Food Porn Pondering the smuttiness of D.C.'s restaurant bathrooms

Page 4 of 4

Washington’s monuments can tell you a lot about how Americans see themselves: The old marble ones, with their national self-glorification; the Vietnam Veterans memorial, with its quiet honoring of the common GI. By the same token, spending too much time in the city’s smutty restrooms can lead you to look for meaning, too.

The restaurateurs will tell you it’s a way to get people talking—that is, a way to sell more food. Ours may be a porn-suffused society, but it’s still a place where diners don’t necessarily expect pin-ups in a nice restaurant’s bathroom. It’s unclear, though, why the surprise of seeing nudie pics where they don’t belong, of all things, is what gets locals talking.

My pet theory: The trend in bathroom art isn’t so different from some trends in menu selection. This is the age of the $16 peanut butter, jelly, and foie gras sandwich, the artisan mac and cheese plate, and the endless gourmet cupcake line. The business of feeding our hunger in an uncertain age seems to involve no small number of opportunities to play on nostalgia for childhood. And I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, it was the bathroom—not the laptop—where smut was surreptitiously viewed.

And the teenage me could have especially related to the original décor in the bathrooms of Café Saint-Ex on 14th Street NW.

When Saint-Ex first opened, owner Mike Benson decorated the men’s room with old Playboy pinups from the fifties. It was a découpage style of adornment, with cut-outs glued to the wall. “Some of the stuff that I put up was original vintage posters,” Benson says. “It wasn’t just a photocopy or something I took off Google images and then printed out on color printers and glued to the wall. It was the original piece.”

advertisement

Benson figured that customers would appreciate those sort of touches. “The thought is, you know, when you go to the bathroom and you see something cool, it’s like, oh, the people that own the establishment really give a damn and they put some cool eye candy up to distract you while you’re going to the bathroom.”

Instead, the bathroom-goers demonstrated another way of reversion to childhood, or at least to juvenile delinquency. “The problem whenever you put a découpage up, in particular, it is basically an open invitation for graffiti,” says Benson. “What always happens is, you inevitably get the balloon comment out of the mouth of the Marilyn Monroe pinup, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’ve lost my top.’ The nice thing about découpage is, somebody writes something terrible, you just découpage over the top of it. That’s a great thing. The hard part is just trying to keep up with it. You put something up, two days later you go in there and you’re like, ‘Really? That fast?’”

Just as Kuller did at Estadio, Benson tried to even out the gender disparity in the Saint-Ex lavatories: “At one point, in the ladies room, we had a photograph of Steve McQueen. It’s a backside shot of him standing in his driveway with no clothes on. We figured a woman sitting on the toilet, she looks to her left, and it’s like, ‘Look at that! Wow! Steve had a nice butt.’”

And that produced one of the more grown-up examples of defacement. “Sure enough, someone drew a turd” under McQueen’s backside, says Benson. “We ended up repainting the bathroom.”

Benson and his crew ultimately opted to go in a less graffiti-inducing direction. “When you put something up as mundane as World War II aviators, people just don’t even bother,” he says. “I think the more provocative you get, the taggers can’t resist.”

Despite all the hassles, Benson still thinks there’s something to be said for eye-popping artwork in the john. You just have to look a lot more closely to find it at Saint-Ex nowadays. A few lewdly illustrated phone sex cards, collected from London phone booths, are intermixed with the aviation photos.

“The opposite is a very clinical bathroom,” Benson says. “There’s something really depressing about a bathroom that’s sterile, fluorescent, and smells like cleaning products. The objective is, you want the customer to go in, appreciate how clean your bathroom is, and get the hell out. And that’s what happens. It is effective. But, what we’ve tried to do, and what a lot of restaurateurs and bar owners try to do, is you want the bathroom to be something that’s fun and kind of an extension of the restaurant itself. Here’s a room that’s semi-private. We know that in the men’s room, it’s going to be dudes coming in here. So I’ll glue up a couple of spanking cards from a London phone booth. It really shouldn’t illicit too many requests to speak to the manager. You hope what you get more often is, people going, ‘Where did that come from? That was really cool.’ Or, people saying, ‘Oh my God, I was in London. I saw those very cards.’”

