Olivia’s Diner, Downtown

You have two people to thank for this review: cheezepowder, who fastidiously included Olivia’s Diner on her List of Restaurant Openings – 2015 thread, and jasonc, whose post written to me got me all teary-eyed and inspired to keep going.

Olivia’s Diner is smack dab in the middle of downtown, on 19th and L, just NW of Farragut North Metro, and due south of Dupont Circle. There will be *lots* of available parking should it ever stay open for late-night dining, which it will need to do in order to survive. But it has the potential to do a lot more than survive – late-night dining is an empty niche that the younger demographic of this city desperately wants to fill, and Olivia’s is exactly the type of place that will fit the bill.

Set right between Smith & Wollensky on the south, and the still-for-lease Luigi’s on the north, the former with an active patio, and the latter with a large awning jutting out, Olivia’s easily gets lost, both to drivers and to foot traffic. It will be imperative that people *know* about it; not just stumble upon it (you don’t really “stumble upon” late-night diners in this city anyway). Think of it as being shaped as a “less-than sign” (<) with the three vertices being Luigi’s on the top-right (with it’s jutting-out awning), Olivia’s on the center-left, hidden from view, and Smith & Wollensky on the bottom-right, with their patio.

Smith & Wollensky’s patio was full last night (yeah, sure, DC’s a super-sophisticated dining town – where did you read that again?), and Olivia’s was empty, and hidden by the Luigi’s awning. “We’re hoping for an awning fire,” someone joked to me, adding that they didn’t have a clue what was going on with the leasing of Luigi’s.

I took a seat at the bar, and asked for a beer list, which is on the rather lengthy menu (which was apparently pared down after management decided it was too long). It isn’t lengthy so much as “pagey,” having a lot of pages, but really not so terribly many items per page. It’s organized like this, by page numbers:

1. Breakfast Items

2. Beer, Wine, and Non-Alcoholic Drinks

3. Sandwiches

4. Appetizers (top half) and Salads (bottom half)

5. Hamburgers (top half) and Hot Dogs (bottom half)

6. Entrees

7. Desserts

And that’s it – it’s really quite manageable to navigate, and well-organized to the reader, but it helps to have a hint in advance (which I just gave you).

I raised an eyebrow at the prices of the beers: all draft beers (and they have a nice little selection) are $8 or $9; what I didn’t realize, however, is that there’s a sandwich sign on the sidewalk that says “Select Draft Beers are Half-Price 3-9PM, M-F,” and I gathered from talking with the bartender that quite a few of the beers are in the half-off selection.

I had plopped down in front of one of the two flat-screen TVs at the bar, which contains perhaps 20 seats – most of the restaurant is booths, with a few tables scattered about – it’s laid out well despite it’s shotgun design, and should be a very comfortable place for late-night dining, as well as Weekend Brunch with the family or hungover friends (slinking into a booth, and burying their ashen faces in a newspaper, not wanting to see or hear anyone or anything).

Nursing a pint of Rowdy ($8 cut to $4), a rye beer from Atlas Brew Works based in DC, I slowly perused the menu and watched the baseball game, occasionally chatting with the bartender. I was pretty sure I’d get breakfast food, and I’m not a big fan of beer with breakfast food (however, I’m a big fan of beer *before* breakfast food), so I knocked back my Rowdy and ordered a second. Then, as I began sipping my pint, I ordered delightfully evil Benedict: Chicken-Fried Steak ($10) which came with two properly-cooked poached eggs (meaning, well-poached with a warm, runny yolk), a square-shaped biscuit cut in half horizontally (the better to host the steak and eggs), and a shockingly meaty sausage gravy. When I think sausage gravy, my default is a milk-based gravy with the occasional crumble of sausage; this was the furthest thing possible from that – it was essentially crumbled sausage, more crumbled sausage, and even more crumbled sausage, with barely enough liquid so that you could call it a gravy, although I suppose it technically is; there was more meat from the sausage on my plate than there was from my steak, and I had two pieces of what I believe to be NY Strip, or at least that’s what the bartender thought it was, and he may be right. (Olivia’s burgers, by the way, are made from a blend of three, house-ground, whole cuts: chuck, short rib, and brisket, fried in a cast-iron skillet – these burgers “read” like they have some potential). Even though it didn’t say so on the menu, the Benedicts come with hash brown potatoes, and these were really good – good enough where I was tempted not to shake some Tabasco around the side of the plate. I don’t know if I simply missed it, or if it wasn’t on the menu, but Olivia’s should make it clear that the Benedict comes with hash browns because it makes it an even better value (my bartender asked me if I wanted hash browns, but I assumed, at first, it was an extra, and said ‘no’). My bartender also implied that this dish, after I asked him, was (literally) a killer, i.e., a cardiologist’s favorite, but even though it was certainly a “heavy” dish, it was not gratuitously greasy at all; in fact, considering the ingredients it had, I thought it was remarkably clean, and shockingly inexpensive – this could have easily been $14 instead of $10, but I’m pretty sure Olivia’s, should they ever switch over to full-price beers, will meet their projected revenues, especially if they stay open late *which they need to do* (have I said that before?) If you like this sort of “to hell with the cardiologist,” kitchen-sink breakfast dish, you should enjoy this, and when the check arrives, it will do nothing to make you enjoy it less. I noticed a vegetarian hash made with sweet potatoes and chickpeas for the meatless crowd wanting to chow down on heavy breakfast fare as well. They also sell pancakes and Belgian waffles (take note, Leslie), and offer Vermont maple syrup for a $1.50 upcharge (a splurge that is worth it 100% of the time).

