Church! The Best Places To Watch Football

At approximately 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 1, Casey Brockman will walk to the line. The Murray State quarterback will look across the field to find Louisville’s stud linebacker Dexter Heyman, hoping to God the Cardinals’ won’t blitz on first. The 6’2’’ junior will lean over center Brock Rydeck, ignore the jeers of the Cardinals’ crowd, and demand the ball.

In all likelihood, it will be a bad day for Casey, Brock and the Murray State Racers, but an excellent day for the rest of us. Because on that day, when Rydeck snaps that ball and Heyman drives Brockman into the field of Cardinal’s Stadium, football will once again be with us (this NFL preseason crap doesn't count).

It’s been said that this game of grace and violence is our national religion. If that’s the case, then the sports bar is our house of worship. Being a fan of far-away teams (South Florida, Buccaneers), it took me a while to find a few decent bars and restaurants in the D.C. area to watch football. The region may be inundated with sports bars, but few offer the trifecta of great beer, good food and the promise of your team on the screen (unless you’re a Skins fan, in which case any Chili’s will do).

Well, friends, I’m here to help. Below are my top five bars and restaurants in the DMV to watch the faux-pros on Saturday and Pro Bowlers on Sunday. 

1. The Black Squirrel: The Black Squirrel has three floors, 49 taps and 11 TVs (and if you call ahead, the third floor can be your private sports bar). Owner Amy Bowman keeps this Best Beer Bar stocked with a top tier line-up of craft beers, while the talented Gene Sohn runs the kitchen (order the burger). Is it a coincidence that on game days all the TVs are tuned in? Nope, The Black Squirrel was co-founded by former sports columnist Tom Knott. (Disclosure: I’m friends with Amy and Tom. Still, The Black Squirrel is a great place to watch football.) 

2. Iron Horse Taproom: If the Iron Horse Taproom opened at noon on weekends it would be the best place in D.C. to watch football. The multi-level bar is big, filled with TVs, has a great selection of craft beers, and features the best menu in town -- by not featuring a menu at all. The Penn Quarter tavern (pictured above) doesn’t have a kitchen, so it allows patrons to bring in food or have it delivered. Want to dig into some Texas barbecue while watching the Lone Star Showdown? No problemo. Grab a pound of brisket from Hill Country or better yet, a burrito from Capital Q and head to the Iron Horse. How about some lamb vindaloo while you watch the John Beck/Rex Grossman quarterback controversy unfold this season? Mehak is just down the street. Just make sure your game doesn’t start before 5 p.m. If it does, you’ll need to head elsewhere. 

3. Frisco Tap House: What’s more American than football? Excess. The Frisco Tap House has 50 taps, a beer engine, a table where you can pour your own draft beer, an extensive bottle and can list, great burritos and eight giant flat screen TVs (with more coming this fall). Sure, the Columbia, Md., bar is a hike if you live in Logan Circle. But if you live in Maryland, you have one hell of a place to watch football.

4. Capitol Lounge: This is where it started for me. When I moved from Tampa to D.C. in the late 90s, Cap Lounge was the only place in town I could reliably catch Bucs games. It helped that one of the bartenders was a Bucs fan and wanted to watch the games, too. The Capitol Hill bar continues to be a great spot to catch a game, with a mess of TVs tucked and hung throughout the two-floor restaurant, and a stellar selection of craft beers on draft and in bottles and cans.  

41380020 5. Rustico: These days, it’s tough to write a story about beer without mentioning ChurchKey and its downstairs sister, Birch & Barley. But before there was CKBB there was Rustico, owner Michael Babin’s first crack at a craft beer establishment. While ChurchKey is unabashedly a beer bar, a fine one at that, Babin makes sure his two Rustico restaurants remain casual neighborhood spots, which makes them ideal for watching the game. Greg Engert oversaw the beer program at the original Rustico in Alexandria before heading over to ChurchKey, and continues to curate the draft and bottle lists for his original restaurant and the newer Ballston location. Although neither will be mistaken for a sports bar, the Rusticos have just enough TVs to catch most of the marquee games. And if the beer list and full menu aren’t enough to attract you, they’re offering beer specials as well. Beginning September 10, both Rustico locations will offer $3.50 cans of craft beer, including G’Knight, Dale’s Pale Ale, Old Chub and Ten Fidy (they clearly have a thing for Oskar Blues’ beers), and $2.50 cans of college beer (because you or your buddy don’t know better) during games. 

IPAs And Indian Food: Like Peas And Carrots (In Mumbai)

Fact: Indian food is incredibly flavorful and can be quite spicy.
Fact: India pale ales are incredibly flavorful and can be quite bitter.
Fact: It's difficult to pair beer with Indian food.
Fact: It's difficult to pair food with IPAs.
Fact: Indian food and IPAs were made for each other, literally.

