I’ll never forget the night I discovered the Palace of Wonders. At the time, years ago, it was on an island of its own out on H Street NE. A tiny, dingy little bar with walls covered in carnie crap and sparkly pasties flying about on the stage. Cash only, you could barely move your head it was so damn packed in there during a burlesque show. I loved it.
The clientele was odd, but not as odd as the staff and the sideshow performers, and that’s what gave the place its own sort of charm. This was figuratively miles away from Washington, and I brought out-of-town guests there to give them a taste of the truly strange, grungy, half-naked side of D.C. Once I even witnessed a guy in a white bear suit, simply hanging out as a guest, drunkenly adding a bit more flavor to the night’s show. A typical evening for the Palace.
Since those days, the Palace has expanded, moving its tiny stage upstairs to a larger space, reserving the downstairs for tables and the bar, and opening a back patio. It also renamed itself the Red Palace. It was a logical evolution; when word of tits-sans-strip-club-shame spread through the District, suddenly the place was packed solid with guys in collared shirts with their tiny girlfriends. I stopped going after this transition, instead preferring other unknown H Street dives.
We got an email from a reader a few months ago raving about the Palace’s Wonder Brunch. I filed it away under places I’m not particularly gunning to try, but might if given a reason. Then my friend Saro said he wanted to take his friend—visiting from Prague for the weekend—to a fun brunch in his neighborhood. The Wonder Brunch was suggested, and a reservation was made.
We arrived at noon on Sunday and our group was one of only three tables. There were a couple of people at the bar, but the place eerily quiet, and they weren’t even playing any music. No big deal, we can amuse ourselves with conversation about the strange things on the walls (our brunch table, for instance, was being watched by a two-headed cow).
Oh, and the tables were covered with things that belonged in a child’s playroom: Connect Four, Tic Tac Toe, coloring pads, playing cards, little plastic animals and other strange dollar-store finds. Which was fun, for about five minutes.
I wanted to get to drinking, as surely the burlesque was about to begin as soon as they drew the curtains at the door, but was severely disappointed to realize not only that the mimosas, marys, and bellinis were $4 a pop, but that the mimosas were primarily orange juice. If you want me to start screaming and hollering at a burlesque dancer, you simply must provide the bottomless booze at brunch. Unacceptable.
We ordered drinks anyway, and coffee, too, which was made in a cheap plastic coffee maker on the bar. The table next to us was a group of perverted 50-somethings celebrating a birthday, and the table besides them was dominated by a know-it-all hipster. I know this because, when the show started, the entertainer asking true-or-false trivia questions, and said hipster decided he needed to regale us all with the facts behind each answer.
We ordered brunch and gulped down more orange juice with a splash of champagne. The emcee of the revue was Rev. Valentine, a talkative, funny woman decked out in what looked to be a sparkly fairy costume. She had heavy eyeliner on her face and a few packs of Marlboro Reds in her voice, but she captivated our three little tables and made us play enough dirty trivia and dirty-balloon-animal contests to feel, well, only slightly less awkward.
After enough social lubrication from our host, but certainly not enough liquid lubrication, a tiny burlesque dancer named Marla Meringue sauntered down the stairs in a heavy black velvet coat. She was very pretty and very talented at taking her clothes off, and I have to give her credit for not being completely creeped out by us brunch goers who came to see boobs before noon, most especially the birthday girl’s table, to which she gave a healthy motorboat opportunity. Good for her.
After the knickers hit the floor and the tassles had their spin and we all whooped and hollered and then turned around to awkwardly stare at one another again, the food started to arrive.
It came in spurts. The order was wrong. Burgers were given to the wrong people. But after a while, we finally all had our dishes. And, at first, it looked promising. The bacon cheddar biscuits were fluffy and tasty. The DIY Morning Blues at the table—two eggs how you like them, hash, and toast—were quite satisfied with their order. The hash was super greasy.
My Que Pasta was simply macaroni with bacon, scrambled egg, and cheddar, with two pieces of toast on the side. I will totally make this at home one day—what an easy dish and a shocker I’ve never mixed these things together before out of sheer Sunday morning hangover desperation. Plus, the toast made the whole dish a fun breakfast sandwich.
Two people ordered the burgers, which arrived wrong and had to be re-made with the proper toppings. The French fries were thick and delicious. The burgers, upon first impression, were good. Thick patties, lots of toppings, even a runny egg for one. Alas, these had consequences afterwards, which we’ll get to later.
Le Mon Cherie sounds fancy pants but is simply a plate of sautéed spinach, mushrooms, and grilled tomatoes. Really, all the dishes were described with a showman’s twist on the menu but they are actually very simple to make and sufficiently greasy enough for brunch—it’s diner food, and I expected nothing more from a place that specializes in sideshows. We were satisfied.
We did not order the strawberry short stack or the scrapple. But we felt we had to order the Crunkcake. Yes, even I, a person vehemently opposed to the very principle of cupcakes (it is just simply not an even distribution of frosting to cake, people), decided if there is a boozy cupcake to be had—Drinkin’ Punkin’ flavor, in fact—that we simply had to have it. It actually turned out to be the most delicious thing we ate that day. The frosting was superb, and the cake was, well, very boozy.
After the dishes were cleared, the pipsqueak burlesque dancer sauntered out for a second appearance. During this dance she actually attempted her motorboating in Brooke’s direction, and Brooke, with a look of sheer horror, decided at that point that she was done with this brunch. The birthday table beside us started doing speeches and gift-giving parades. We asked for our check. We then learned they could take a max of two credit cards. We all frantically scrambled for cash. It’s like we couldn’t get out of there. GET US OUT.
Finally, emerging into the daylight, far too sober and sort of disturbed by what we just went through, we decided to walk back towards the city. Get some air and clear our heads. Half way to Chinatown, Brooke started feeling light-headed, but we attributed it up to a lingering hangover. Half way to home, Brooke lost her cookies, and so did a few others from our brunch party.
Yes, dear readers, the Red Palace first made us awkward and then made us ill. In my years of brunching, I have never actually been sick from one of them. And this food poisoning lasted well over 24 hours for all of us. But those of us who had the burgers—those were the most severely ill. Cook your meat properly, people.
The Bitches say: D-. Red Palace is a great place for late-night boozing and burlesque, but they should stick with what they’re good at and leave the brunch food to the pros. Or, at least, if you’re going to try, cook your food fully and sanitarily and fuel us with bottomless to stench the mid-day naked-awkwardness.
1210 H Street N.E.