In one of two kitchens at Old Ebbitt Grill, a cook rolls individual squares of pasta dough into tubes called garganelli. Each noodle is gently placed beside the next to later be cooked with spicy sausage, tomatoes, and Swiss chard. It’s a time-consuming process for a restaurant that serves on average 2,500 people a day.
Beside the cook sit trays of cannelloni di casa, which shares the distinction of being the oldest dish on the menu along with trout parmesan.
“This is the reason I work for Clyde’s [Restaurant Group],” says the restaurant group’s president, Tom Meyer. He used to make cannelloni as a chef at an Italian restaurant in Nantucket. John Laytham, the co-owner of Clyde’s, which operates Old Ebbitt, loved the dish so much that he asked Meyer to move to D.C. more than three decades ago. As rich and heavy as it is, it’s the one menu item Meyer won’t let anyone touch.
Dating back just as long as the cannelloni is the restaurant’s chief pasta maker, Jose Hernandez, who’s busy rolling out sheets of dough as the garganelli are prepared beside him. He’s been on staff since 1983.
“That was the year I was born,” says executive chef Salvatore Ferro.
With the constant onslaught of new openings and all the attention paid to the Momofukus and Rose’s Luxurys of the world, it might seem easy to forget about a restaurant that’s been around as long as Old Ebbitt Grill. Then again, Old Ebbitt is far from forgotten. On a recent Wednesday evening around 7 p.m., the place seemed busier than any trendy establishment on the 14th Street corridor. In addition to the 30-minute wait for a table, crowds were two-deep at all three of its main level bars. The scene is repeated throughout the week.
Last year, Old Ebbitt reported a whopping $28 million in sales, and Meyer says it’s on track to hit $30 million in 2015. An October report by Restaurant Business magazine ranked Old Ebbitt as the highest grossing independent restaurant in D.C.—and the sixth highest in the country. In comparison, Le Diplomate, a hipper (but slightly smaller) restaurant, reported just over $16 million in sales. In an era of fierce dining competition, it’s worth asking how the “oldest saloon in Washington” has also become one of the most successful restaurants in town.
Whereas many of today’s buzzy eateries boast a visit from the Obamas, Old Ebbitt once claimed Ulysses Grant as a patron. The saloon’s origins trace back to 1856, but it’s only the “oldest” restaurant in D.C. if you gloss over its various closures and relocations across the years. The original Old Ebbitt didn’t actually have its own name; it was simply a bar and restaurant in a boarding house called the Ebbitt House, run by a man named William E. Ebbitt.
The restaurant in its current form has only existed since 1983, when it relocated into an old theater on 15th Street NW. Clyde’s Restaurant Group owners Laytham and Stuart Davidson initially purchased the business in 1970 when it occupied a much smaller space around the corner that “looked like a saloon a cowboy would come to,” Meyer says. The Internal Revenue Service shut down the bar after its owner failed to pay taxes. Laytham initially went to the tax auction to buy the beer stein collection, but he ended up with the whole place for $11,200.
As the 23-year-old corporate chef, Meyer helped open Old Ebbitt in 1983. “It’s hard to imagine how crappy this neighborhood was then,” Meyer says. “It never recovered from the riots in the ’60s.” Fellow restaurateurs told Laytham he was crazy and that the restaurant was a big mistake, Meyer recalls.
Undeterred, Laytham and Davidson set out to make Old Ebbitt a must-visit destination in D.C. But its century-plus history isn’t necessarily conducive to this goal. “Nobody gets off the plane, jumps in a cab, and asks the cab driver, ‘Where’s the oldest place in town?’” Meyer says.
The restaurant walks a fine line between honoring traditions and staying relevant. “One of the things John taught me right away is it’s not ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ It’s ‘Are you getting better or are you getting worse?’” Meyer says.
Most diners likely don’t realize that the restaurant pioneered many practices that today seem so ordinary and obvious. For example, as a young chef, Meyer wrote the menu daily. “Nobody did that,” he says. “Everyone had this leather menu, and it was the same menu for years.”
The restaurant also added waiters who helped run food to tables while others took orders. While it might seem elementary to bring out food as soon as it’s ready, nobody else was really doing it, Meyer says. Instead, chefs would be screaming from the kitchen that dishes were ready, while servers were busy interacting with guests. Old Ebbitt became known for its “back waiters” who could balance five or six plates at a time without trays.
