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July 2010

Mussel Bar: First Impressions

Mussel_Bar_ChefsIn the months, weeks and finally days leading up to the opening of Mussel Bar, Robert Wiedmaier's new restaurant in Bethesda, you could hear people talking on the street about it. "I can't wait for that place to open!" I heard groups of people say as we passed by. People were definitely looking forward to this place opening.  It's been a long time since a new restaurant like this came in Bethesda. The last one I can remember is Redwood, and we all know how that went.  

Anyway, Mussel Bar finally opened on Thursday, after pushing back the opening day from Wednesday. Another reason I could tell it was long awaited? The already hour-long wait when Amy and I arrived Friday night at barely 6:30. Luckily, the small bar was no more than one level of people deep so we were able to get a beer and wait it out. We heard the wait times increasing, one hour and ten minutes, 1 hour and 20 minutes, until when we were finally seated, 1 hour and 30 minutes. Not bad for it only being your second night open.

When you first enter the restaurant, the aroma of the mussels and all the broths is intoxicating. Someone should bottle this as a perfume/cologne and sell it. There is not much of a waiting area, so you are forced to congregate around the bar, which isn't very large itself. Overall, the entire restaurant seats a maximum of 125 people, which makes me think there will be many long waits in the future for people.

Tap_listAs with most of Robert Wiedmaier's restaurants, beers, not wines, are the focus. A small selection of draft beers is available, with a large (not Brickskeller large) selection of bottled beers. On tap Friday night, were Brabo Pils, Delirium Tremens, Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor, Gouden Carolus Tripel, Kasteel Rouge, and Kasteel Donker. Prices for the draft beers range from $7 to $13, which was a little pricey in my opinion. At least that's what I thought at first, until I tried the Gouden Carolus Tripel and realized what I'd been missing all these years. While we were waiting at the bar, a guy came up and ordered a Bud Light. "Sorry sir, we don't have Bud Light," the bartender said. 

"Do you have any light beers?" he replied.

"No sir, we don't." 

(I'll leave the any further beer analysis to the likes of Drew and Rob since they know a lot more in this area than I.) 

Once we were finally seated, everything went pretty smoothly, particularly for a new restaurant getting so thoroughly slammed on its second night open. Our waiter explained the menu, which was not too complex. There is a small selection of salads and soups ranging in price from $7.50 to $15. It was way too hot out for soup, so we chose a couple of light salads; one with roasted beets, grapefruit, cumin, herbed yogurt, and a confit of lemons and raisins, and the other an asparagus salad with a poached egg and bacon. Both were very big successes 

Mussels_at_mussel_bar Of course, Mussel Bar has moules frites and are all $16. The mussels are all “Blue Bay” Prince Edward Island mussels, which is what you would expect. There are also some wood-fired tarts, which are basically flatbreads/pizzas, and some sandwiches. If you're looking for something on the larger side, there are three entrees including a short rib bolognese pappardelle available in a full or half portion, a grilled strip steak, and a grilled Atlantic salmon. that range in price from $22 to $24.

We figured getting anything other than mussels on our first visit would be criminal, so Amy and I both ordered our own. Amy beat me to ordering the wild 'shroom preparation with pancetta, Parmesan, and truffle cream, so I went with the "classic" mussels with garlic, shallot and white wine broth. The staff deliver the mussels in piping hot cast iron pans. Upon placing them on the dining table, the staff took the covers off the pans and oh, man, it smelled so good. We took deep breaths and then dug in. I was loving the "classic" mussels I had ordered, but after trying Amy's 'shroom mussels, mine just seemed outright bland. I think the added touch of truffle is really what made them stand out. 

Mussel_Bar_frites The mussels themselves were cooked well, but my only complaint is that there were a good deal of mussels with a tiny amount of meat inside. The frites were very crispy and made for good dipping in the mussel broth as we ate. Although, I would not say the frites are classic frites that follow the fry and bake cooking approach, but thought they were delicious.