That last fact should be self-evident, but if it was Indian restaurants (at least the ones around here) would stick a few Loose Cannons, maybe an Avery IPA on the menu. But that's not the case. Instead, your beer options are limited to a redundant list of light lagers whose labels might invoke thoughts of India - Kingfisher, Taj - but are otherwise indistinguishable from the light lagers made in St. Louis and Golden, Colo.

To be fair, lagers have been the beer of choice in India for more than a century. In fact, lagers are the beer of choice in most parts of the world. There was a time, though, when bitter, hop-forward ales from England were all the rage on the subcontinent (and then the Indians booted out their British overlords and switched to the German stuff).

Travel to England today and you'll be hard pressed to find a pub that doesn't have curry on the menu. For a people known for fried fish and sausages, they have fully embraced an Indian staple as their own (thanks to their old Asian holdings). But travel to India, and the culinary cultural exchange doesn't stand up, at least where beer is concerned. 

That's a shame because there may be no better beverage to pair with a spicy curry than a hoppy India pale ale.

As craft beer has become more popular over the past decade, so too has the idea that beer can be paired with more than burgers and pizza. Thomas Keller commissioned Russian River Brewing and Brooklyn Brewery to make special beers for his restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se. Here in D.C., Chef Eric Ziebold's tasting menu at CityZen has included a beer course, and Michel Richard imports the Belgian pilsner Blusser for his restaurant Central. And then there's Birch & Barley, which offers a beer pairing with each course of Chef Kyle Bailey's tasting menu.

Once the domain of wine, beer is being recognized as an ideal accompaniment to food. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewing and author of The Brewmaster's Table, has gone even further to say that beer offers a wider range of flavors and styles, making it the ideal accompaniment to food. (The Brewmaster's Table, as it happens, is a book about pairing food with beer.)

That may be true, but when it came to Indian cuisine, I never gave it much thought. As oafish at it may sound, I viewed curries and kormas as ethnic food made by people from foreign lands. So if the people running the restaurant wanted to offer a few light lagers with their dishes, so be it. Their food, their beer. After all, you go to Indique for the food not the drink. Well, a cold Fisherking may be common in Mumbai's curry houses, but it's not the ideal beer for the food. The ideal one might just be a California pale ale. (I know it's not an IPA. I'll get to that.)

Book I got thinking about this particular food and beer pairing after reading Pete Brown's latest book, Hops and Glory. In it, the British beer writer explores the development of the IPA and England's colonization of India, and chronicles his journey from Burton-Upon-Trent (the birthplace of IPAs) to Calcutta with a keg of IPA in tow. It's a good book, and in it Brown makes the point that IPAs not only go well with Indian cuisine, they taste like they were made for it.

"[The IPA he brought from England] really was dangerously drinkable, and when the tandoori canapés came round it went beautifully, cutting through the heat and harmonizing with the spices so perfectly it was as if the beer had been designed specially to go with the cuisine, and perhaps it had."

That sparked my interest. While Oliver and other beer writers have made the point that IPAs can go well with very flavorful dishes and spicy foods, Brown's 450 page treatise on the matter convinced me to try the pairing myself.

Because Indian restaurants don't offer India pale ales, I conducted my tasting at the next logical location: the Iron Horse bar in Penn Quarter.

I like the Iron Horse, a lot. Not only does it offer a great selection of craft beers and is home to bartender extraordinaire Scott Stone, but it has a tavern license. What that tavern license means is that they don't serve food, so you can bring in food from anywhere. As long as you're drinking, that's no problemo. You can even have food delivered and never leave your barstool. That's turned the Iron Horse into my go-to bar for watching college football (Pattison Avenue and pints, people) and in this case, my go-to spot for lamb vindaloo and IPAs.

DSC_0030 The vindaloo, which I picked up from nearby Mehak, was great. Chunks of lamb and potato swam in a pool of fiery red curry. It was delicious, and completely overwhelmed my pallet. The onion kulcha, a doughy flat bread filled with onions, was good, but no match for the vindaloo.

For the pairing, I ordered Flying Dog's Double Dog imperial IPA, which clocks in at 11.5% A.B.V.; Flying Dog's Snake Dog IPA, which comes in at a more modest 7.1% A.B.V.; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (on the theory that English IPAs aren't nearly as high in alcohol as our IPAs), which runs 5.6% A.B.V.; and Sierra Nevada's new Juniper Black Ale, a hoppy 8% A.B.V. black IPA.