Photo Slideshow: D.C.'s Smuttiest Restaurant Bathrooms

Our Readers Say

I can dig these folks pushing DC's conservative envelope. Let's keep the conversation pieces going!
You should check out the wallpaper print in the Brasserie Beck Men's room. Not quite as graphic, but tittilating nonetheless.
Leave the priests with little boys out of it.
Interesting, I hadn't thought of it from the nostalgia angle before. I feel like it's meant to seem both provocative and playful. All of these things are sexy, but sexy in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, like the peeping Tom pictures at Proof. It's meant to surprise you and then be something you can laugh at and tell your friends about. Sax was going for that angle but much of it was just downright offensive.
Ladies, we're getting jacked. These people need to step it up in our loo, or I'm going to start going where the guys go...
i'd rather just have a trough for in/out efficiency, higher volume, and saving water.
I am super annoyed that the ladies' rooms at Proof and Thunder Burger are so lame! What sexist decorated those bathrooms? Why don't women get to oogle men's buns? They're also very nice to look at. Let's start with Cristiano Ronaldo's and go from there. I'm not going to either establishment until they're more equal-minded.
I agree with Julie. Women are definitely getting the short end of the stick. That was literally my first impression when I decided to take my own tour of Lincoln's men's room (back in September). By comparison, my first impression of the women's room was *ugh*... "what's this all about?!" It's blindingly, shocking pink and non-sensical swirls made me feel: a) dizzy, and b) as though I was inside of a box of some random feminine hygiene product. And that's how it started. I came back and shared with my friend (quite randomly) the horror of the decor in the "Ladies" room. It was enough to make me lose my appetite, although I did enjoy the "Lady Lincoln" and whatever it's called that they serve in that cool little metal cup -the Lincoln Sour? YUM! He responded, "oh...it's not like that in men's room at all." When he described it, I flat out didn't believe him and went to see for myself (with his assistance, of course). It was a giggle (I "get" the joke) but at the same time, I was also absolutely incredulous, stunned, and mildly outraged. I even took photos with my phone camera. In my 'humble' opinion, the message was crystal clear -women, you're supposed to be all sugar and what? since there was no "spice" there! Keep your libidos in check? I couldn't decipher it. Did the "pink" have a whole other subtext (I'd prefer not to contemplate too seriously)? Really? I mean really? The decor and "vibe" in the men's room? I could appreciate it (on one level) for what it was. Well done -even though I felt the message ultimately suggests that women are simply objects or to be objectified. The space and lighting was warm, relaxing, an oasis, a sanctuary -Zen, almost: Enjoy them (women), fantasize about their 'parts' (while you take take care of business), just make sure you "Keep Your Tools Clean." So, what are you saying -be safe about "it"? Which tools, exactly, are you referring to (since recent stats suggest most men do not wash their hands -a whole other issue)? The juxtaposition could not be more sexist (and even humiliating). I confess, Estadios' women's room was a much more pleasurable experience and at least the 'object' of attention is a real person - A "Marilyn Monroe" of hot boys, if you will. "Like." A+ for the attempt at 'art' and providing customers with a pleasurable experience in "The John." Very cool and much welcomed. There are establishments in Paris that mastered that years back and I'm pleased we've finally 'caught on' -but dear Lincoln, your women's bathroom is not 'art' or 'pleasurable.' Maybe I'm just not enlightened enough? The "illusory paintings of "friends" did indeed illude me, altogether. It's a shock to the system (visually, psychologically and emotionally). How about another attempt? A re-do (which I heartily suggested to one of your employees that night). How about a message for all the single and/or married ladies that also encourages them to indulge their fantasies as well? Heads up! We have one (or many) and they are definitely more vivid than your interpretation and perhaps even more vivid than the average male for that matter? I'll leave it to you to figure out what that is. But all signs currently point to "clueless." And just a bit of additional advice, I'd take a pass on a theme featuring "cartoonish woman" the Thunder Burger in Georgetown apparently employes (and advocates?). Webster's defines cartoonish as "a ludicrously simplistic, unrealistic, or one-dimensional portrayal or version." Nuf said. I truly feel for the woman who's on a date with a guy she barely knows. She goes to "potty and powder" and gets one experience while her date gets something all together different. If they barely know one another, she will likely never know this. But since they've both been "marketed" to and hence, stimulated based on your interpretation of what men and women 'want', in entirely different ways...the end result could likely be an epic fail. Yet, who can say for sure since I did enjoy my meal and my company. The thing is, if I come back, it would likely be for the sole purpose of exhibiting the disparity of the restrooms.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...