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The Old Ebbitt Grill: a Washington institution

In addition to making the rounds of the White House, the monuments on the Mall, the Smithsonian and the Capitol, many tourists planning their trips to Washington, D.C., pencil in a stop at Old Ebbitt Grill, nestled in the elbow of Pennsylvania Avenue, perhaps for a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc in the summer or a hearty Bloody Maryland in the fall or winter.

And certainly the locals find reasons to drop by regularly and in substantial numbers. In fact, part of the tourist attraction of Old Ebbitt is who you might see while you’re there.

To be fair, not everyone stops at the Old Ebbitt just to belly up to the bar – or bars. The establishment is, of course, a restaurant first, open for breakfast (when the bar is fairly barren), lunch and dinner, as well as for late-night snacking.

But, according to managing director David Moran, of the $27 million the establishment brings in every year, about $9 million, or a full third, originates at the bar, which translates into $25,000 ringing in the cash register on an average day. “That puts us about number 4 in the U.S. in terms of revenue,” Moran say, as we have a morning coffee in one of the booths while the power breakfast crowd is filtering out and just before the early-eating, mid-western tourists start dropping by.

The Nation’s Bar

The Old Ebbitt’s success begins with its centralized location, perhaps 100 yards north of the National Mall with all its attraction and the same distance east of the White House and not much farther from Metro Central subway station. But the keys to Old Ebbitt’s popularity don’t stop there.

Like the historical lobby at the nearby Willard Hotel, which gave its name to the term political “lobbyist”, the Old Ebbitt has a storied history that dates back to when Washington was regarded as a hick town, more southern in pace than northern, and a time when presidents would actually go for afternoon walks from the White House. Of course, the establishment has a great reputation for the quality of its food and drink, reasonable prices, and long opening hours. Additionally, the clientele is varied and devoted.

“What I love,” Moran says, “is that the customers are a constant blend of business people, politicos and tourists. We see more business people when Congress is in session and more tourists during the holidays and in the summer.”

But even the regulars can change suddenly in this town. “This is my third federal election,” says eight-year veteran bartender Margaret-Ann Mayo, “and after each election, many of the government regulars leave and a younger crowd, often people in their 20s, becomes regulars for the next four years.” Because the White House is so close and the Old Ebbitt’s hours so long, Mayo says Secret Service agents regularly eat at the bar.

“The young professionals think of the Old Ebbitt as the next step up from their favorite college bar in quality and career status,” says Michael Peters, a three-year veteran who normally works the day shift at the Corner Bar. “It’s their place to network.”

Where the Elite Meet to Drink

It all started with an innkeeper named William E. Ebbitt who gave his name to the restaurant and bar when he opened a boarding house in 1856, but today he wouldn’t recognize his progeny or even be able to find it. Exactly where the first building was actually located is a bit of a mystery, but most likely it was a few blocks away from its present location, somewhere in today’s Chinatown and near the current Verizon Center.

Congressman William McKinley is thought to have been a lodger at the boarding house before he became president. And, as the boarding house evolved into one of the city’s first saloons, it attracted thirsty presidents including Grover Cleveland, Ulysses Grant, Warren Harding, Lyndon Johnson, and Theodore Roosevelt. It changed locations frequently and was once located in the old Press Building. It was situated at 1427 F Street, NW, when it was closed and put up for auction, presumably forever done with its wandering ways.

Fortunately, the owners of a rising, much-more-recent Washington bar and grill, Clyde’s of Georgetown, were interested in the tavern’s beer stein collection. However, when the bidding stopped, John Laytham and the late Stuart Davidson found themselves owners of a second saloon.

“I’m told that a lot of restaurant people were surprised with the purchase,” Moran says, “because John was known as an astute businessman. They told him, ‘Now you’ve made a big mistake, Laytham!’”