Of the four beers, the two with the lowest alcohol levels paired the best with the spicy Indian dish. The Double Dog (a personal favorite) was much too sweet for the dish and the heat of the vindaloo overwhelmed whatever hop characteristics the Juniper Black Ale had, making it taste like an ordinary stout. On the other hand, the IPA and pale ale were spot on.

Although the IPAs didn't compliment the curry in the same way the dark stouts compliment chocolate and coffee flavors, the Snake Dog IPA and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale stood their ground with the vindaloo. A dish with the much flavor and heat would turn a Taj to water, but the IPAs remained bright, hoppy and citrusy deep into the bowl.

Between the two beers, I favored the pale ale. Both went well, but the bitter bite from the Snake Dog and the spicy of the vindaloo were a bit much for me. The Sierra Nevada, though, was refreshing, and the subtler hop bitterness helped restore my taste buds between bites.

These results shouldn't have been surprising, even if they were. This food and this style of beer should be easier to find together, even if it's not. But the fact is, IPAs pair well with Indian food, even if you have to bring the food to the beer.

And if Indian isn't your thing or you want a few more pairing options, you could try Thai (which Scott suggested) or fried chicken (which my wife suggested). I think they're both right. If it's spicy enough or fried enough, it can be matched up with an IPA. Brooklyn's Oliver has suggested pairing IPAs with fried fish, Mexican and calamari. Point being, IPAs go well with spicy and greasy food. When it comes to pairing Indian food with beer, though, I don't think there's a better option than an IPA (or pale ale).

Iron Horse Taproom
507 7th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
(202) 347-7665

817 7th St. N.W.
Washington D.C., DC 20001
(202) 408-9292

White whiskey is not moonshine, but it may be the new absinthe

White whiskey, corn liquor, white dog. By another name, unfinished whiskey. By another, novelty.

Of all the recent trends in cocktails and spirits, this is the one I least understand. After all, it’s one thing for distillers to bottle half finished whiskey and try to sell it to the masses, but it’s quite another that the masses actually buy it. And buy it, they do.

Two ounces neat can cost you $10. A bottle can go for $45.

But why? White whiskey is but stage one in the lengthy whiskey making process and lacks all the qualities of good, old brown whiskey. The time spent in wooden barrels gives whiskey those quintessential warm flavors of caramel and vanilla, that faint earthy hint of white oak (or port, depending on the barrel’s previous tenant) and the amber hue that is the spirit’s signature color. The barrel aging process also tames the liquor’s harsh bite, which is why the older the whiskey, the smoother the taste. All of this, all of it, is due to the wood.

White whiskey, then, is simply corn liquor that either never made it in the barrel or spent so little time in it to not matter. Consequently, it’s clear as water, but hot with alcohol, harsh to drink and tastes heavily (and miserably) of sweet corn. All in all, it’s not a very good spirit. Yet, it can command the same price as a quality bottle of bourbon.

Matthew Halligan, a manager at the whiskey bar Bourbon in Glover Park, said white whiskey’s price is at least partially due to its limited availability and the fact that it’s new. Although it’s easier than ever to find unaged whiskey, it’s still not as prevalent as traditional bourbons and popular Irish whiskies. 

That said, Halligan agreed that it is odd that a liquor that is relatively fast, cheap and easy to make can cost as much or more than a spirit that’s been aged for years. Given the choice between young and old, the whiskey bar manager would rather have a bourbon.

The problem with wood aging, though, is the time it takes. Not only do whiskey barrels take up space and require tending, but also the longer whiskey sits in a barrel, the more it bleeds into the wood and evaporates into the ether. Most bourbons spend a minimum of two years in a barrel. Single malt Scotches take no less than three years to mature, but are often left in the barrel for many more years. That’s a long time to wait before sending a product to market. And as with so many things, time equals money.

In Scotland, where temperatures are moderate throughout the year, whisky barrels are typically stored in a single location until they’re tapped. In Kentucky, however, distillers rotate the bourbon barrels in their warehouses throughout the year to compensate for the seasonal fluctuations in temperatures. But even in Scotland, that storage space costs money. And the longer a whiskey ages, the less there will be when it’s ready to bottle. That’s why a 21-year-old bottle of Macallan Scotch costs considerably more than a 10-year-old bottle -- there’s simply a lot less of it.

So taking a page from the vodka market, whiskey makers have decided to forego the wait and bottle a portion of their liquor as soon as it comes out of the still.

Kevin Kosar, author of Whiskey: A Global History, and founder of the Website,, said white whiskey, as a product, works for distillers because it gives them a new product without the need to invest in new materials.

