We recently dined at Equinox (818 Connecticut) and Bobby Van’s Steakhouse (809 15th Street NW) on back-to-back Friday nights. Bottom lines: Equinox was excellent, BV’s was fine but not worth the price. But we were most struck by the half-empty dining rooms in both restaurants, on a Friday night, around 7pm. To paraphrase Babu: where were all the people? Show me people! There are no people!
Our theory is probably obvious: the DC restaurant scene has exploded in recent years, competition is fierce, and elegance is out, hip is in. While Equinox continues to serve some of the best food in DC, it is certainly not hip. You know that every 14th street spot is packed every Friday night — not just that strip, but that’s the one that comes most to mind these days. Tom Sietsema, in his recent review of Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab (also not exactly hip?), noted it was full on a Monday night, and wondered if nearby restaurants were worried about the competition. Bobby Van’s is nearby, and so I would say yes, they must be worried.
Quick recap of our Bobby Van’s experience: good but overly formal service, high prices, okay food. Avoid the house steak sauce, which is more like sweet and sour sauce and does not enhance the gristly but otherwise perfectly cooked, reasonably tasty New York strip. Fries are pretty good. Overall though the steak and fries are not any better than at Medium Rare, and lack the awesome MR sauce, and are twice as expensive for a comparable portion (fewer fries at BV, actually).
Longer recap of Equinox. Ten years ago, Equinox — or as they sometimes like to call it “Chef Todd Gray’s Equinox Restaurant” — was on essentially every critic’s list of the top restaurants in DC. It seems like that’s not the case anymore — as noted we were surprised to find it barely half full on a Friday night — but the kitchen still creates delicious food, service is top notch, and the decor is still elegant, maybe a little outdated, but whatever. And you can hear yourselves converse, which is a nice change from a lot of restaurants. But for whatever reason, the millennials don’t seem to be eating at Equinox, at least they weren’t when we ate there last week, aside from maybe the dude sitting at a front table wearing a black t-shirt that said “Han Shot First” — a sentiment with which I completely agree, but maybe not in an upscale restaurant. Equinox isn’t exactly the Mos Eisley cantina. Then again, I’m not a paragon of fashion myself.
Back to DC, back to dinner. Pacing was a little slow, but it was fine, I think the servers actually did a good job reading our conversational flow. We were clearly in no hurry. From the amuse bouche — duck confit egg rolls — to dessert — okay poached pear and glorious chocolate panna cotta — we ate well and had a great time.
Beer-braised lamb shank required no knife, falling apart and away from the bone at the slighted touch. Sous-vide short rib and beef loin were incredibly tender and rich. Our server was pushing the fish — actually he was pushing everything on the menu equally, really my only complaint, it’s nice to get an actual preference/recommendation — and the fish-eaters among us were pleased with their Texas Red Fish and Norwegian Salmon. The monkfish apparently knows no state or country and maybe that’s why nobody ordered it.
We also tried the truffled mac & cheese, which was not discernibly truffled but otherwise fine, as it is in most restaurants. It’s hard to make a transcendent mac & cheese, but fortunately fine is just fine as long as you don’t expect more. Dessert came with a little shot of prosecco on the house, which was a nice complement to the pear dish in particular, but it was the rich, creamy “Mocha Moderne” panna cotta that ultimately won the night. It’s almost enough to make me crave chocolate. Does anyone make a lamb shank panna cotta?
Entrees are in the $26-34 range, reasonable for that level of quality food and service. I’d happily go back, although the location just south of Farragut Square isn’t convenient for us. Also, the restaurant isn’t much to look at from the street, I suspect that may improve once warmer weather hits (not this week!) and they can open the front patio, but possibly the lack of curb appeal hurts the winter dining scene.
All told, an excellent dining experience. If Equinox isn’t still considered a top DC dining destination, it should be. At least for those of us unhipsters…