We skipped dessert because we were full, and the dessert selection is not especially tempting. You have a choice of vanilla or chocolate ice cream and a vanilla creme brulee. While Amy is a big fan of creme brulee, she was way too full to eat anymore.

Overall, our first visit to Mussel Bar was very successful and we'll definitely be going back. I only hope that things calm down a bit in the coming months and the wait goes down. If the wait scares you, you probably want to get there on the very early side, or try a weeknight (although not Monday night -- they're closed).

Mussel Bar
262 Woodmont Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814

Hey Hop Heads: Paradiso Presents JulyPA Days!

6a00d8345244ce69e20120a595b347970c-800wi With Restaurant Week and DC Beer Week in the offing, some really cool events are bound to slip through the cracks. Chatting with Greg Jasgur of Pizzeria Paradiso last night, I learned about just such an event! Call it Christmas In July for hopheads; PP has just kicked off JulyPA Days!

Starting this morning, both Pizzeria Paradiso locations will be dedicating ALL of their combined 30 draught lines to those biggest and boldest of beers, the India Pale Ale. This style, once relegated to the back burner of American brewing, is now the fastest growing segment of the microbrew market, with the heft and power envelope being further pushed everyday.

Now, you can find an embarrassment of IPAs at any reputable beer bar, but you won't find anything quite like what Greg and his cronies have cooked up. Some really rare gems, almost completely unavailable at this time, will be tapped today. Amongst well known local stalwarts like the Dogfish Head 60 Minute and Heavy Seas Loose Cannon, relatively unknown treasures like the Scottish-born Brewdog Hardcore will be on the menu. For those that love "Real Ale," Bell's Two-Hearted Ale and PA's Victory Hop Wallop will be available on hand pull. If you miss seasonal favorites like the Bell's Hopslam, gone some two months now, a held-back keg will be tapped tomorrow, along with TWO offerings from the much-sought Three Floyds brewery, the Alpha King and the extremely rare Apocalypse Cow.

6a00d8345244ce69e20120a53ec387970b-800wi To accompany these ballsy beers, the chef has cooked up a couple of themed specials. The "I-nsalata P-aradiso A-ppetizer" (har!) is a strongly flavored salad of  arugula, sweet peppers, cucumber, pine nuts, and blue cheese, dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. The "I-Pizz-A" (double har!) features roasted local peaches and apricots, prosciutto di Parma, ricotta, goat cheese, and basil, on the restaurant's classic Neopolitan crust.

Greg says that they are gonna keep the kegs tapped till they are kicked, but you can't expect some of those suckers to stick around for very long. For a full list of featured beers, take a look at Paradiso's website here. If you call yourself a hophead, or are possessed of a similar affliction, you cannot miss this event. And remember, each restaurant will be featuring it's own particular selection, so call ahead for the lineup, or better yet, hit up both!

Pizzeria Paradiso

3282 M Street NW
Washington, DC


2003 P St. NW
Washington, DC

Escape the Heat: Bean Salad

Therm Last winter (sigh...remember then?), my household was treated to my weekly experiments in bread-baking...not just the end results, but the wonderful aroma and the blissful heat emanating from a 475° oven.

No can do now.  Forgive me a little whining about the heat, but I'm not genetically built for this climate and I have no idea how people lived in pre-A/C DC .  Now, the thought of turning on the oven or the stove (or even running the dishwasher**) inspires a hearty, "Hell no!"

We who love to create in the kitchen still have a lot of options though that (a) don't require heat, (b) take advantage of summer produce and (c) are incredibly healthy.  In the coming weeks, I'll share some ideas I rely on for when it's too hot to cook.  (Indoors, that is.  Drew will still have you covered on the grill side of things.)

The following is one of my go-to, summertime, "eff this DC heat" recipes:  Bean Salad. I really hate to call it that, though, because it brings to mind the old picnic standby of 3 bean salad, fresh from the can.  Gross.

