In the past five years alone, we’ve seen the establishment of The Black Squirrel, Rustico and its sister establishments Birch & Barley and ChurchKey , Birreria Paradiso and the expansion of Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont (which basically made room for the bar), Franklin’s, RFD, and the Belgian invasion. Other restaurants, restaurants that you don’t equate with beer, have gotten on board. CityZen offers a beer course as part of the wine pairing that accompanies Chef Eric Zeibold’s tasting menu, and Michel Richard imports Blusser for his restaurant Central.
What did we have before that? Most people would rightly point to The Brickskeller. For half a century, the granddaddy of DC beer bars has boasted hundreds of beers on hand, while other bars and restaurants offered little more than Bud and Miller on tap. But I wonder if most people – most beer lovers – realize that there’s a neighborhood pizzeria just across the river in Arlington that’s been offering up well over a hundred beers for the past quarter century?
The Gourmet Pizza Deli Home of the Lost Dog Café (Lost Dog to most of us) has been cranking out pizzas and sandwiches, and pouring beers – lots of beers – since 1985. When Lost Dog opened a quarter century ago as a carryout and delivery pizza joint on Washington Boulevard, it had more than a hundred beers on the menu.
Ross Underwood, who opened Lost Dog with his partner Pamela McAlwee, said he opened the pizzeria when pizza delivery was the hot new thing. Seeking a location to open shop, and escape their “boring” jobs with Marriott, Ross and Pam came across a wine and cheese shop in a small Arlington shopping center that happened to have a rather large beer selection. The pair bought the place and turned it into a pizza shop, but Ross recognized the uniqueness of the beer selection and kept it.
Now, before I continue this best beer bar profile, I should point out that Ross is not a beer guy. Oh, he likes beer, and for years he tasted all the beers he sold (even when his numbers climbed to 350), but he is by no means a beer geek. Yet, he has owned and operated one of the D.C. area’s longest running, most successful beer bars for 25 years.
Today, Ross has more of a taste for the wine he stocks and Pam spends most of her time on the animal rescue foundation (more on that later). The 180 or so beers and 16 taps are overseen by the Lost Dog’s five managers, with occasional input by Ross. He still spends seven days a week at Lost Dog, and The Stray Cat Café he opened in 2005 a few doors down, but he’s usually gone before noon. As most restaurants limped through the recent economic downturn, Ross bought the laundromat next door to the Lost Dog and closed it all for two months to expand and update the restaurant. Despite the additional space, the place was as jammed as ever when I stopped by recently.
That really is one of the more remarkable things about the Lost Dog. It is always busy. Always. I sat down with Ross around 10:30 one morning to talk about his business and the beers. When the doors opened a half hour later, the first customers were waiting. Whether it’s effort or luck, or both, Ross and Pam have built a very successful business that shows no sign of fading.
As a sign of that, Ross and Pam have begun franchising the Lost Dog brand. Four of their former employees opened up a Lost Dog Café on Columbia Pike, across from the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, and are planning another location in McLean. The off-shoot has all the trademarks of Ross’ and Pam’s original (canine motif, pizzas and sandwiches, a large beer selection). However, it doesn’t have Ross or Pam. No, they’re happy with the original Lost Dog and Stray Cat. They also have the foundation to focus on and Ross mentioned something about a house in Mexico.
When the Lost Dog was still a carryout, Pam started to bring home stray dogs. And so it went for years. In 1996, as Ross and Pam were expanding the Lost Dog into a sit-down restaurant, Pam’s interest in rescuing strays expanded into a full-fledged rescue operation, saving dogs from being euthanized. Five years later, she and Ross founded the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation, which now finds homes for more than 1,500 animals a year. Because Pam and Ross support the foundation using proceeds from the Lost Dog and Stray Cat, don’t sweat that second (or third) beer. The money is going to a good cause.
I’ve been going to the Lost Dog since I moved to the area in 1998. The wife and I even have a ritual of hitting the Lost Dog anytime I have to take her to Dulles, or pick her up from work, or if we’re itching for a pie and a few beers (fine, it’s not so much a ritual as a habit). The beer selection is outstanding, but the food is solid too. I love me a sandwich, and one of the best I’ve ever had is Lost Dog’s Surf 'N Turf (beef, crab, brie) with spinach and plenty of Tabasco (top five sandwiches, easy). I know this is a beer bar review, but I can’t ignore a sandwich like that. I just can’t.
Ok, but this is a best beer bar review, so let’s talk about a few flaws.
First, the Lost Dog is not a bar, doesn’t want to be a bar, and will never be just a beer bar. Ross said 80 percent of his sales are food and although you can order a six pack of Founders with your delivery pie, very few people do. The Lost Dog is and will always be a neighborhood restaurant. Beer enthusiasts (including myself) may love the place, but families make up the regular clientele (the root beer is the most popular tap item, people). I also want to complain about the three-beer maximum, but no one else does and I really shouldn’t. With 25 consecutive years of success under their belt, there’s no reason for Ross and Pam to change their approach to please a few beer geeks.
Ross prides himself on his staff, many of whom have worked at the Lost Dog for years. Some of them even know a few things about the beer. That’s the problem. Some of the employees are well versed in the sizable beer selection and some clearly are not. Consider this: Scott Stone is the manager of the new Dupont Circle restaurant Eola. He used to be the bartender at Palena. But before that he was the bartender at Lost Dog. I spent more than a few afternoons hanging out with Scott at the bar. He was a great bartender and knew the beers he was serving. (He’s also a Bucs fan. Good guy, that Scott.) On the other hand, the last time I visited Lost Dog, it took two or three attempts to explain the beer I wanted. They had the beer (I saw it when I walked in), but the server clearly had no idea what I was talking about. I eventually just ordered a draft. And unfortunately, the bartenders in the post-Scott era have also been pretty poorly versed in the beer selection. Ross and Pam should either educate their staff about the beer selection or put together a beer list (like the Columbia Pike location did). Honestly, they should put together the list anyway. If you’re going to offer 180 bottles and 16 drafts, you need to help your customers navigate the selection.
Finally, there’s the noise. This is actually a recent problem. Before the expansion, Lost Dog was as noisy as any busy restaurant filled with families. But now that they’ve expanded the dining area, effectively opening it up, the noise level is nearly unbearable (and by unbearable, I mean like Marvin). The last time I was there for dinner, my group left early because we couldn’t hear each other and couldn’t take the noise. Ross said he doesn’t plan to do anything about this, but I strongly recommend he does. Otherwise, his regulars might become less regular.
I love the fact that it’s easier than ever to find American craft beer and quality imports. As a beer geek, these are the best of times. But it’s good to know that there’s been a little pizza shop in a quiet Arlington neighborhood fighting the good fight long before this renaissance ever began.
Score: 12 of 20 (beer: 6 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 2 of 5, other elements 1 of 2)
Lost Dog Cafe
5876 Washington Blvd
Arlington, VA 22205
2920 South Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA 22204