Johnny’s Half Shell in D.C.

February 15, 2009

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend and I went out for a romantic dinner (shockingly original I know). We both love seafood, so we decided on Johnny’s Half Shell located on Capitol Hill, just across from Union Station. It sounded like the quintessential D.C. restaurant- great seafood, in the heart of the city, chock full of hill staffers. Before booking a reservation, I read a few reviews online- almost all of which said the food was great but overpriced. I truly could not agree more and am obviously not creative enough to find a better way of saying it (hence the unoriginal V-day plan).
I knew the atmosphere would be somewhat casual, but I felt extremely overdressed in what I would call business causal. Most people were wearing nice jeans or khackis, but nothing fancy. The dining room reminded me of a cafeteria with free standing, wobbly tables floating in the middle of the room, no booths, very minimal decor and uncomfortable chairs. There was a great jazz band playing which added a positive zest to the stale dining area. The service was fine. The drinks were strong-which nearly made them worth the over charged price.
We started with a broiled oyster appetizer which consisted of 6 oysters on the 1/2 shell, smothered with oooey gooey butter and asiago cheese. They were rich and delicious and maybe my favorite thing all night. My boyfriend and I split 2 entrees- the famed crabcakes and the grilled sea bass.

The crab cakes were delicious, but I can’t mask my disappointment that they cost $32 and were served with nothing more original than a side of fries and cole slaw. The entire plate was brown, but for the greenish tartar dipping sauce in the middle. Don’t get me wrong, the crab was probably the best I’ve had, but the entree was priced at least $10 too high.

The sea bass was excellent. It was a large piece of fish, grilled to perfection (although it had just a tad too much grill flavor for my taste). However, there were zero compliments on the plate. The fish was topped with a runny, orange, flavorless sauce (I couldn’t tell you what the ingredients were because it had absolutly no flavor) and a side of N.C. rice. The rice would have been good if seasoned differently, but it was served in a vinegar-based dressing that only added a pickled flavor. Although I am a true southerner, I have never cared for the flavor of pickled anything- esp not rice! The sea bass cost $28 and most definitely could have been priced $10 to $15 less. We finished off our evening with after dinner drinks and some special chocolates from ACKC (will blog on that later) that I snuck in via my purse. Although the evening was overall very enjoyable (mostly because my boyfriend is such good company), I was disappointed with my dining experience.

Now, allow me to rant for a bit. Having worked in fine dining, I feel as though I know a thing or two about what customers are looking for in an upscale dining experience. They are not looking for a bargain or cheap eats. They expect to pay the high prices, BUT they expect the promise of quality that the high prices ensure. In a diner’s mind, high prices set the standard for quality very high. When I go out for a $100 meal, that is just what I expect- something worth the cash I am about to lay down on the table. I want food that is worth the bill, and service that is worth the gratuity. So, I was not bothered that we shelled out $120 on dinner for V-day, but I was annoyed that it simply wasn’t worth it. The meal felt more like a $60 or $80 meal, but for me, it did not surpass the $100 standard. That being said, perhaps we are not the envisioned clientele of Johnny’s Half Shell. But, having worked in a four star restaurant alongside some of the biggest food snobs alive, I think I have a good guage for what people expect for their money. And, simply put, diners expect more than what Johnny’s Half Shell has to offer. I say, go there for a regular weekday dinner if you don’t mind shelling out the cash- or maybe just do lunch. This place is not special enough for any special occasion.

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