My version is based on the following simple ingredients:  beans, vegetables, fruits, seasonings.  It's inspired by Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express and his 101 Series from the New York Times (truly, the man is a god), whose philosophy is that you really learn how to cook after you throw away the recipes and start experimenting.  So use whatever you have that might work and however much of it you'd like.  Taste frequently and ask yourself, "What's missing?  What does this need?"  You'll know when to stop.

Depending on what you add, this can be either a main dish or a simple side.  At the minimum, however, use one bean, two veg, one fruit and a cilantro/lime/S&P seasoning mix.


I start with 2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained, as a base.  Use whichever beans you like. Black-beans


Fresh corn, 2 or 3 ears.  Remove the husks and silk, chop off the stalks, stand the ears in a shallow bowl (a pho bowl is perfect) and shave off the kernels with a sharp knife.

Onion:  dice one medium or large red or yellow.  Or slice a bunch of scallions or a few shallots.

Sweet peppers?  Sure, why not, dice one up.  When I have them, I use red, orange or yellow, purely for their color.

Also consider:  celery, cucumber, yellow squash.


This is where it can get interesting.  Tomatoes are a standby option:  3 or 4 seeded and diced romas or a handful of halved cherries.  But if you really want to make this stand out, skip the tomatoes and go right to the juicy fruits of summer:  mangoes, peaches, nectarines.  I've never tried berries, but I don't see why they won't work.  Watermelon?  Mmm...


Cilantro Cilantro:  a necessity, and in my case, about three times as much as the average person would use.  Did you know the stems contain as much flavor as the leaves?  Chop 'em up and throw 'em in. 

Lime:  add the juice of one or two.  Only have lemons?  Oh boy -- you should always have limes handy in the summer!  How are you going to make margaritas??  Run to your nearest bodega and buy a bag (what chain supermarkets charge for limes is a crime).  But if not, use a lemon instead.

Salt and pepper, natch.

Vinegar.  Toss in a tablespoon or two for depth if you feel it needs it.  I use champagne vinegar but if you want a bolder taste, use a red vinegar.  Too much vinegar or acidity:  balance it with sugar to taste.

Like it hot?  Mince a couple jalapenos (or other hot peppers) and throw them in.  Or use cayenne pepper, chipotle powder, sriracha or Tabasco.

Chives?  Okay.  Garlic?  Mince it up.


Throw everything in a bowl, toss and let it sit for the flavors to blend...or not.

If you noticed, this is a fat-free, vegan recipe (so far).  All that ends here, though.  If you want to provide a little body or binding, add olive oil by the tablespoon until you find the right consistency.  Want to bump up its belly-filler ability?  Add a semi-solid cheese with a cool, mild flavor:  3 or 4 ounces of crumbled goat cheese, cotija or queso fresco (but don't add salt until you see how much the cheese provides).   Avocado Top it with a dollop of sour cream or sliced avocado. Or both.

If you have other customizations, write them in the comments!  Or a better name?  Write that too!

**Solution to the dishwasher dilemma, run it when you go to bed.  The kitchen will be cooled off by morning.

Summer DC Restaurant Week - August 16th!

Restaurantweeklogo  This just in: The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington has just announced that DC Restaurant Week Summer 2010 is set for the week of August 16th to the 22nd!

In January, almost 180 eateries in the DC area took part in the year's first Restaurant Week, and this one looks to be the biggest yet, with just under 200 participants! Last season's terms will still apply: Participating restaurants will feature a prix-fixe, three-course meal (tax and tip excluded) for $20.10 at lunchtime, and $35.10 for dinner. 

With so many places to choose from, and only so many reservations to go around, picking RW dining destination can be a bit imposing, so we offer these bits of advice.

1) Avoid places that already offer special pre-theatre menus, and the like. You can experience these places on the cheap anytime, sometimes at a better price than the RW offering. Of course, a lot of these places have been known to throw a free glass of wine into the deal...

