in Annapolis as well.

  15. Too Much Johnson | March 28, 2020 at 4:09 pm |

    In my debauched D.C. days, I managed to find quite a bit of comfort at The Guards (Red leather wings in the window, Gryphon Room downstairs), Nathan’s, or on F.Scott’s dance floor.

    In N.Y.C., Dorrian’s always had its charms until suddenly it didn’t…

  16. Charlottesville | March 28, 2020 at 4:37 pm |

    Too Much – I had forgotten The Guards. Dark wood, fireplace and a great bar. Pretty good foodd as well.

  17. Georgetown in the 80s had more preppy post collegiate bars than you could shake a stick at. Garrets with its stuffed rhino head and big party room, The Guards (before Gryphon room), Charring Cross or the Company if you were slumming, Third Edition to dance with girls in the backroom, Nathans if you didnt mind overpaying for drinks in a totally preppy setting. Winstons if you wanted the college party scene. Dinner at Clydes, J. Pauls or Martins late night.

    St. Elmos was supposed to be based on the Third Edition. What a time.

  18. Too Much Johnson | March 29, 2020 at 2:18 am |

    @ Charlottesville – The Guards did have surprisingly good food – the steak tartare being pretty solid. When I lived at the Westbridge it was always my “I am too lazy to bother to eat/drink/go-out anywhere else” spot. Watching the snow come down on M from those old wing chairs with a couple of friends while slowly working your way through a lazy lunch, a couple of Manhattans, and a pack of Reds was always a sublimely melancholy treat.

    Now Au Pied de Cochon, on the other hand, had some of the worst imaginable. Not to say that their absolutely execrable goulash (dump half a bottle of Heinz 57 on it and you could eat it) wasn’t most welcome at 3:27 AM to sooth a G&T ravaged system.

    Remember Bistro Francais? By far my favorite lunch spot – always started with the celery soup. Rabbit with tarragon-mustard cream sauce was another favorite when they had it.

    @ Anonymouse – Nathan’s in my day have two things going for it – very good late-night burgers (‘til 1 or 2 AM if I recall) and the scene. A very dear and now sadly departed friend of mine once stubbornly resisted the best efforts of one of the most beautiful (then older, now younger) women I have ever seen in my life to pick him up not just once but TWICE in the space of ten minutes. Youth isn’t just wasted on the young, it is simply wasted…

    +1 to Third Edition. I loathed Garrets with a passion – the only thing worse was The Sign of the Whale.

    Surprised F.Scott’s doesn’t get more love in our fits of nostalgia. Mid-90s, 12AM, zero riff-raff, prettiest girls going on the dance floor, and very tasty, very stiff martins by the pitcher, and you could still smoke.

    As an aside, it always struck me as interesting how many posters on these boards all passed through D.C. over the quarter century 1970-1995. If anything, having done time in D.C. is probably biggest single cultural common denominator we all share. Frankly, I do wonder sometimes how many of us would recognize each other on sight on the street if nothing else. The answer is probably quite frightening…

  19. Charlottesville | March 29, 2020 at 11:26 am |

    Mr. Johnson – Roast chicken or steak frites at Bistro Francais was a Sunday night standard for my wife and me throughout that era. It finally closed only a year or two ago. Martin’s was a regular stop as well. On our more recent visits to Georegtown, we have discovered Chez Billy Sud, which I wholeheartedly recommend.

    You are right about the DC connection. And NY too. Both captured my heart in the mid-to-late 80s and never entirely let go, although I think I would opt for Charleston if I had to choose a favorite city today.

    Hope everyone is staying safe and well, especially our NY and west coast brethren.

  20. Too Much Johnson (I suffer as well) – Wow, forgot Bistros Francaise – was open late. Had a Euro girlfriend who liked to go to Cafe Med (just off M Street, block up from Guards, I think?) and then early morning steak frites at Bistro Francaise?

    Thanks for your Nathans memory. It was definately a preppy proto cougar bar. Some hot middle aged women on the prowl.

    Anyone remember the old Georgetown Pub? Back when you could drink on campus (or had an ID to say you could).

    Good memories

  21. Too Much Johnson | March 30, 2020 at 6:33 am |

    Gentleman, read it and weep:

    What has happened to us? I somehow however think that Steely Dan might hold an answer or two…

    @ Charlottesville – I will definitely add Chez Billy Sud to the need to check-out list – thank you for the recommendation.

    I agree. Though in my case I would today pick Stockholm (perhaps)oddly enough.

    @ Anonymouse – Forgot about Cafe Med entirely!

    Nathan’s was something of a May-September, September-May sort of scene though in hindsight I don’t know how much of that was simply a function of bars being more ecumenical (for want of a better word) in terms of patrons “back then”.

    Only once was I that brutally “cougared” and that was one evening while dining alone at Pino’s bar at 1789 of all places – but that is a story for another time and place.

    The old campus pub was a bit before my time at Georgetown I fear – MA SFS ’96.

    Happy days indeed!

  22. Nye’s Polonaise was voted best bar in America by Esquire in 2006.
    Never been there, but wish I had !

  23. Paul, thanks for the great post. I spent about six years living in northern Baltimore Country while working at a boarding school up that way. I was introduced to The Mt. Washington Tavern by a group of young faculty when we all escaped campus on the first weekend of the fall term when none of us were on dorm duty. It was a popular spot for old boys from Gilman, Boys’ Latin, and St. Paul’s. My wife and I enjoyed our first Valentine’s Day dinner together at The Tavern a few years later. Alonso’s became a regular take out spot, and we’d often venture down to Miss Shirley’s, across the street in Roland Park, for Sunday brunch. Good times were also had at other local establishment restaurants, including The Valley Inn (good casual dinner spot – equestrian accoutrement abounds – and lots of dancing to ’80s music at the bar after 10pm on Saturdays), The Oregon Grille (jacket still required for men in the dining room after 5pm), and The Milton Inn (great spot for a nice dinner when my parents were in town).

  24. I also recall Peabody’s Bookstore and Beer Stube in Baltimore as a place to go after Orioles games enroute back to Washington.

  25. Vern Trotter | April 1, 2020 at 10:33 am |

    Of course there was The Block in Baltimore. Benny Trotta was in charge. I always received undeserved respect from those who thought we were related. Blaze Starr ran her place as the top attraction on East Baltimore street. The Block was world known, along with Kilroy.

  26. Interesting reference to the idea of the third place. I’d suggest it’s more than just an english concept (think of the french café, for one), and reading “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenburg, a university professor, would convince you just how important these third places are.

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