Whether it comes from boutique and up-market distillers, like Tuthilltown and Buffalo Trace, or the Johnson Distilling Co., which sells its Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey in a mason jar, the white whiskey is hustled the same way –- a traditional American spirit made the old fashioned way. The similarity in marketing is no accident. Distilleries across the country may be producing white whiskey, but they’re all channeling Appalachia’s staple spirit, moonshine

The thing is, though, white whiskey has more in common with vodka and Everclear than backwoods white lighting. Moonshine is illegal liquor. Because it’s illegal, there are no standards for making it, so moonshine can be made from anything. Whiskey, even white whiskey, must contain a certain percentage of corn or grain; it must be taxed and regulated; and it is very much legal. But legal is boring. Moonshine is exciting. And if you’re a distiller trying to sell the public a new product that doesn’t taste very good, you need exciting on your side.

Besides, with the rise of classic cocktail bars, craft breweries and the artesianal food movement, everything old is new again, including white whiskey.

“It’s all part of the heritage kick,” Kosar said.

94980022 That’s where things start getting muddled. Does moonshine equal heritage? Maybe. But is white whiskey made by a boutique distillery in upstate New York and sold for $45 a bottle heritage? If it is, who is it appealing to? Judging by the slick packaging and price tag, most white whiskies appear to speak more to East Coast foodies than north Georgia moonshiners.

And let’s not forget, white whiskey doesn’t taste very good. Of the few brands I’ve tried, Tuthilltown’s Hudson Valley Corn Whiskey is the most palatable. The sweet corn flavor is present in the spirit, but it’s toned down and the finish is relatively smooth. Relatively. It’s fine for what it is, but given a choice, I’d rather have bourbon.

Even the cocktail – once the refuge of problematic spirits – can’t save white whiskey. Derek Brown, co-owner of The Passenger and The Columbia Room, is no slouch behind the bar. He put together two cocktails for me using white whiskey: a martini and a whiskey sour. They were quite good, but the white whiskey’s particular flavors pushed passed the other ingredients and dominated the cocktails. Given a choice, I would’ve rather had gin and bourbon, respectively.

“Maybe that’s the dirty little secret,” Kosar said, tasting the Hudson Valley Corn Whiskey with me. “There’s not a whole lot of there, there.”

Halligan said white whiskey is a bit of a novelty and many people who order one at Bourbon are simply curious about the half dozen crystal clear whiskies the bar sells. Still, there are a number of knowledgeable whiskey drinkers who occasionally order the spirit and the bar is considering adding a white whiskey to its whiskey tasting menu.

In 2004, I was traveling through Britain with my wife and had a chance to try absinthe. The U.S. was still a few years from legalizing it, so it was exciting to try a forbidden spirit. Turns out, absinthe tastes like black licorice. I don’t like black licorice.

You know what else tastes like black licorice? Sambuca and ouzo, both of which have been legal for years. So when absinthe hit U.S. shelves in 2007, I had a feeling that the initial surge in interest would fade pretty quick. Sure enough, there are now a lot of fancy absinthe decanters gathering dust around town.

White whiskey, I believe, is headed for a similar fate. Because it’s relatively cheap to produce, it’s likely to stick around as long as stores and bars are willing to stock it. But its popularity will fade once enough people taste white whiskey and realize that a few years in white oak can turn this novelty spirit into something quite novel.

DC Beer Week 2011: It's Going To Be A Busy Week

DCBeerWeek Break out your calendars folks, the dates of DC Beer Week have been announced. And if Teddy Folkman is to be believed, it's going to be a busy week ... a very busy week.

Folkman, executive chef at Dr. Granville Moore's, leads the coordination of the seven-day beer celebration he helped put together two years ago. Every year since it's inception, the event has grown bigger with more bars, breweries and restaurants taking part. This year looks to be no different.

In the sweaty days of Aug. 14 to 20, Folkman is expecting more than 200 events spread across the District (I don't think he expects you to attend all of them). In addition to beer dinners and bar events, this year's DC Beer Week will focus on retail shops, include a homebrewing competition and may feature special one-off beers made for the event by participating breweries. 

Folkman is also reaching out to the area's upstart breweries, such as Black Squirrel Brewing Company, DC Brau Brewing Company, Chocolate City Beer and 3 Stars Brewing Company. Breweries to our north and south - including Flying Dog, Heavy Seas, Port City and Starr Hill - will also be welcome, but will have to do events in conjunction with District bars and restaurants, Folkman said. Other outsiders will include Great Lakes and Goose Island (which happens to have a hometown connection with the family at 1600 Penn. Ave.)

