House lunch is a bargain even when it's paid for

October 04, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When a waitress hands over the bill at the Capitol's House of Representatives dining rooms, a printed message on the back implores, "Please Settle With Server." Just above, an eagle stares sternly from the Great Seal of the House, as if to say, "And we mean business!"

But perhaps more significant is that the whole thing is printed in red ink. After all, the House restaurant is awash in the stuff, thanks to $300,000 in unpaid bills owed by members of Congress.

Yet, neither customers nor workers seemed particularly concerned about such revelations at lunchtime yesterday, with the possible exception of the lawmakers themselves, many of whom ate in seclusion in their own section of the two-room restaurant, just across a hallway from everybody else.

Unlike the main Capitol restaurant serving the public at large, which can be entered from one of the main tourist causeways, both rooms of the House restaurant are entered from a lesser-used corner of the building's maze of marble halls and stairways. Instead of the plaid shorts and dangling cameras occasionally seen in the public restaurant, the House version is more somberly proper -- mostly dark suits and subdued conversation, with nary a child to fling beans from a high chair.

The resulting ambience? About as posh and regal as one might '' expect of a place that just got a $2 million renovation of its kitchen and dining area: royal blue cloth wallpaper, thick blue carpet with a pattern of rust-colored blossoms, chandeliers and crystal wall lamps, a gigantic mirror gilt-edged with a baroque flurry of intricate carvings, and a huge and impressive -- though politically incorrect -- painting of Henry Hudson discovering his namesake river as he stands at the bow of a longboat, foot propped commandingly on the gunwale as he prepares to greet the meek American Indians squatted on the sandy bank.

The members' private room is grander still, with its double-tiered chandelier and presumably tonier clientele. But yesterday one couldn't stare inside the doorway for long without drawing the uneasy attention of the maitre d', a fellow who responded to questions about unpaid bills with a mock-scolding tone, saying, "I can't talk about that. You know better than that."

At least one congressman, Representative Andrew Jacobs Jr., D-Ind., did pop into the public side of the House restaurant yesterday. He stood whistling and waving, trying to flag down a waiter so that he could, yes, pay for his meal.

"Look," a nearby diner was overheard saying with a chuckle. "There's a congressman desperately trying to pay his check."

As for the food, it's several cuts above the bland institutiona stuff found in other government eateries, though it's not exactly worth losing one's public reputation over, considering some of the top-flight restaurants around town.

One of yesterday's two hot entree specials, "Gulf shrimp with poached fresh spinach, scallions and oregano in a natural seafood bouillon," was particularly good. Not only were the shrimp cooked to just the right firmness, but the spices were sharp without being overpowering.

The presentation was also pleasant, with the shrimp ringing the small pile of spinach much like a group of reporters surrounding an accused congressman for a healthy round of hounding.

The day's "Smart-Heart Alternative," described as "oven-poached fresh fillet of sole with fresh dill and cucumber yogurt sauce (205 calories)," was also a hit. On the side were a summer squash, a carrot and some string beans, arrayed and lightly steamed in the manner of nouvelle cuisine, which means that each was small and sadly undernourished, leftovers perhaps from a Department of Agriculture pilot project for miniature vegetables.

But the prices seemed to have nothing at all to do with Congress. By Capitol Hill standards they were almost ridiculously low: $8.75 for the shrimp, $8.50 for the sole. One could easily pay double at a nearby private restaurant. Throw in the possibility of never paying your check, and the bargain is even more amazing.

With the addition of two iced teas, a coffee and two nice desserts, (a pecan tart and a boldly amusing little plum tart), yesterday's lunch tab for two was $22.50. Part of the reason for these low prices has to do with a time-honored congressional tradition: the public subsidy. The public pays for the space, the kitchen and all the other facilities. So, the price of a meal must only cover the cost of the food and beverages themselves, with nothing extra for profit.

But perhaps the biggest surprise on the check was that here in the belly of the tax-making capital of the nation, there was no tax added.

That would seem to leave customers with enough spare change for some pretty generous tips. Yet, one waitress serving the public room's press table (reporters are among the most regular customers at this publicly subsidized trough) said that isn't necessarily the case.

Pointing toward the lawmakers-only dining room, she said of the tipping habits there, "I heard some of them are not that great. That's the reason I'd rather work this table right here."

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