2) Go for the big and pricey! Hey, when is the next time you are gonna get a meal at Ruth's Chris for less than $40? Look for the $$$s and $$$$s on OpenTable and go for broke, though bear in mind, those ones book up fast.

3) Some restaurants put more into Restaurant Week than others. Some offer a bare-bones selection, hardly indicative of what they really can do. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few offer the entire menu, giving diners the option of tasting everything the chef has to offer. Though one can never be sure ahead of time, take a look at last year's menus, as they should give you a good idea as to who goes all out for the occasion.

4) Many places extend the Restaurant Week pricing for additional month or two. If your time is short and you wanna cram a lot in, again, take a look at last year's menus and hold off booking those places that extended the deal, as they are more likely to do so this year as well.

5) Though it may be tempting to pick the trendy new spots on this year's list, consider giving it a pass. Restaurants have enough troubles within their first six months without taking Restaurant Week into consideration -- those that take it on too quick often prove unfit for the task, with lackluster service and questionable food being the end result. Give it some time, and stick to the tried and true -- if they are any good, the new guys will be around for this summer's Restaurant Week.

Of course, we will post menus as they come in -- so keep checking the site. In the meantime, take a look at our past DC Restaurant Week menu posts to get an idea of who you'll see, and who is bound to bring their "a-game."

Winter 2010

Summer 2009

Winter 2009

Summer 2008

Winter 2008

For a full list of participating restaurants, check out RAMW's homepage, and make your OpenTable reservations here. Good luck, stay smart out there, and happy eating!

Must Haves: A Well Dressed Burrito

Must Haves focuses on some of D.C's best dishes.

It's a burrito joint, so the penguin is confusing. The location -- down an alley by Rumors -- isn't great, either.

Fortunately none of that matters because the burrito that you came for is what you came for. The Well Dressed Burrito's marinated burrito is one of the best you'll find in the District.

You either know this or you should.

It's not hard to find a burrito in D.C. There are the fast food options, like Chipotle, Taco Bell and Qdoba, but they're not that good. Despite the lines that wind their way through Chipotle, the weighty burritos are bloated bundles of rice. Taco Bell always seems like a great idea on road trips (when choices are few), but when you have options the allure of the Burrito Supreme fades fast. And Qdoba and the rest of the fast food options are cranking out crap for the hurried masses.

So you hop the Metro to Dupont and wander down an alley for what you know will be right. Between 11:30 and 1 p.m., the cramped space is as crowded as an Orange Line train. There are specials, like salmon quesadias and Mexican bread pudding, but you're there for the real specialty. You're there for a marinated burrito.

DSCN5443 Beef or chicken (there's a vegetarian option, but who cares) marinated in a "seasoned Mexican sauce," swaddled in a four tortilla and surrounded by black or refried beans, lettuce, Mexican rice, shredded cheese, sour cream and tomatoes. You ask for the hot salsa, thick with bits of peppers and spices.

You could get a fajita-style grilled burrito instead. For a moment you're tempted. You think that it'll be like a marinated burrito, but better because it's grilled. Then you remember the last time you ordered one and realized the meat isn't marinated, so the magic was missing.

No, you stick with the marinated burrito. Order beef or chicken, it doesn't matter because both a fantastic. You ask for it with black beans, because you know if you say nothing it will come with refried beans. Glancing at the beverage cooler, you wish there was a cold bottle of Hatuey waiting for you, but you settle for a Snapple.

Three minutes later, someone behind the cramped counter that keeps the crowd at bay calls your number. It's time to make a choice: do you shoulder your way back through the interns and office workers for one of the few seats among the filing cabinets, or do you tuck that fat baby under your arm and head to the circle for lunch on the lawn?

Doesn't matter, because it's the burrito that matters now. It's big, but unlike the popular Chipotle burrito, this well-dressed one has flavor. The mingling of marinated meat, beans and cheese may not be the most authentic burrito (you can head up to Columbia Heights for that), but it's the best thing you've eaten all week. It takes three bites to go left to right, but the deep, savory flavors and pinch of heat from the salsa help you make short work of the hefty lunch.