Old Ebbitt was also the second restaurant in D.C. to use OpenTable to take reservations. (Marcel’s was the first.) Before then, the staff managed a big loose-leaf binder and nine telephone lines.
And then there are the oysters. Old Ebbitt helped revive the oyster scene in D.C. in the mid-’90s. Restaurants across the city had stopped serving them after a bacteria called vibrio vulnificus sickened and even killed people. When Old Ebbitt reopened its oyster bar in 1994 after a two-year hiatus, it claimed to be the only place in town serving oysters. “We got, like, religion about it,” Meyer says. The restaurant began lab-testing all its bivalves and introduced an “Oyster Eater’s Bill of Rights”—still printed on menus today—about its sourcing and serving practices. Rather than shucking the oysters in the morning and letting them sit until they were ordered, as was once the practice, all the oysters were opened to order.
Oysters have since become a major part of Old Ebbitt’s business, and currently five full-time shuckers go through 3,000 oysters a day. The restaurant also hosts an annual oyster and wine event called Oyster Riot. Hoping to just get people in the door, the first two events in the mid-’90s were free. This year, the restaurant sold 3,200 tickets at $140 a piece.
Private events in general are big business for Old Ebbitt. Managing Director David Moran says they make up 15 percent—and growing—of the restaurant’s sales. In December, with the holiday season underway, the restaurant hosts an average of five to eight events per day, with between 30 to 500 people in attendance.
Old Ebbitt no doubt benefits from its prime location and status as an institution, but that doesn’t solely explain its success. Moran and Meyer repeatedly credit their 300-person staff for the restaurant’s booming business. While staffing shortages still affect Old Ebbitt like they do any place else, the restaurant has impressive retention. More than 20 staff members have been employed for at least 20 years, and around 50 have worked there for at least 10, Moran says. It’s the kind of place where waiting tables or bartending isn’t just a job but a career.
“It’s the staff themselves who hold everyone else to this high standard,” Moran says.
“Plus, they know they’re going to be busy here,” Meyer adds. “If they come to work, they’re going to make money here. Consistently. This place is never not busy.”
It’s also rarely closed. Old Ebbitt prides itself on keeping its revolving doors open from early morning to late at night. “There’s never a, ‘Ah it’s a rainy Sunday night in late January, we should close early.’ Once you make those decisions and someone pulls on the door and it’s closed, it’s over,” Moran says.
Over the past 32 years, the restaurant has only closed twice, on Sept. 11 and 12, 2001, when there were fears of a plane crashing into the White House, located across the street. (Meyer also claims the restaurant’s sales have been up every quarter since it opened, except for the quarter during 9/11.)
The late-night happy hour in particular—with half-priced oysters from 11 p.m. to close—has made it a popular spot for restaurant industry folks, including José Andrés and Robert Wiedmaier. And when new restaurants open in the neighborhood, Old Ebbitt doesn’t see them as a threat; its owners know when those places close at 11 p.m., their staffs will likely head to Old Ebbitt, where the kitchen is open until 1 a.m. on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends.
At the same time, Meyer says he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about the lack of media buzz for Old Ebbitt. It often isn’t included in round-ups and best-of lists. “I can’t say I’m the hottest, coolest boutique restaurant, but I can tell you one thing: We try real hard with the food specifically to be great,” he says. “And [though] I never feel like I’m the ‘busiest’ or ‘best’ of anything… I’d like to be included in those conversations.”
Still, Meyer sees the competition and dining boom in D.C. as a boon for Old Ebbitt. While it’s not the kind of place to chase trends (ramen will likely never make the menu), Old Ebbitt has made efforts to keep up with the rising bar for food quality in the District. About a year ago, the kitchen stopped buying frozen fries and began making them from scratch. Now, they’re working to source organic chicken—something that was previously a struggle for a restaurant group of such large size. “This place has been around so long our victories are small,” Meyer admits.
Meyer is happy for the restaurant to be the “grand-papa of what’s going on.” And as always, he has his eye on the long game.
After all, he says, “we’re in this forever.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery