Lost Dog Café: Neighborhood pizzeria has been a best beer bar for a quarter century
Dec 22, 2009
It’s good days around here lately. With the proliferation of bars and restaurants serving quality craft beer and imports, we are clearly in the throes of a beer renaissance.
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.
So in the days of the Noid and “30 minutes or it’s free” pizza, Lost Dog was delivering Anchor Steam and Weihenstephaner with its pies (in fact, it still does).
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)
The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), and Rustico (16 of 20).
Lost Dog Cafe
5876 Washington Blvd
Arlington, VA 22205
2920 South Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA 22204
Personally, I prefer the cowboy (roast beef, onions, peppers and brie). By the way, the score is added up incorrectly - should be 12/20.
Posted by: Thomas | Dec 22, 2009 at 10:03 AM
I've been a patron of Lost Dog for twenty years now. During that time I've moved a few blocks away and it is now part of my neighborhood. It is a great place, and their rescue operation is wonderful. On two issues raised by this review, the staff knowledge and the noise, don't hold your breath on Ross doing anything about it. I know from experience with his employees that he is completely intransigent in his ways. Same with the three beer rule, which many of us fought when he bought Luna Park and converted it to Stray Cat, depriving the neighborhood of another option for bar hopping.
I'll also give a plug to the Westover Market across from Lost Dog, which has its own impressive beer selection and hosts frequent tastings and entertainment.
Posted by: Lou | Dec 22, 2009 at 10:17 AM
Thomas, great catch and great sandwich. I've fixed the score and will try to try the cowboy next time I visit the Lost Dog.
Lou, as I mentioned in the post, I've been going to the Lost Dog for 11 years, but I've never really noticed the Westover Market. However, I happened to stop in after my interview with Ross when I noticed the beer signs. And you're right, the selection is great. Between the Lost Dog and the market, the folks living in that neighborhood have access to a whole lot of great beer.
Posted by: Drew | Dec 22, 2009 at 10:40 AM
The Columbia Pike location has a lot less families and more in the 20s and 30s range of clientele. It also seems to be a lot less noisy. I probably stop by about once a week.
I second the recommendation for Westover Market. Great beer selection and they have an outdoor beer garden Fridays and Saturdays most weeks with a very good mix of drafts.
Posted by: Rich | Dec 22, 2009 at 11:21 AM
Rich, I like the Columbia location for much the same reasons: less noisy and less crowded. I will say, they need to do more to make the place standout. I drove by it a couple times before noticing it, which is why I said in the post that it's across from the Cinema and Drafthouse. Still, it's great to be able to pop into a Lost Dog and not fight the crowd and sound.
Posted by: Drew | Dec 22, 2009 at 11:25 AM
breaking news from the mid 80s! brickskeller probably had decent service once upon a time. and all the beer that they claim to as well. then it might be worth going there.
snarkiness aside, the Lost Dog is great. but really, who didn't know that already?
Posted by: dano | Jan 04, 2010 at 04:30 PM
Um, thanks dano.
Hey, Scott Stone sent me a note to say he has moved on from Eola and will be back behind the bar at the upcoming Iron Horse Tap Room (ironhorsedc.com) on 7th Street in Chinatown. Swing by and see the man at work.
Posted by: Drew | Jan 05, 2010 at 01:17 PM
Stop on in at the Lost Dog South when you can. Our bartenders seem to exceed in the beer knowledge arena where the original location lacks. Come in on a Monday or Wednesday and ask me some questions, I should be able to answer most if not all.
Cheers - Jay
Posted by: Jay | Apr 30, 2010 at 03:04 PM
Consider it done, Jay.
Posted by: Drew | May 05, 2010 at 01:00 PM