Fine Dining in Washington, DC in the 1950s

So how bad, really, were DC's restaurants in the 1950s? Conventional wisdom has it that before the last decade there were no good restaurants in Washington, so the eateries back in the 50s must have been really bad. Of course, every decade since the 1960s, conventional wisdom has held the same view, dismissing the previous ten years' worth of restaurants along with any refinements or successes they may have achieved. The 1950s are a decade that one could easily deride as a low point in the city's culinary history, so it's worth looking back at a few of the city's fine dining spots from that era. While they largely depended on New York, both for inspiration and financial support, and were certainly far less sophisticated than today's best places, they were probably not as thoroughly deplorable as they are often made out to be.

Interior of La Salle Du Bois restaurant (author's collection).

In the 1950s Washington's restaurant culture was still recovering from the food shortages of World War II and its aftermath. The wartime Office of Price Administration had frozen prices for food served in restaurants in 1943, dampening business through the duration of the war. Strict rationing of many types of food, including grains, meat, and dairy products, meant that restaurants often were unable to offer their most popular dishes. The shortages continued after the war as the U.S. worked to shore up devastated countries in Europe where hunger was rampant. In October 1947 President Truman called for a nationwide food conservation program, aimed at making more food available to ship overseas. As reported in The Washington Post, restaurants pledged to "cut down excessive portions,... serve bread and butter only on request, eliminate toast trimmings, limit the number of crackers with soup servings,... abandon the three-layer cake during the emergency, use substitutes for wheat cereal wherever possible... and use surplus foods to the greatest extent." Fancy gourmet dining thus became not only impractical but even downright unpatriotic.

Author's collection.
Nevertheless, a few D.C. restaurants struggled to offer discriminating customers a fine-dining experience. La Salle du Bois, opened in December 1941 at the dawn of American involvement in World War II, was one such place. Located on the southwest corner of 18th and M Streets NW, it was an outpost of a New York City restaurant of the same name, as were many of Washington's best restaurants of this era. When it opened it was decorated in a “patriotic modern” style of rose, white and blue, with Colonial revival wallpaper and soft pink lighting. Chef Robert, from French Louisiana stock, produced an assortment of New Orleans-influenced dishes, including pheasant with foie gras and truffles, pompano en papillotte, and venison with sweet and sour sauce. The Post termed the Salle du Bois “swanky but gayly informal” at its opening: “a river of silver fox, ermine and mink wraps poured through the entrance, flash bulbs popped, Robert Montgomery looked handsomer in his naval uniform than he does in the movies…” Throughout the war years, La Salle du Bois had served as one of Washington’s few power lunch spots for diplomats and military officers, and it retained its status as one of DC's most exclusive eateries well into the 1950s. Holiday Magazine, the accepted arbiter of good taste in those days, noted in 1950 that the restaurant was "popular with Georgetowners and others well-to-do [and] serves a mean crêpe Suzette."

The Salle Du Bois was operated in the 1950s by New York-born restaurateur Alex Stuart, who had come to Washington after his service in the Army Air Corps during the war. Stuart also opened another of Washington's few fine dining spots, The Colony, at 1737 DeSales Street NW, just north of the Mayflower Hotel, in 1948. As usual for those times, the entertainment and décor drew more attention than anything else when it opened. The Colony had singers and musicians in its new lounge, a fashion show on opening day, and a gallery of life-sized portraits of prominent Washingtonians. The dining room, shaded a dusty pink with cream trim, featured bas relief statues of mythological figures playing lyres and pipes. A profusion of mirrors and flower vases completed the kind of look that was expected in those days of a fine French restaurant.

Interior of The Colony restaurant (author's collection).

The Post's nightlife commentator, Paul Herron, was a perennial booster of The Colony in the days before the paper had a dedicated restaurant critic. "Handsome, pipe-smoking Alex Stuart presides over one of the city's most luxurious dining rooms," Herron write in 1951. "His restaurant is one of the few places that uses the 'team' system of table service. Not one, but three, waiters, are responsible for your comfort and service the minute you walk in the door. Even a wine steward, with traditional black apron and huge key, is available to help in that department." The following year, declaring it "the smartest dining and cocktail spot in the city," Herron provided more details:
No dinner, regardless of price, comes to the table in any manner other than hot off the business end of an alcohol burner. Every salad is mixed at your table, vegetables are cooked in a manner that would warm the heart of the most strict dietician. The only displeased diners will be those trying to shed pounds because the sauces are rich, the butter supply is inexhaustible, and the desserts well-nigh irresistible.
Here was classic 1950s fine dining: elegant French food drowned in melted butter and heavy sauces, maybe not freshly cooked but at least kept nice and warm. In the days before nouvelle cuisine, this was the height of sophistication. And it's likely that many of those well-cooked vegetables came from cans.

Detail from a matchbook cover. The dusty pink color was fashionable at the time (author's collection).

The Colony prospered right through the 50s but closed in 1963 when Connie Valanos (1918-2012), owner of The Monocle on Capitol HIll, bought it and converted it into a short-lived eatery called Conrad's.

Inside the Rive Gauche (author's collection).

The Salle du Bois and Colony might have been swell, but probably the most exclusive restaurant in the city in the 1950s was the Rive Gauche, located at 1310 Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown. Blaise Gherardi de Parata (1909–1978), a native of Corsica, had come to the United States in 1949 and opened Rive Gauche in 1956. It was an expensive, top-drawer French restaurant, furnished in quilted burgundy-colored leather banquettes, a mammoth crystal chandelier, and gilt-framed oil paintings. Owner Gherardi, who was not a chef himself, enjoyed playing the part of the flamboyant, high-profile restaurant owner who was forever fighting with his temperamental chefs. Gherardi’s original chef, Eugène Batisse (1910–2003), whom he brought from Paris in 1953, left in 1959 to work at Le Bistro, a new downtown competitor, establishing a pattern that would continue for years to come. Gherardi would go on scouting trips to France and bring back promising young chefs to the Rive Gauche, where they would make a name for themselves and subsequently set out on their own ventures, often after having been fired by the temperamental Gherardi. The drama of it all only added to the allure of the Rive Gauche.
Detail from a matchbook cover (author's collection).