There are enough buzzwords on Olivia’s menu where you take it seriously; unfortunately, there are enough buzzwords on Olivia’s menu where you question the dishes that don’t have them! “House-made meatballs,” “Local, all-natural chicken,” “Aged Cheddar Mac & Cheese,” “Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese” and “Point Reyes Blue Cheese” in some of their menu items, ‘House-made slaw,” “Fresh-cut fries” – all of these are on the menu, and they do force the diner to wonder about the entrees that don’t contain them; on the other hand, listing these types of things for *every* menu item would be beyond annoying, so maybe it’s just right like it is.

The only unusual event that made me raise an eyebrow was a question I heard shouted from the kitchen. There was a high-level manager there, overseeing operations (even though there were only three people in the restaurant, and two ladies were finishing up their dessert before I had gotten my Benedict). So I assume the question, … “in the microwave?” (I missed the garbled first part of it) pertained to my assembled dish, which didn’t inspire much confidence. Just to be absolutely sure I wan’t hearing things, when my order arrived, I asked the bartender if he could “nuke it for about 45 seconds,” as it was warm, but I like my sausage gravy to be piping hot – this, at the potential cost of losing my runny egg yolks. Well, lo and behold, it came back piping hot, but my yolks were still perfectly runny. This microwave incident is by no means the end of the world – when I walked by the kitchen, there was some pre-fried chicken (and I assume pre-fried chicken-fried steak) back there, so they had to heat the entire dish up somehow – the batter was crispy, and nothing at all was mushy, so whatever they did, worked. And I was even glad I sent it back to be heated up.

Wanting to try a couple more things (but having had plenty to eat in this one sitting), I ordered a couple Bagels with Cream Cheese ($2 each) to go, but was told they had run out of bagels, and all other pasties, in the morning (this was good news, as it means they’re doing some daytime business even though they just opened). So even though I didn’t get my bagels, it was still music to my ears, and I ended up getting a Cobb Salad ($8) with an extra of Grilled Chicken ($4) for the next day. The Cobb Salad (we were, after all, talking about Cobb in Washington, DC just hours before) comes with Iceburg lettuce, fire-roasted corn, tomatoes, radish, avocado, applewood-smoked bacon (another one of those buzzwords! And what is so special about the wood of an apple tree?), and Green Goddess dressing; however, when my bartender asked me what type of dressing I wanted, I, like a bumbling idiot, said “Ranch,” when, in fact, I would have surely preferred the Green Goddess (I wasn’t looking at the menu at the time; I had seen it before and was ordering from memory – I like my chervil and tarragon, and this split-second stutter-step cost me dearly and herbaceously).

It was easy to mentally compensate for the Cobb Salad being enjoyed for lunch the next day – the avocado had browned normally, etc. – this was a very “normal” Cobb Salad, but differed from the menu description in several ways: there was no corn, there was no radish, and there was blue cheese. Although it’s a personal preference, I would have asked for no blue cheese had I known (I like blue cheese dressing, but I find actual blue cheese to be entirely overwhelming in a mild salad such as this, and almost never get it). I suspect they were out of corn and radish, and tried to compensate by adding the blue cheese in their stead, but it didn’t work for me at all. However, the chicken, for $4, was a screaming bargain – there were about six long, thin, strips of grilled breast meat that was well-worth the money. I find grilled chicken breast like this to go very well with smoked bacon, and there was plenty of that, too. This was not the healthiest of salads, but I’m sure it could be customized to be so, and it was certainly a fair value for the money. I do think it’s important not to make unannounced substitutions (especially on a carryout order!), so hopefully Olivia’s will take this minor error and correct it – it can be corrected instantly during a single staff meeting. I also suspect they haven’t quite worked out their purchasing, given that they just opened a few weeks ago, and the summer crowds in that part of DC can be extremely unpredictable. I part with this final thought: Stay open late, *market* that you’re staying open late, and stick to your late hours, even if you’re empty – there’s nothing worse than trekking over to a restaurant at night only to find it closed. I wish you all well, and hope you serve many an early-morning breakfast to post-club, end-of-evening, hungry Washingtonians.

On my way back to the car, I spotted a flag at half-mast, not realizing that President Obama had ordered it. I took this picture, dedicated to our servicemen in Chattanooga. Why is there such pointless hatred in this world?

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