Where Washington Eats - Again
Reeves, reopened after three years, has served the likes of J. Edgar Hoover and Lady Bird
WASHINGTON — REEVES Restaurant and Bakery has been a Washington landmark since 1886, but the stories about it have rolled on for more than 100 years. Its present owner says, "I remember J. Edgar Hoover would send his chauffeur down for ham salad and chicken salad sandwiches for Hoover and FBI agent Clyde Tolson."
"Mr. Frank," as owner Frank Carcamo is known Southern-style, also remembers Lady Bird Johnson walking in with daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines, perching on the 100-year-old stools at the counter, eating, then taking back some cookies to the White House. He says Bess Truman and Pat Nixon were fans, too - regular customers.
And he remembers when then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his staff were working late at the Justice Department, Mr. Kennedy would call over and ask to have the restaurant stay open for dinner. Then he'd bring the whole staff over to eat.
Droves of Washingtonians came to Reeves for the "World Famous" strawberry pie, and with them the hungry and famous, from actress Helen Hayes (born in Washington) to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, comedian Milton Berle, Sen. Everett Dirksen, and a gaggle of other senators. Almost every born Washingtonian has a memory of Reeves or its food.
A friend of mine says the high point of her childhood came at age 7 when her mother dressed her up in a suit and blouse to take her downtown for her first visit to Reeves and some shopping. My friend still remembers the old Tiffany lamps hanging high, the strawberry pies, and the chicken sandwich it was famous for even then.
When I told another friend Reeves had just reopened after being closed for three and a half years, she said, "Be sure to bring back a cooked strawberry pie."
There are two kinds, you see. One is the open-faced strawberry pie, piled high with what look like huge soft rubies, jewels under a sweet glaze. Mr. Frank recommends it hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream: "That dessert is for a king's table, that pie."
The cooked strawberry pie is pink, with a mousse-like texture, sweet and light. Both are made with the same rich, flaky crust that has a secret ingredient: a special flour from Brazil, says Mr. Frank. He and his staff won't part with any of the recipes that keep people coming back and buying, but he does share one for another favorite, Reeves' Lemon Meringue Pie. Customers drop by to pick one up, along with Reeves' cloud-like Pineapple Delight, its towering strawberry shortcake (so popular that it's sold
as a birthday cake), and its paradoxical blueberry doughnuts - no, not muffins, fruity little glazed doughnuts that are a specialty.
When Mr. Frank settled down to talk, he said he'd started working in the store in 1957, first as a busboy, then waiter, cook, and finally general manager for the last 15 years before it closed. Reeves had weathered two world wars, the Depression, and the fire that destroyed the Victorian building in which Reeves was housed.
The original 1886 Reeves at 1209 F Street, NW, was a grocery store until someone convinced the owner to put in a few tables and chairs and sell ham sandwiches with coffee. In 1988 Reeves was razed to put up an office building, but fans always hoped it would return like the phoenix.
In 1991 Mr. Frank, with his 35 years' experience, and his partner, George Berman, bought the Reeves name. It reopened this year as a two-story restaurant and bakery with off-white walls; mocha-colored booths; a long, rectangular counter with the original 100-year-old cherry-wood stools, which survived the fire; color photographs of the Capitol building, and tempting dessert shelves.
"It was a Victorian place," says Mr. Frank, describing the old Reeves. "They used to make chocolates by hand; there was a confectionary, restaurant, bakery. There was a marble-topped counter, soda fountain, marble candy cases in front. Since I came here, it's about 95 percent the same menu, until '62 or '63." When Mr. Frank reopened Reeves recently, he added fajitas to replace the old tamales.
"I'm taking the fajitas off the menu," he says firmly. "The old Reeves customers, you know, they tell you what to do. They don't like something, they tell you.
"I know I could do real good if I put liquor in here. Many people tell me, I'm crazy not to put wine and cocktails in. But then it would not be Reeves anymore; it would change completely. You have to keep what the place means to everybody. We've got the same baker, the same cooks, so we think that's a success. We go back to the same menu, and make it almost 100 percent."
WHAT draws people back, decade after decade, is the food Reeves is famous for: the reasonably priced entrees, like the country-fried chicken dinners ($5.25), the spicy chicken and ham salad sandwiches made from freshly cooked chicken and ham - no chicken rolls, no plastic-tasting ham. "And, actually, the flavor is completely different," Mr. Frank says. It tastes real, like memories of home cooking. "Everything is prepared fresh," he says as he leaves to run down to the kitchen.
Everyone I mentioned Reeves to said "talk to Gertrude." Gertrude Sweeney (no relation) has worked at Reeves since December 194l. She started as a waitress when "it was this Victorian place. We wore blue or pink or yellow uniforms. The maids wore black; they brought our sandwiches in. We used to make our rolls, too, long hot rolls.
"People would order a ham roll, chocolate meringue pie, strawberry pie. You would have a lot of regular customers come through the door, they'd always get the same thing at lunch time.... So you'd just order when you saw them coming."