WASHINGTON — A diner could be forgiven for slipping on sneakers once he sizes up one of the Washington area's newest meat mansions. The distance from the stately foyer, warmed by a glowing fire, to one of the prime tables overlooking the Potomac River is enough of a journey that a customer seeking the restroom asks a waiter, "Got a scooter to get there and back?"
I'm sympathetic to the hostess escorting a friend and me to one of the more distant tables at Old Hickory Steakhouse (201 Waterfront St., National Harbor; 301-965-5100; entrees $28-$45), the signature restaurant at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. By the end of her shift, she must feel as if she has run a marathon. But right now, she's doing an admirable job of selling us on the 220-seat restaurant, pausing here and there to show off its assets. "Here's our cheese cave," she says as we stroll past more than 20 kinds of you-know-what. "We have our own maitre de fromage," she adds with a note of pride.
In room after room, we see servers in white jackets polishing silver and inspecting stemware in preparation for all the meat eaters to come. "I'm going to get some basil for some drinks," I overhear a bartender saying to a colleague before slipping through a side door of the dining room to the Cigar Terrace and an herb garden. When we finally get to our seats — a table near a window with an impressive view of water and Washington in what's known as the Riverview Room — we feel as if we've been given a backstage tour of a colorful play. And we're famished.
The bread basket comes to our rescue with cheese puffs, baguette slices and cracker-y flatbread. So does the onion soup, which is as much cheese and bread as it is broth sweetened with onions. I hardly notice the seafood in an almond-crusted crab cake appetizer, which is overdressed with garniture, but there's no missing the beef on the satisfying porterhouse, which practically hides the plate it's served on.
The sides we try — lightly creamed spinach, truffle-flavored macaroni and cheese — are solid supports for the entrees, which include a pleasant surprise for those who might not want beef: crisp, herby roast chicken.
Although the menu doesn't read much differently from those of many other steakhouses, and the tabs prove competitive, Old Hickory serves up what might be the best treat of them all: a vista worthy of a postcard.
Tom Sietsema is the Washington Post's food critic.
Dining in D.C.
Best places to eat in our nation's capital, by Tom Sietsema, food critic for The Washington Post. Buck's Fishing & Camping -- (5031 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-364-0777; entrees $18-$46). The menu never seems to change, but the old favorites of deviled eggs, fried chicken and chocolate cake still delight. Carole Greenwood's fried chicken is picnic food made sophisticated with a lovely salad of basmati rice, chickpeas and snap peas, and her prime sirloin is still one of the best slabs of meat in town. Central Michel Richard -- 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-626-0015; www.centralmichelrichard.com; entrees $17-$35). Every meal feels like a cocktail party at this bistro spinoff of star chef Michel Richard's formal Citronelle in Georgetown. Lucky customers get seats with a view of the exhibition kitchen. My favorite: Central's thick-cut liver garnished with bacon strips, caramelized onions and a puddle of potato pur e. CityZen -- (1330 Maryland Ave. SW, in the Mandarin Oriental hotel; 202-787-6006; www.cityzenrestaurant.com; fixed-price three-course menu $80). CityZen transports diners from reality to fantasy. Corn soup tastes like the distillation of an entire cornfield; succulent square of shoat (young pig) on beans and tongue-teasing chorizo whisks you to a Midwestern farm. And CityZen has some of the best desserts in Washington -- try the apple croustade. Jaleo -- (Several locations including 480 Seventh St. NW; 202-628-7949; www.jaleo.com; entrees $12-$17). This tribute to Spanish small plates accommodates everyone, from groups to solo diners and vegetarians to cavemen. Something new and delicious always pops up on the long list of tapas. Komi -- (1509 17th St. NW; 202-332-9200; www.komirestaurant.com; fixed-price nine-to-12 courses $90). Freshness, seasoning and appearance are perfect with just about every dish at what has blossomed into one of the finest places to eat in the country. No part of a meal here is inconsequential, from the generous appetizers to the treasure of a wine list. Marcel's -- (2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-296-1166; www.marcelsdc.com; entrees $36-$42). Haute French cooking isn't dead. Here patrons can indulge in the classics (a fricassee of Burgundy snails, a proper dessert souffle) and some of the city's most cosseting service. A redo last year also has the main dining room looking more chic than ever. Michel Richard Citronelle -- (3000 M St. NW; 202-625-2150; www.citronelledc.com; fixed-price, three-course menu $105). Service is slipping in the fading underground dining room, but Michel Richard and his cooks still put on an impressive show. The lobster "beluga" pasta is a classic and the tomato tart and sablefish marinated with sake, miso and mirin aren't to be missed. Minibar -- (In Cafe Atlantico, 405 Eighth St. NW; 202-393-0812; www.cafeatlantico.com; fixed-price menu $120). This is no ordinary dinner away from home. It takes patience to snare a reservation at Spanish chef Jos Andres' six-seat, avant-garde ode to edible innovation. The 30 snack-size courses are pure imagination. Obelisk -- (2029 P St. NW; 202-872-1180; five-course menu $70-$75). The aging Obelisk has tweaked its pre-fixe format with cocktails and lovely antipasti. Peter Pastan's Italian dining features main courses that, uneven in previous seasons, once again rock and service that is easy, efficient and educated. And in true Italian fashion, fussiness takes a back seat to flavor. Palena -- (3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-537-9250; www.palenarestaurant.com; fixed-price three-course menu $67, a la carte $11-$29). Dishes are as creative as the cocktails and there's not one I wouldn't eagerly return for. Former White House chef Frank Ruta's food is exquisite from the guinea hen with foie gras sauce to the pan-roasted cod framed in little summery tomatoes, sweet corn and tender butter clams. Proof -- (775 G St. NW; 202-737-7663; www.proofdc.com; entrees $22-$27). The handsome watering hole stands as one of the best places to sit, sip and snack the night away. The dining room is comfortable and stylish. The vast inventory of wine can be sampled however you wish: by the taste, the glass or the bottle. And chef Haidar Karoum is cooking better than ever these days. Rasika -- (633 D St. NW; 202-637-1222; www.rasikarestaurant.com; entrees $11-$28). Vikram Sunderam keeps his menu fresh but also tempts with signatures such as crispy spinach or vinegar-and-cream marinated black cod. The cabbage kadhi will make you forget all about meat. Those who don't care for Indian food become converts after eating Sunderam's flavorful dishes. The Source -- (575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-637-6100; www.wolfgangpuck.com; entrees $22-$45). Regulars at the sleek, two-story Wolfgang Puck restaurant include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Washington Capitals' Mike Green. Emphasis is on serious and sophisticated eating, supported by lovely wines and gracious staff.