Sure you should've had a salad instead. You're pretty sure the dapper penguin's salads are good, but you've never had one. Come to think of it, you've never had anything else one the Well Dressed menu.

Why would you have? You're there for the marinated burrito.

The Black Squirrel: Best beer bar is the best reason to head to Adams Morgan

I don't care for Adams Morgan. I haven't since I was in my 20s, and even then I wasn't crazy about the neighborhood.

The clubs, chaos and shitty bars just aren't my scene any more, not that they ever were. I do love Madam's Organ, but even that ramshackle joint isn't enough to deal with the mess anymore. And as the good Ethiopian restaurants disappeared from the 18th Street corridor, there was nothing to draw me to the neighborhood.

Well, there was nothing.

33670003 A couple years ago, three friends who met in a bar opened a bar. A good bar. A very good bar -- The Black Squirrel, the hardest working beer bar in Washington, D.C. And they did it in the heart of Adams Morgan.

If there was ever any doubt that the craft beer revolution has changed D.C.'s bar scene, you need only consider The Black Squirrel. Before Gene Sohn, Tom Knott and Amy Bowman took over the space, it was another Irish pub, one of too many in the area. Like so many businesses up and down 18th Street, the Irish place failed. The fickle tastes of the twenty-something bar hoppers that crowd the sidewalks every weekend decided that pints of Guinness weren't their thing and so another Adams Morgan business needed a buyer.

33670008 Since the trio moved in and replaced the imported macros with American micros, they've established a following of neighborhood regulars and loyal beer enthusiasts willing to trek into Adams Morgan to experience what's on tap. Two years after opening, The Black Squirrel is on its second expansion. Last year, they opened an upstairs bar and lounge. Later this year, they'll outfit their freshly graffitied basement with a bar (with 30 to 40 draft lines!) and bring in live music. Soon enough, they'll open a second location and start brewing their own beer.

And to think they've done all this without Jägerbombs, drink specials or, frankly, much experience.

Gene Sohn spent his career in fine dining. After a three-year stint cooking at Marcel's in the West End, Sohn was ready for something different, maybe a place of his own. So he started talking to Amy and Tom, a long-time couple who were fellow regulars at the old Austin Grill in Glover Park. Amy is a health care writer, Tom a sports columnist, and neither has ever worked in the restaurant or bar business, but they were interested.  

33670021 Man, were they. In the past two years, Gene, Amy and Tom (far left, background and right, respectively) have operated one of the most interesting craft beer bars in the area. Their draft lineup isn't the largest in D.C., but beer director Melissa Yuckel (center) makes the most of what they got. Two taps are dedicated to Black Squirrel white and Black Squirrel black beers (usually a Belgian witbier and an amber), but the other 15 feature a regular rotation of American craft and imports, including Great Lakes' Eliot Ness lager, Great Divide's Titan IPA and North Coast's Brother Thelonious abbey ale. In the coolers, The Black Squirrel offers 80 to 100 bottles, the latest of which are advertised on the chalkboard next to Tom's favorite perch at the end of the bar. A couple months ago, they got on the growing firkin bandwagon and started tapping a cask of fresh local beer every Friday.

This alone would make The Black Squirrel a good beer bar (and the best damn bar in its neighborhood). But they're not done (I told ya, they're workin'.).

Because all of that is just not enough, Amy or the bar staff have made multi-state beer runs to pick up beer otherwise unavailable in the D.C. area (Greg Jasgur may be driving Three Floyds back from Chicago, but Amy's going up and down the damn East Coast). As a result, The Black Squirrel has held North Carolina Beer week, New Belgium beer week, Philly beer week and has more theme weeks on the way. Each time one of these new beers rolls into the bar, Gene rolls out new specials from the kitchen. North Carolina beer week featured Big Boss from Raleigh and pulled pork sandwiches from Gene. Philly beer week included beers from Yards and Sly Fox, and foie gras cheesesteaks with black truffle mousse (yeah it did). Now, they've cracked open cases of SweetWater beer from Atlanta and served them with an appropriately Southern menu of fried chicken, greens and grits.

"What we've learned from our type of customers is they want to be surprised," Tom said. And so the road trips and taps rotations will continue.

33670017 When Amy, Tom and Gene started talking about opening a place three years ago, the District's craft beer scene was just getting under way. There was Bierria Paradiso in Georgetown, the Brickskeller in Dupont Circle and its sister restaurant RFD in Chinatown, but ChurchKey was still two years from opening and Pizzeria Paradiso's cramped Dupont location didn't have a bar. Granville Moore's and Brasserie Beck had just opened, expanding the Belgian beer scene from Belga Café on Barrack's Row to the Atlas District and downtown.

Today, the beer bar scene is in full swing, yet The Black Squirrel remains a standout.

"We do have more of a domestic (beer) focus," said Amy, who described The Black Squirrel as a "hop head" bar. "It's sort of nice that they have their niche and we have our niche."

That niche includes location. Think about where all the beer bars popped up in the District: Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Logan Circle, downtown, even H Street, which is still pretty rough. For a neighborhood that's known for its Miller Lite bars and noisy clubs, its only craft beer bar stands out.

When they were considering locations for The Black Squirrel, Amy said they recognized that Adams Morgan was a club district that didn't have anything like what they were considering. However, it was more affordable than other locations around the city. Besides, for all late-night crowds and turnover in businesses on 18th, they knew a lot of people lived in the neighborhood who didn't have a spot to grab a decent meal and enjoy a beer. If they could attract the locals (they have), their business might just work (it has).

Another factor in their success is their staff. Tom said they attract well-educated, bright employees who understand the concept and are good with the customers. The problem with bartenders and wait staff with graduate degrees, however, is it's hard to keep them around.  

Now, I've never asked Melissa or their former bar manager Hollie Stephenson (who's heading up their brewing project) for their CV, but The Black Squirrel's staff is friendly enough, which is probably more important than their academic backgrounds (but who am I to argue?). After all, you can clearly run a successful beer bar and restaurant in a challenging neighborhood with absolutely no experience whatsoever.

When he was looking for business partners, Gene said he was more interested in finding someone who would be a good fit rather than someone with a restaurant industry background. As it turned out, it may be Amy and Tom's lack of restaurant experience that has been their greatest asset.

Gene runs the kitchen, while Amy and Tom handle the front of the house. Amy also takes care of marketing, paperwork, beer menu and stock levels and deals with the city. Tom oversees the staff, financing and works on new endeavors, like the second location and brewing project. It's a system that's working, but that's not to say there isn't room for improvement.

33670013 I understand the decision to open shop in Adams Morgan, but I don't have to like it. But because I like The Black Squirrel - and I do - I'm compelled to wade back into the neighborhood. To mitigate my misery, I tend to hit the bar earlier rather than later, which helps, but even in the late afternoon, Adams Morgan isn't great, it's just less shitty.

If Gene, Amy and Tom had opened The Black Squirrel in another neighborhood, I might've had my own stool next to Tom's by now.

During the interview, Amy said one of the keys to their success is the food, which Gene calls typical bar food, but done with fine dining quality. That's probably true (foie gras cheesesteaks, people). I've rarely been in The Black Squirrel without seeing families and couples having dinner. But as I've mentioned before, a good restaurant doesn't make a good bar.

It's kind of like kids in a casino. I like my bars to be full of drinkers, so the family sitting at the next table enjoying their meal always takes me a little out of the moment. A native of Houston, Amy said you can't go into a bar in Texas without finding good food. Well, I'd like to keep my bars and restaurants distinct, but that's just me.

