Many people know that Mr. Smith’s has been on the corner of 31st and M streets for over 40 years; not many people know that they’ve had the same chef, Arturo Guevara, for 30 years, giving him one of the longest tenures of any chef in the DC area.
As I enjoyed my “October Beer of the Month,” a bottle of Batch 19 ($3.25), I struck up two conversations – one conversation with a gentleman on my right, about my age with dreadlocks down to his waist, who had seen it all, many times over, the other conversation with a gentleman on my left, an eternally optimistic, handsome young man in his 20s – girls would have swooned over him – who was visiting DC for the first time.
The gentleman on my right mentioned something about Richard Pryor, and I said I’d just seen one of his stand-up comedy routines the night before on YouTube. He began talking about Redd Foxx; I told him about a hilariously groundbreaking comedian from the 70s who he wouldn’t know: Clay Tyson (I had an album of Clay Tyson’s called “Laugh Your Ass Off”). Well, I couldn’t believe that he did know him, adding that he used to bartend in a comedy club in Atlanta, decades ago. “Could you possibly know a guy named Steve Smith?” I asked. His face lit up in disbelief. He did! I saw Steve Smith in a decrepit, South Carolina comedy roadhouse back in the early 80s – he was a local comedian from Atlanta, and completely unknown even then. And I still remember one of his jokes: “Whenever you see a black comic, you can be sure they’re going to talk about two things: black people, and Jesus. And you’re gonna get the same from me. Right before I came on stage, I peeked through the curtain at the audience, and said to myself, “Jesus! There aren’t any black people in here!”
Thus, the answer to the eternal question: How do you make 50 rednecks simultaneously double over laughing while spewing Coors Light through their noses?
I bought my friend to the right aÂ Jameson; my friend to the left a second Coors Light, recommending that he hit Bandolero on the way back to the Key Bridge Marriott. Heck, it had been too long since I’d bought strangers a round of drinks, and it felt good, too.
About that Batch 19: Despite its artisan label, it’s owned and made by Coors. Nevertheless, it’s a good beer that has retained its microbrew characteristics, and one that beer lovers will like if they can find it; I haven’t noticed it at any other restaurants, but I also hadn’t been looking for it.
I also developed a rapport with my bartender, who has been working at Mr. Smith’s for five years. He seemed like he was pretty familiar with the menu, so I trusted him when I asked if the “Fresh Fish of the Day” was really fresh. Mr. Smiths’ website says, and I quote, “Freshly caught and heart-healthy – never frozen – if it wasn’t swimming last night we wouldn’t be serving it today! Ask your server for details.” Really? If it wasn’t swimming last night?
Fact or Fiction? Well, fiction, but not by *that* much. My bartender assured me that they get a shipment in every other day, and that it’s probably the best thing on the menu. (My friend to the left got an absolutely massive burger – Mr. Smith’s claims that they sell over one ton of hamburgers a month! That would have probably been a more representative sampling of the restaurant, but I wanted to see if they could do a good fish dish.) Chef Guevara, every now and then, would appear from the kitchen, holding a plate of food for a runner to pick up, so he was working on this Monday evening.
So, the fish of the day was Swordfish ($16.95), served with broccoli florets, rice pilaf, and a dinner roll. And you know what? It was a darned good piece of fish, one of the best and most well-prepared pieces of swordfish I’ve had in awhile (I don’t order swordfish much). Diners have the option of grilled vs. blackened – my bartender recommended grilled, and I’m glad he did because I really liked it. I’m happy to say that based on this one dish, I can heartily recommend the fresh catch of the day at Mr. Smith’s – much to my surprise!
And one other thing: On the menu, there is a Wine Burger for $999. On the website, it says it’s $1,000, so for some reason there’s a one-dollar discount on the paper menu. What is it? It’s the hamburger of your choice, plus a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild. That’s it. A publicity stunt for sure. In five years, my bartender told me he has never heard of one being sold. I pressed him about it, and the manager on duty said he has seen a couple served during his career (Mr. Smith’s website claims that their service manager has worked at the restaurant for over 25 years, and this may have been him).
And so I pressed him further, and asked about the vintage. Not to be a pain; but honest-to-goodness, if this was the right vintage of Lafite, I would have potentially tried to purchase one to go. The price of Lafite has absolutely skyrocketed at auction in recent years, and certain vintages are worth more than $1,000.
The manager said he couldn’t remember the vintage, but went downstairs and brought it back up. It was presented in an elaborately decorated wooden canister that, as pretty as it looked, was made from balsa wood, and on the bottom of it was a sticker that said, “Made in China.” So the container itself did not come from Lafite, who imports their wines to the United States in pine cases of 12 bottles each (usually).
But that didn’t make the wine itself fake; it was merely a decorative container in which to present it. So I opened it, looked at the bottle, and my jaw dropped: it was a 1933! A 1933! I have never once, not in my entire life, seen a bottle of 1933 Bordeaux. More on that in a second, but the shape of the bottle appeared correct, the capsule appeared correct (they used shorter capsules back then), and the label looked like it *may* have been correct, although with only a two-minute inspection, and no older pictures to compare it with, there was no way for me to know for sure. It looked a teeny-tiny bit suspect, but it may have been authentic for at least two reasons: who in the heck would counterfeit a 1933 Bordeaux, well-known among connoisseurs to be a lesser vintage whose wines were drunk up long ago. More importantly – much more importantly – the importer’s strip was from “Milton S. Kronheim,” and this screamed authenticity.
Let me tell you: Based on what I saw, if this had been a 49, 48, 47, 45, 34, 29, or 28, I would have bought it on the spot. Yes, I would have tried to negotiate the price down a bit, but I would have bought it. The 33? Well, put it this way: if I were at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux, and they offered me a perfectly stored bottle of 33 from their library collection (assuming they have any left), I would pay $1,000 for it. Here in the United States? Well, I can’t remember the years Milton S. Kronheim was active (certainly not off the top of my head, in a bar like Mr. Smith’s, when I had to make a snap decision), but I was sorely tempted to make a lowball offer for the wine because when I held it up to the light (the dim light which didn’t give me a really good view), the sediment at the bottom of the bottle looked “correct” – abundant and healthy – and just as importantly, the color looked to be a still-vibrant ruby red. Not purple (like a new wine), but ruby red. But I just didn’t feel comfortable pulling the trigger, or even negotiating, because at the end of the day, a 1933 Lafite is no huge prize despite its rarity. Who knows the original provenance of this 81-year-old wine which was vinified decades before Mr. Smith’s even opened. But I did consider it for a brief moment.
Hey Big Spenders! Want to impress your date, and potentially steal one of the rarest old Bordeaux you’ll ever drink? Go for it. I bet they’ll throw in a second burger. Make arrangements that, if the cork is branded with something other than 1933 Lafite-Rothschild (that will be the true test), then you expect not to pay for the wine. But there’s a reasonable chance that one of the rarest wines in the city is sitting buried in the basement of Mr. Smith’s, and it may well be in pretty good shape.
And so it went – what could have been a painfully ordinary evening was turned into something extraordinary, with new friends, a fascinating discovery, and a pretty darned good dinner. Life is what you make of it, and on this night, I made it happen – let this story inspire you to do the same.