Capitol Dining in the 19th Century

Until the early 1920s, the House Restaurant was run by restaurateurs appointed by the House. In the 19th century, the House favored a finer dining experience, choosing well-known proprietors of high-end establishments to take over the management of food service in the Capitol. Two of the most talked about were George Downing and Thomas Murrey.

George Downing: 1868-1876

Downing's Restaurant - Congressmen Lunching with Friends/tiles/non-collection/2/2012_066_000-pg112.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object 
Identified as “Downing's Restaurant” in the 1869 guidebook The Sights and Secrets of the National Capital, the House Restaurant was considered among the finest of Washington establishments in the post-Civil War years.
George Downing, a well-known caterer and restaurateur based in Newport, Rhode Island, ran the House Restaurant from 1868 until 1876. One of the first large hotels in Newport, Downing's Sea Girt House provided seafood and elegant table service, and also advertised picnic provisions for sailboats and cottages. A 1869 guidebook, The Sights and Secrets of the National Capital, referred to the establishment as “Downing’s Restaurant.” It was praised in the press as “one of the best restaurants in the Union.” Downing was lauded as a famous proprietor known to “all lovers of good living,” not only for his excellent food but for possessing “decidedly the most elegant manners to be seen in the Capitol.”

A second-generation member of the Northern Black bourgeoisie, Downing was as famous for his life-long political activism as he was for his oysters. Downing crusaded for equal protection, school desegregation in Rhode Island, and equal access to rail travel. Newspapers referred to him as a “champion and defender for his race.”

Tom Murrey: 1892-1896

Luncheon by Thomas J. Murrey/tiles/non-collection/6/6_30_Gastronomy_Luncheon.xml Luncheon covered recipes for Murrey's specialty, the midday meal, which was the primary service at the House Restaurant.
The end of the 19th century saw the arrival of Tom Murrey, who ran the House Restaurant from 1892 to 1896. Murrey was the author of numerous specialty cookbooks, including Luncheon and Cookery for Invalids, and was a noted authority on chafing-dish preparation. Murrey spoke to the press with some frequency about his theories on the correlation between diet and legislation. In 1894, he told the Washington Post he had “a library of diaries, showing just what each Congressman ate on the day that he did any remarkable things in his place as a Representative.” He planned to write a book that would “show what dish led to a magnificent forensic outburst, what the man ate who convulsed the House with his humor or dazzles it with brilliant fencing in debate.”

A popular and jovial man, Murrey organized fishing expeditions on the Potomac with Members. His nickname, “Terrapin Tom,” derived from one of his signature dishes made from the local turtle, terrapin stew, a mid-Atlantic specialty. Murrey’s corned beef hash with poached eggs was also widely praised: The Washington Post declared that it “was such a concoction that to eat one liberal dish created appetite for another.”

Cookery for Invalids by Thomas J. Murrey/tiles/non-collection/6/6_30_Gastronomy_invalids.xml Murrey's publication Cookery for Invalids was his most direct address of his theories on the physical and psychological effects of diet.

Reflective of the high profile of Congress during the Gilded Age, the House Restaurant appeared frequently in the news. Murrey relished the attention, and undertook quirky endeavors aimed at the press that raised his own profile as much as promoted the fine dining experience at the Capitol. An 1895 Washington Post article, for example, reported on Murrey’s ill-fated attempt to concoct a palatable recipe for starfish. The starfish became his target because it preyed on one of Murrey’s favored ingredients, the oyster. After capturing several of these “five-fingered rascals of the sea” and “drawing forth his trusty stew pan,” Murrey concocted a broth. The broth, unfortunately, “all but killed him,” requiring a three week recovery. Murrey “abandoned his dream of a day . . . when the starfish would twinkle on every menu.”

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