You know Table 57 has stories to tell. The four-seat, red accented back booth at Capitol Hill mainstay The Monocle, located just a couple short blocks from the Capitol and the Supreme Court, has hosted countless political luminaries. Both sides of the aisle, all branches of government.
Barack Obama. Ted Kennedy. Neil Gorsuch. Mitch McConnell. Dianne Feinstein. Lindsey Graham. Samuel Alito. Lisa Murkowski. Joe Manchin.
The booth was a longtime haunt of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who favored it because it was one of the last tables in the restaurant where smoking was allowed.
Plenty of celebrities have dined at Table 57, too: Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Elizabeth Taylor, Bo Derek.
This is just a sliver of The Monocle’s A-List clientele. Since Constantine “Connie” Valanos and his wife Helen opened the two-story restaurant in 1960, it has served classic, American-minded surf and turf fare to almost everyone who has been anyone in Washington. You name it, they’ve been there, and there’s probably a signed photograph on the wall to prove it. (The restaurant has several hundred autographed portraits in its archive, occasionally adding, subtracting and rearranging the lineup on display.) Walking around to look at them is a pictorial tour of modern American politics.
Considered the first white tablecloth restaurant on the Hill, the restaurant has endured for more than six decades, despite being shut down for six months during the pandemic and then forced to close for another 79 days in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. Despite time and trend shifts, not much has changed over the years, which is part of its charm. The restaurant is still owned by its founding family; the Valanos’ son, John Valanos, took over in 1989. He hopes the restaurant will pass on to a third generation: his son, Constantine Valanos, who currently works in retail sales and leasing for Summit Commercial Real Estate.
John Valanos is circumspect when talking about his job and is relatively blasé about most of his clientele — “They’re our guests,” the owner says with a shrug — though he admits getting excited meeting a few celebs over the years: astronaut John Glenn, actor Robert DeNiro and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Given the acrimony and divisiveness that are the hallmarks of politics these days, one would think a restaurant like The Monocle would handle their guests with kid gloves, essentially dividing the dining room by party. Not so.
“People could be in an argument with each other that afternoon and then seated six feet apart,” Valanos says. “They’ll be cordial.”
Finessing the perfect seating chart does require skill.
“We try to be careful we don’t put certain people next to each other in case they want to have a private conversation,” Valanos says, who relies on his maître d’ Nick Selimos, who has been at the restaurant for nearly three decades.
Flexibility is a necessity since the restaurant’s clientele are often held up by votes, meetings or unexpected current events.
“You should see how many phone calls we have for one party sometimes,” Valanos says. “First, they call and say, ‘There’ll be five at seven o’clock.’ Then they call back. ‘No, no, that’ll be six at six o’clock.’ Then it’s another call. ‘Now it’s going to be eight — have us at eight o’clock.’ Back and forth, back and forth. Then another call. ‘Oh, by the way, I can’t come.’”
In a town with high turnover rate, in an industry with a high failure rate, The Monocle’s endurance is impressive. His equation for longevity? First, no sudden shifts.
“We change the restaurant gradually, because people feel like it’s part of their life,” he says. “If you change too much too quickly, people ask, ‘Wait, why did you take this table from here or that chair from this spot?’ They notice even the little stuff.”
Second: reasonable prices.
“People are spending their own dollars,” he says. “It’s not like when the lobbyists were paying.”
There’s also the food. The menu sticks to middle-of-the-road crowd pleasers. A hefty burger, salad topped with tenderloin and blue cheese and fried shrimp are all favorites at lunch, while those splurging at dinnertime can enjoy Wagyu steaks from Snake River Farms, lobster and a beloved crab cake.
The last thing that keeps people coming back to The Monocle is discretion. Valanos doesn’t spill the tea, even when he’s pressed.
“Actually, I do have a story for you,” he finally relents. “But it has to be off the record.”