As for the beer, Melissa does an excellent job making the most of the space she has. Of all the beer bars in the D.C. area, The Black Squirrel consistently has the strongest and most consistent selection of American craft beers. However, their selection of local beers is spotty. While you may find a couple bottles of Flying Dog and occasionally a Heavy Seas on draft, I'd like to see a wider selection of local beers (Hook & Ladder, Evolution, even Baltimore's The Brewer's Art), particularly from a bar that prides itself on its domestic lineup. After all, what's more American than supporting your community?

What they do have on hand does rotate a good bit, which keeps the beer and selection fresh. But the way they advertise the new beers is confusing. The chalkboard by the bar (and Tom) lists the new bottles. I know this because the first time I ordered off of it expecting a draft beer to show up, I was given a bottle and a glass. In my experience, my chalkboard lists are for drafts and printed lists are for bottles. However, the printed draft list is (occasionally) relegated to the menu and may or may not be current. Honestly, the best way to find out what's on draft is to ask, which is fine at the bar, but sucks when you're at a table.

The communication problems also extend to the Website. As far as I can tell, the only useful information on the Website is the phone number and address (maybe the food menu, too). The draft and bottle beer lists are out of date, and they never advertise all their special beer weeks. So, if you want to find out about an upcoming event, you need to connect with The Black Squirrel on Facebook. If you want to find out what's on draft, you better head down there. Pizzeria Paradiso, ChurchKey and RFD do a decent job of updating their beer selections online, and there's no reason The Black Squirrel couldn't do the same. When I'm trying to decide where to spend my money on a few craft beers, I like to know what my options are. Unfortunately, The Black Squirrel's Website doesn't help.

That said, roll the dice and see what Amy and Melissa have brought in. The Black Squirrel isn't the biggest place, and it doesn't have the most taps or the largest selection; but Lord knows they're all working hard and burning fuel to make sure that that 18th Street joint is one of the best beer bars we got.

And you know what? It is.

Score: 16 of 20 (beer: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 4 of 5, other elements 2 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 Café (12 of 20). And don't miss our special feature on D.C.'s best German bars.

The Black Squirrel
2427 18th St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 232-1011

Ray's Hell Burger Too: Gourmet Burger Redux?

RaysHellOutside1 Local beef Impresario Michael Landrum has been a busy man of late. Hot on the heals of opening Ray's The Steaks East River, Landrum has done a whirlwind overhaul of one of his Ray's Hell Burger locations in Arlington, re-dubbing it "Ray's Hell Burger Too." Of course, everyone knew he was going to do something with the space, but I hadn't heard anything about the launch until this Thrillist article hit my inbox the Friday before last. Some friends and I popped around that evening, in the hopes that it flew under everyone else's radar, as well.

Ray's Hell has become the go-to gourmet burger location in the DC area since opening in July 2008. Their fresh-trimmed, hand-ground 10 oz burgers and myriad decadent toppings have become a favorite of burger fiends inside the beltway. Despite some brilliant press and some high-profile, repeat customers, NOVA's premier gourmet burger bar has had its share of detractors and complaints. Ray's Hell Too, it seems, is an attempt to address those most frequently voiced quibbles. A sign they'd taped to the front door summed it up nicely:

RaysHellSign Ray's Hell Burger Too

Hate Waiting in Line?
Hate Fighting for a Table?
Want a Smaller Burger?
Into Exotic Game?
Wishing for Waitress Service?

Check Out our New, Exclusive Menu
Offerings and Sit-down Service


Not mentioned above is the oft lamented lack of booze, which was also purportedly remedied. This, plus the lack of a smaller option were always my greatest complaints, so I was pretty psyched.

RaysHellShirt1 The restaurant is set up much like the old Ray's The Steaks location, with forty or so tops jammed into a tight, sparsely decorated space, with an open kitchen off to the back. Where the old Ray's had a touch of class with its open wine racks and wood floors, Ray's Too is all linoleum and cheap paneling, with neon Coke coolers and framed T-Shirts telling us to "Go To Hell." But then, it is a burger joint -- just don't go expecting the Ritz here.

