The Monocle Restaurant

( Steve Szabo / The Washington Post ) - The Monocle Restaurant, on D Street NE has been a favorite of Capitol Hill’s elite since it opened in 1960.
“Connie” Valanos and his late wife, Helen, opened the Monocle in 1960 and quickly turned the establishment into one of the most popular watering holes on the Hill. Former vice president Walter Mondale, a Monocle regular, once called the restaurant a place “where laws are debated, where policies are set, where the course of world history is changed.”

The son of Greek immigrants, Mr. Valanos grew up in Washington and watched his parents run a candy shop and catering outfit in the decades before World War II. He noticed the dearth of fine dining on the Hill and opened the Monocle a block from the Senate office buildings, at 107 D St. NE.

The restaurant’s interior, originally with checkered tablecloths and chandeliers bought from an old casino, was dignified without being too tightly buttoned-up. The menu, with specialties including crab cakes and filet mignon, offered fare that Mr. Valanos considered befitting of an old-time politician — the sort who might sport a monocle.

“If any newly elected member of Congress wants to avoid the dismal prospect of lunching at his desk and would enjoy a jog or brisk walk of a few blocks,” Washington Post restaurant reviewer Donald Dresden wrote in 1969, “he can be handsomely fed at the Monocle, a restaurant . . . that combines the rarity of first-rate food and swift service.”

Regular clients over the years included future presidents John F. Kennedy, who favored the bay window seat and the roast beef sandwich on a poppy-seed roll, and Richard M. Nixon, who liked the chopped steak stuffed with Roquefort cheese. The two men — Nixon with his five o’clock shadow and Kennedy with his toothy grin — are depicted in a folksy mural in the dining room.

Mr. Valanos prided himself on running an operation where politicians from both parties were welcome and where local regulars counted more than out-of-town dignitaries.

Then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson once stopped in, only to discover that all the tables were occupied. At his request, Mr. Valanos asked over the loudspeaker whether any diners would be willing to relinquish their table for the vice president. No one offered, and Johnson never came back.

Democrats tended to spend more money per person than Republicans, John Valanos once told a reporter from the New Zealand Herald who had come to the Monocle to understand the ways of American politics. Stricter lobbying regulations and political vetting processes have dampened some of the big spending of the early years.

One unspoken rule at the Monocle, whose building is today owned by the federal government, has remained constant. Most patrons, even the very important ones, know better than to ask for their photographs to be displayed on the wall with other political memorabilia. The Valanos family extends that invitation.

Constantine George Valanos, who sometimes went by Conrad, was born Oct. 6, 1918, in Albany, N.Y. He grew up in Washington and graduated in 1936 from the old Central High School. After Navy service during World War II, he studied accounting at George Washington University. As an accountant, he represented local restaurant owners and suggested to them that they purchase and renovate a Capitol Hill restaurant called Station View Spaghetti House.

“What I saw,” he told The Post in 1980, “was an opportunity for a good, smart tablecloth operation on Capitol Hill.” When his clients turned him down, he said to himself, “Okay, Valanos, if you’re so . . . sure the idea’s good, do it yourself.”