Nibbles & Sips: The Occidental, Forever Young

by John Arundel

Young-at-heart chefs and innovative drinks keep classic power dining fresh.

Story and photos by Jordan Wright

The Occidental Cafe provides a Parisian-like setting.

In the shadow of the White House a special watering hole welcomes celebrities, power brokers and out-of-towners in equal measure.

The Occidental Grill and Seafood situated beside the Willard Hotel continues its reputation as a swank establishment where legions of notable devotees have long gathered to drink, dine, swap state secrets and make policy. That it continues to attract both the well-heeled and influential for over one hundred years is a tribute to its reverence for fine food and superb service.

Though it boasts a clientele of famous politicians and a roster of international scene-stealers, what’s most impressive is that the Occidental has kept pace with the contemporary food scene. It’s one Washington spot that doesn’t rest on its considerably august laurels but continues to forge ahead with innovative American cuisine.

Chef Rodney Scruggs

Executive Chef Rodney Scruggs has been steering the kitchen’s progress over the past seven years buying locally as much as he can and delivering the kind of elegant dishes his guests expect. Oysters hail from War Shore Oysters and sustainable seafood is delivered six days a week from Prime Seafood.

On a recent visit he beamed like a proud papa over a tray of bio-dynamically raised heirloom tomatoes from Virginia’s Whipple Farms and patiently explained how Molly Visosky’s famers co-op, The Fresh Link, a system that links farms, food artisans and farmers markets, provides the restaurant with the best local produce farmers have to offer on any given week.

The spectacular steaks the Occidental is known for are from Rosetta Farms in Baltimore County who supply Scruggs with top-quality naturally raised meat.

The recent hire of Chef de Cuisine Matt Baker ups the game with his edgy twist to food styling and concept. Also new is Mixologist/Sommelier Jo-Jo Valenzuela who is quite literally stirring things up with craft sodas and artisanal cocktails. Made with sprigs plucked from the hotel’s herb garden and exotic spices, his infused liquors bring a fresh creative approach to the overall beverage program.

Recently, I joined a convivial group for lunch that included Metropolitan Opera star Alessandra Marc, über-defense lawyer and former D.C. Baseball Commissioner, Marc Tuohey III, National Theatre’s Executive Director Tom Lee and Sean Graystone, who currently oversees the restoration of the magnificent Temple of the Scottish Rite, one of D.C.’s most iconic historic buildings. Pleasantly ensconced beneath hundreds of framed photographs of the restaurant’s legendary clientele we tucked into Maryland lump crab cakes, yellow fin tuna burgers and lobster rolls with fresh fennel, and swapped tales of the town.

As we talked, our indoor table looked out over the pretty patio with its royal blue umbrellas and cast iron jardinères and window boxes spilling over with herbs and bright pink flowers reminiscent of a sidewalk café along the Champs Élysées.

You could almost sense the city’s original designer, Pierre L’Enfant, smiling down in approval, his vision realized and still very much alive.

The dining room before the noon-time rush

Lobster roll with fennel

Related Articles