High Standards

It was decided to move Old Ebbitt – at least in name – to its present location at 675 15th Street, NW, which occurred in 1983. A part of the physical history was kept, but some had to be abandoned. The original bar was too fragile and just fell apart, Moran says, but he points to the top of the current high-ceiling, mirrored main bar – the Old Bar – that greets customers as they enter off 15th Street. There, along with the requisite animal-head trophies, is the beer stein collection that attracted the Clyde group’s interest. Today, the Old Bar is one of four full-service bars, the others being the Oyster Bar that backs up to the Old Bar, Grant’s Bar and the newer Corner Bar.

“We don’t want to be trendsetters, but neither do we want to be left behind,” says Moran, a graduate of Cornell and son of New York restaurateur P.J. Moran. “We once had 10 mojitos on our list,” he says, but that proved to be impractical for the bartenders. “It was too many bottle touches. While we do like to entertain people while making cocktails,” he says, “we can’t do that when they are three deep at the bar!”


Peters notes the establishment has a standard process for making classic cocktails, “so if I serve someone a drink at my bar and they get another at their table served from another bar, it will taste the same.” That said, he notes up to 75 percent of his daytime customers are regulars who often want their drinks customized. “I remember their names and know about their children and whether they want a twist of lemon or something else different in their drinks.”

Beers are kept to 11 taps, seven devoted to craft beers. “But in spite of the interest in crafts, Miller Lite is still #1 and Stella Artois is #2,” he says. “The same thing is true with spirits, where Stoli and Bacardi dominate, even though people are interested in small-batch
American spirits.” Old Ebbitt has a seasonal competition for its bartenders to create new cocktails, although the winners don’t always make it to the bar list.

Wines-by-the-glass menus are printed daily, and a lot of the by-the-glass volume is generated by Old Ebbitt’s Oyster Bar, where a daily happy hour is held from 3-6 p.m., then repeated from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. with reduced prices. In fact, oysters are almost as much a part of the restaurant’s wine program as is wine itself.

Oyster Feast

For the past 18 years, the restaurant has hosted an annual Old Ebbitt Grill International Wines for Oysters Competition, featuring both trade and celebrity judges, such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Last November, judges selected gold medal winners from 258 wines submitted from all over the world, including the United States and 11 other countries. The 10 top wine winners were then poured to go with over 20 different types of oysters at the 18th Annual Oyster Riot, a two-day event with 2,700 customers devouring about 73,000 oysters.

“It’s a great way to kick off the holiday season,” Moran says, and points out the tremendous sales rewards to the grand winner, as their wine is featured throughout the year at Old Ebbitt. “Several thousand cases are poured by the glass for the next year,” he says.

Partly because of the emphasis on oysters and other shellfish, Mayo says that it’s the first place that she has worked that has intensive training in handling allergies in adults and children. “More people seem to have allergies these days,” she says, “and we have a five-step program to deal with them,” whether the cases are mild or severe.

Moran notes that another part of the success of the establishment has been that Washington has become a foodie town with an active nightlife, something that was not existent
a couple of decades ago. The Metro now operates later into the night, good for both customers and employees trying to get home, and the downtown is crowded with hotels, including an adjacent one, The Hamilton, owned by Clyde’s and managed by Moran.

A Gathering Place

Moran’s employment philosophy is that jobs at the Old Ebbitt should be looked upon as careers with career paths, and not just as temporary employment. “We have people who have been with us for 25 to 30 years,” he says. Additionally, Old Ebbitt trains its staff to be, as Moran puts it, “ambassadors for the city of Washington.”

“I like to think that our bar helped bring back the downtown area after 9-11,” he says, reminding that the Pentagon, about a mile away, was hit by one of the planes. “People needed to talk after that happened,” he says, “and gradually the bar served as a meeting point. They needed a place to congregate. They ignored the TV and just had a place to talk.”
That attitude, he thinks, is also emblematic of how he wants people to think about Old Ebbitt – as a gathering place where the customer not only feels that he or she has been well served, but also has been part of an experience.

When there are large political protests and marches on the Mall, which there frequently are, many of the participants on both sides end up at Old Ebbitt. “We welcome them all,” he says, “as long as they leave their signs and the protest outside.”


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