The Occidental is a D.C. classic. In a city surrounded by shiny new comers (with impeccable Instagram feeds), it’s the old man in the room who doesn’t know what a hashtag is (and doesn’t really care). Whether you’re a steakhouse fanatic, or you cringe at the very thought, you cannot deny that old school steakhouses like the Occidental are an important part of D.C.’s dining scene. Before we were known for Bad Saint or Timber or Pineapples & Pearls, D.C. was famous for our dark, leather accented dining rooms and meat heavy menus. In some ways, the diversification of D.C.’s dining scene has been good for our steakhouses. Instead of being one of the only options in a city overrun with them, the bad ones have mostly been run out of town (RIP STK) and the decent ones have settled into their niche. They’re the kind of places you take friends or family when they want to get the Disney D.C. experience, the kind of spot that you hit up when you want a luxurious lunch before the tourists role in, or maybe the place you run to once or twice a year when you’re craving some serious meat action.
On an incredibly stormy night, we found ourselves in that exact mood. After running through the rain, the Occidental’s redesigned dining room was a welcome reprieve. The new design has brightened the space, making the dining room feel more modern without losing its classic elements. After drying off and settling into one of those big, leather bound booths, the first thing to tackle was the drink menu. Designed by Frankie Jones (who spent many years creating weird and wonderful cocktails at The Gibson), the menu leans playful with drinks like the “Bro-Royale” (a mix of whiskey and Red Bull made in honor of the Royal Wedding) and flights like the “I Don’t Take Flights, I Charter Jets!” (which will run you a casual $125). We tried the “I Only Had a F.E.W. Rickeys” (made with gin, lime, soda water, coriander, turmeric and white pepper) and “The Elephant in the Room” (with Absolut Elyx, peach liqueur, lemon juice, and St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram). Both leaned summer-y, with fruity flavors and a dangerous drinkability. These cocktails are made to get people in trouble.
Though the drink menu brings a little levity to the dinner table, Chef Jake Addeo’s menu is serious business. There’s the perennial crab cakes and caesar salad, as well as foie gras, bone marrow, oysters, gnocchi, country ham… And those are only half of the appetizers. It’s not an aggressively large menu by any means, but the options do run the gamut. The grilled octopus and pork belly is a good option if you want to kickstart your meal with some meat, but don’t want to go the foie gras route. The hearty chunks of octopus seemed like they were destined to be the star of the show, but it was actually the tender, and almost delicate, pork belly that stole the spotlight.
Our favorite appetizer of the bunch was an heirloom tomato salad that was essentially a panzanella. I always feel bad saying that my favorite thing is a salad. Nine times out of ten, salads are the most boring thing on the menu, but after tasting the richer items like the pork belly, the crab cake and the clam chowder, the cool and crisp heirloom tomatoes paired with simply dressed housemade croutons were exactly what I needed in my life. Forget the caesar, this is the only salad I want to eat.
Like the appetizers, the Occidental gives you a decent amount of variation with the entrees, while still keeping their menu relatively slim. Our favorites included a tender duck breast paired with a delightfully savory Anson Mills blue corn grit cake and some lightly pickled broccolini, but the short rib is also a good option if you’re looking for something a little more dense. For sides, the asparagus was an absolute killer. Cooked to perfection and doused in a lemon-y garlic butter, it was a breath of fresh air after inhaling heavy meat after heavy meat.
We didn’t want dessert. We didn’t have room in our bodies from dessert. But after some charming peer pressure from Chef Addeo, we carefully dug into his Depression-era vinegar pie (I told you the man was serious). Paired with a scoop of olive oil gelato, the pie is made apple cider vinegar, which gives it a similar texture and taste to Key lime pie but with a little more edge. For a dessert we didn’t really want, we ended up finishing much more of it than we thought.
The Occidental has been in D.C. for over a hundred years. While Jones and Addeo are certainly mixing things up, you know what you’re going to get when you walk in the door. That’s the beauty of places like this. They stand the test of time.