Standing Their Ground
25 Years at the Potomac, the Cibel Clan Holds Firm at Washington Harbour With Freshly Designed Restaurants
“This is the last of the grandchildren,” joked Tony and Joe’s manager Dean Cibel, as he surveyed his family’s restaurants with manager Dave Peva and designer Dennis Shea and looked at the ice skating rink being built over Washington Harbour’s fountain. After 17 months closed down and nine months of a $4-million reconstruction, Tony and Joes’ Seafood Place and Nick’s Riverside Grill are fully and officially back in the action next to the Potomac at the complex.
At one of Washington’s hottest places to see and be seen, the Cibels’ elegantly redesigned restaurants — now even more open and with bigger windows to the river — are joined by Sequoia, Farmers, Fishers and Bakers, Bangkok Joe’s, the proposed Fiola Mare and others.
The folks at Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place and Nick’s Riverside Grill—people like Tony Cibel, his sons Nick and Dean and their cousin Greg Casten—must have thought it was déjà vu all over again as they awaited and endured Hurricane Sandy.
After all, it’s only been less than two years, and a major renovation since the great April 2011 Washington Harbour floodgates crisis and Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place, a classic Georgetown and Washington legend of a restaurant reopened bigger, and better, with more flavors and a lot of hoopla — and here was another scary storm bearing down on the Potomac River.
Not to worry. As fictional President Morgan Freeman assured us in the film, “Deep Impact,” “. . . And the waters receded.”
Now, Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place, once built on nothing but the sand on the harbor, can continue to go about its business of becoming a Washington dining legend, combining the good words of legendary food critic Phyllis Richman with an enduring popularity. It embraces all sorts of diners, locals in Georgetown, tourists, business folks, couples canoodling over seafood and a spectacular Potomac River-Watergate-Kennedy Center view and, of course, the recognizable faces who parade through here, and the equally successful Nick’s Riverside Grille, with singular regularity.
Imagine what you’d have if many of the stellars who came to Tony & Joe’s arrived on the same night: Hillary Clinton, Andy Garcia, Clint Eastwood, minus the empty chair, Denzel Washington (he’s got a new hit movie), comedian Jackie Mason, Eddie Murphy, Redskins running back Joe Riggins and quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, Jerry Jones, another Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer, the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and Nicholas Backstrom, Frank “Hondo” Howard from a different D.C. baseball era, President George W. Bush, no less, William Shatner, beaming, up and sideways, former Redskins coach Norv Turner, bad boy Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger (hopefully, not at the same table), Kathleen Turner and others. You’d have even more of a heck of a Tony and Joe’s party.
The tale of Tony and Joe’s is a part of Washington restaurant lore, going back to October 9, 1987—that’s 25 years almost to the day, give or take a week or two. The key figures were all friends—developer Herb Miller, who saw a city mall (The Shops at Georgetown Park) on a busy street, and the waterfront design that would become Washington Harbour in a pile of sand, plus his old friend Tony Cibel and Joe Rinaldi who owned the Dancing Crab, a seafood fixture in Tenleytown, renowned—you guessed it—for its crab dishes as well as other signature seafood dishes.
Tony and Joe, who had been partners for a while, figured that the Dancing Crab—while popular in a down-home, raffish, nittygritty way—needed a little fine tuning for the tonier location at Washington Harbour. (The Cibel family recently sold the Dancing Crab.) So, they added a signature crab cake dish, and made sure that they had a world-class seafood house in a city more noted for steaks and French restaurants.
Tony Cibel and Joe Rinaldi were a perfect pair of partners— Cibel, a man with a gift for the business, running D.C. liquorrelated businesses, including the Barrel House Liquor Store on 14th Street, Rinaldi in his role as a top salesman for Capital Cadillac for years.
They were also big family guys, and it’s no surprise to find Rinaldi and Cibel offspring in the business—Cibel has two sons and two nephews and Rinaldi had four children, and all of them, at one time or another including today, were involved in the creation, building and running of the restaurants.
Tony brought in top chefs in the beginning like Ron Goodman and Billy McNamee, creating quality dishes and building a reputation—Richman called the restaurant “a contender on the waterfront.” The two also pioneered the use out of outdoor patios at a time when not many restaurants thought much of dining outside.
In 1992, it was time for a little add-on, with Joe buying the bottom part of what was chef Victor Testa’s Leonardi Da Vinci, which had closed its doors. This became Nick’s Riverside Grille, after Cibel’s son, a spot that soon became not quite like Tony & Joe’s, something special in its own right, a neighborhood-style restaurant saloon on the Riverfront.
In the world of Cibel, there’s always somebody from the family around—Cibel is, after all, the patriarch of the Oceanside Management Family of restaurants, which included the Dancing Crab, Tony & Joe’s Seafood Place, Nick’s Riverside Grille, Kaufmann’s Tavern, Cabanas and the Rockfish.
It’s been 17 months since the difficulties with the floodgate systems at Washington Harbour, but Tony and Joe’s and Nick’s are back. And so is the office-residence complex itself, Washington Harbour, with a new fountain, wood work and lighting—and an ice skating rink. Executive chef David Stein, for years heading his own restaurant, Bistro St. Michael’s, presides over a menu that doesn’t neglect old Tony and Joe’s favorites but also includes its share of new choices. ★