What if you couldn't afford or felt intimidated by the Rive? An alternative was fine dining "for the masses" at the Longchamps restaurant on the northeast corner of 14th Street and New York Avenue NW, then the heart of a lively entertainment district. The Longchamps restaurant chain began in New York City in 1919. As chronicled by Jan Whitaker, the chain aimed at the well-to-do middle class; its meals were not cheap but were nonetheless considered affordable. The chain's formula was to draw customers in with stylish, attention-getting Modernist interiors that would make customers feel they were part of the in crowd.

This postcard includes a view of the restaurant's gaudy entrance at 14th Street and new York Avenue (Author's collection).
In 1950 the chain announced that it would open its first restaurant outside of New York City in Washington, D.C. The company had pre-leased 18,000 square feet on the basement, first floor, and mezzanine levels of the sleek new Wyatt Building being constructed at 14th Street and New York Avenue. When it opened in December 1952, the new restaurant was Washington's largest, seating 350 patrons. Its dining room featured the rich red and gold tones that were Longchamps' trademark, as well as paintings of Native Americans by German-born artist and designer Winold Reiss (1886-1953). The look of luxury had its intended intoxicating effect, but the chain's owners made sure their prices were no higher than those of other "better" Washington eateries.

Author's collection.

In August 1954 the Post's Paul Herron offered a brief report card on the 18-month-old restaurant, noting that it had "had its share of troubles in getting used to a smaller town habitat and in getting its potential patrons used to it." While maintaining its quality standards, including resisting canned and frozen foods ("if you order a side dish of peas, they are shelled, seasoned and cooked after you have ordered them"), the restaurant had to supplement its usual à la carte menu with a number of pre-set meal options, apparently because penny-pinching Washingtonians believed such meals were cheaper (they weren't). But DC restaurant-goers apparently warmed to Longchamps and it continued successfully through the 1950s.

One Longchamps innovation that was particularly noteworthy was the ability to charge meals to a credit card rather than having to settle up on the spot. Getting a Longchamps credit card was a simple matter. "Longchamps executive Arthur Riback says all you have to do is send a post card request to him at the 14th and New York avenue dining spot and he'll try to get your credit card in the return mail," Herron observed in 1955. "They don't even made a credit check on applicants, and there's no membership costs or dues." Travel and entertainment credit cards were the latest thing in the 1950s, an outgrowth of the proliferation of corporate expense accounts, and ritzy restaurants like Longchamps were just the sort of places that expense account lunches were most likely to take place.

Author's collection.

An ad for Longchamps in 1956 confirms the clientele the restaurant was pursuing. "To the Gentlemen on 'The Hill'!," it reads. "When a valued constituent shows up in Washington you naturally want to give him the 'red carpet' treatment. As part of the program may we suggest Dinner at Longchamps—Washington's most beautiful restaurant." —We'll be kind and overlook the fact that Longchamps' managers didn't seem to understand who would be paying for whom when corporate lobbyists came to town.

By the end of the decade, the Longchamps chain was in decline in New York, and the DC eatery was sold in late 1959 to Alex Stuart, owner of La Salle Du Bois and The Colony. Stuart remodeled and reopened the place as Alex Stuart's, which lasted until 1965. By that time, people no longer wanted to go to that part of downtown to eat dinner.

Postcard view of Alex Stuart's Restaurant (author's collection).
Matchbook cover from Alex Stuart's (author's collection).

A new wave of sophisticated restaurants arrived in other parts of the city in the 1960s, along with a young new president who enjoyed fine dining in a way his predecessors couldn't imagine. —But that's a story for another time.

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For much more DC restaurant history read our just-published Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats. To keep up with the latest on book events and read more anecdotes, "like" our Facebook page.

Sources for this article included Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats; Jan Whitaker's Restaurant-ing Through History blog; John Mariani's America Eats Out (1991); and numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

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  1. What an interesting story, and love the pictures!

  2. My Dad, Paul Keats, Sr., gave out the Holiday Magazine awards to the finest restaurants in D.C. in the late 1950s. Holiday, a sister publication to the Saturday Evening Post, is also long gone. His absolute favorite restaurant was Rive Gauche and I have a picture of him handing the award to Blaise Gherardi and his wife Mimi. They were later bitterly divorced. When the place closed, he gave his favorite patrons the oil paintings off the wall. I have one and it hangs in my dining room.

  3. These were beautiful restaurants. People dressed up and enjoyed fine dining.Where is Paul Young's?

    1. There were quite a few fine restaurants, including Paul Young's on Connecticut Avenue, but Paul Young's didn't open until 1960 and so is too late for this article. There's a profile of Paul Young's in the book, Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats.

  4. Ate at Paul Youngs many times.

  5. Ate at Paul Youngs many times.

  6. Trying to find the Flagship Restaurant. ...not Phillips...that had a ship inside. It was a great treat to eat there. It was on the waterfront.

  7. Trying to find the Flagship Restaurant. ...not Phillips...that had a ship inside. It was a great treat to eat there. It was on the waterfront.

  8. I found an old, 9/02/1950 "The Blue Mirror," Restaurant, on inside, with two photo holders, heavy cardboard. 824 14 Street, Northwest, Washington D.C. Is it a collector's item?


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