RaysHellInside1 While none of the diners seemed crowded or put upon, the waiting area is a bit on the small side. We crowded into the 6 by 4 foot vestibule with a few other wannabe patrons, until we overflowed and started a line against the wall. There is no host or host stand, but a competent waitress was quick to give us menus, take our head counts, and give us some time estimates. Once our party was fully formed we were seated very quickly, which was impressive on such a busy night -- can never say a Ray's doesn't know how to flip tables!

The new menu offers the same beef behemoths as always, along with some new points of interest: Vegetarians finally have an option in the form of a 1/3 lb veggie burger, and lovers of more exotic fair will be tempted by the fruit glazed venison burger, or the 'Hanoi Style' wild boar burger. The real draw is still the classic, now also available in the more modest 1/3 lb form, cleverly dubbed the "Lil Devil," for $6.99 plus toppings.

RaysHellMyMeal The wait would prove to be the most well orchestrated portion of our evening, as from here, organization flew out the window. Our server was very sweet, but had almost no idea what was going on concerning the menu or otherwise. When asked about the new Hanoi burger, which is only vaguely described on the menu, she had nothing to offer in the way of description. Ray's had yet to draw up a drink list, and we got very different opinions on what it actually contained, depending on who we asked. I don't know whether to blame lack of time for training, last minute changes, or what, but if we hadn't already been well acquainted with the original concept, we would have been lost.

As best I can tell, Ray's offers Bud Light, Bell's Two Hearted Ale, and Delirium Tremens by the 12 oz bottle -- strange selections for such a tiny list, as each of these occupies some sort of fringe in the wide world of beer. Baby bottles of Beringer Merlot and Cabernet were also served, along with Pinot Grigio, which was already out of stock. We were told that all drinks were $4.00 a piece, making the Tremens a tremendous deal (if you like that sort of thing), and the Budwater a terrible ripoff. The drinks were a long time in coming, and were then unceremoniously dumped on the table, sans glasses, with the soft drink bottles not even opened. I know I'm not the bloody Duchess of Kent or anything, but come on...


We'd all ordered incarnations of the "Lil Devil," which arrived in various states, ranging from overcooked to underdone. As often happens when given too many options, I panicked, and ordered my burger with what some may call a revolting combination of bone marrow and cave aged cheddar. It didn't work at all -- which I admit is totally my fault -- and I was very disappointed to find my "rare" burger just a hair under medium. Eliza ordered more sensibly, opting for the always delicious sherry and brandy sauteed mushrooms (a longtime staple at Ray's The Steaks), but her's, too, was about one shade too brown. 

Worst of all, one of our companions ordered the boar, which came out underdone! He made a terrible face when he tried it, and voiced his concerns. Unfamiliar with ground boar, we all thought that maybe it was supposed to be a little pink, but the texture was undeniably gummy and unpleasant. The waitress was less concerned than I would have hoped that they'd served us raw pork, but did take it away and fire a new onRaysHellMyBurgere. In the interim, we were offhandedly informed that we would not be allowed to order any more drinks, as they were running low, which at that point was pretty much cool by all involved. The bill came to about $74.00, which included five burgers, several sides of fries, our beers, and truffled mac and cheese.

I know its not fair to judge a restaurant on its first week, much less on what might have been its opening day. But folks, this ain't remotely Michael Landrum's first rodeo, and this isn't even really a new restaurant, so much as a new concept shoehorned into an old space. Landrum knows how to open a restaurant, which makes our disappointing experience all the more puzzling. 

RaysHellBoar1 Since our visit, we've talked to a couple friends who have been since the renovation, and they had a pretty good time, so hopefully things are settling in. I'm hoping that our experience was just an isolated event, or that matters have much improved by now. So I throw it out to you -- have any of you guys been? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Ray's Hell Burger Too
1713 N Wilson Blvd
Arlington, Virginia 22201
(703) 841-0001