Although the dates have been announced, there is still a lot of planning going on. Folkman has designated a number of the city's craft beer bigwigs as "captains" to handle recruiting and coordinating in their neighborhoods. So you can expect ChurchKey to hold a number of events for DC Beer Week because Beverage Director Greg Engert volunteered to be a captain. Engert will also be responsible for coordinating events with the bars and restaurants near ChurchKey, as well as the two Rustico restaurants in Virginia. Other captains include Greg Jasgur, bar manager for Pizzeria Paradiso, and Dave Coleman, general manager and beer director for The Big Hunt.

At Granville Moore's, Folkman expects to hold at least one event every day of DC Beer Week. Many of those events will include beer from Allagash. The brewery may be based in Portland, Maine, but Folkman noted that D.C. is its biggest market.

More details about DC Beer Week 2011 should be out in mid to late June. 

ChurchKey: Ambitious Vision Is Realized As D.C.'s Very Best Beer Bar

Everything you need to know about ChurchKey is on the draught list.

Look at it. Drafted on tan, heavy paper - good paper, hardy paper - it's a black script roadmap to 55 drafts and casks. Hoppy, spicy, fruity, smoky beers are offered by the taste and by the glass. Along side each beer is the name of the brewery, its style, its place of birth. There's the alcohol percentage, the serving temperature, the price and the proper glassware. In case you don't know a tulip from a pint, there's a key of glassware silhouettes along the bottom of the menu.

Churchkey6 It's polished, elegant and written for nebbish beer geeks, but designed to guide anyone through ChurchKey's substantial selection of beers. 

It's the best menu I've ever seen.

The bar is almost as nice. From the solid burnt orange bar with its inset of keys, to the gothic chandeliers and floor to ceiling windows overlooking Logan Circle, ChurchKey is a beautiful establishment that was built to impress.

Without a doubt, it is one of the best bars I've ever set foot in. ChurchKey is not just one of D.C.'s best beer bars, it's our most important bar. The Brickskeller was ahead of its time when its lengthy beer list made the record books. But Miss Havisham has had her day and D.C.'s beer scene has come into its own. Portland has the Horse Brass Pub and Brussels has the Delirium Cafe. Now, thanks to Michael Babin and Greg Engert, we have ChurchKey.

I'm not the only one who's noticed.

"I was very pleasantly surprised with the professionalism [of the ChurchKey staff] and especially Greg has a great knowledge," Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the Danish brewer behind cult beer favorite Mikkeller, told me via email. Earlier this year, Engert hosted Mikkel at a beer dinner at ChurchKey's downstairs sister restaurant, Birch & Barley. "It is hard to compare [to other beer bars] as ck is unique, but it is definitely one of the best beer restaurants I have been to."

Then of course, there are the local awards (two Rammys and the City Paper's pick for Best Beer Bar/Best Beer Menu) and national recognition (Food & Wine, The New York Times, Paste, All About Beer). Clearly, the arrival of ChurchKey and Birch & Barley has not gone unnoticed.

48580023 It's never easy, or cheap, to open a restaurant, much less two of them in a shitty economy. Yet, Babin (above, right), co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, did just that. Last year, he turned a former hamburger joint into a destination beer bar set atop an upscale restaurant. The establishments are treated separately, but are equally bound by a lineup of beers that stretch between floors and into the hundreds, all of which is overseen by a beer director that obsesses over every little detail. Needless to say, it was Babin's most expensive project, but it made Engert (above, left) a very happy man.

Before spending most of his waking hours at ChurchKey, Engert was (and is) the beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, including Rustico, Babin's beer-centric restaurant in Alexandria. Although Rustico was launched with a beer program, it was Engert who focused and expanded it.

He brought in interesting beers, cask ales and a hand pump, hosted beer dinners, started a library of rare beers, headed up beer themed events, and eventually started talking to his boss about an even better beer bar.

Babin and Engert knew there were limitations to what they could do with Rustico. There was only so much space, all of which was built before Engert was hired, and they wanted Rustico to remain a neighborhood restaurant. So a plan was hatched. Babin asked Engert what he would do if he could do anything. Engert responded with ChurchKey.

"Every single thing I wanted to do with beer here, I did," said Engert, who is also a partner in ChurchKey and Birch & Barley.

33680011 It shows. If you know anything about ChurchKey or the District's craft beer scene, you probably know these stats: 555 beers on hand, 55 of which are drafts, five of which are hand-pumped cask ales. It's impressive in its size and scope, but it's not the most impressive aspect.

No, the most impressive thing is the trio of coolers. Each cooler is set at a different temperature (42, 48, 54) based on the style beer being stored (for example, lagers are stored at colder temperatures than ales). The draft lines that run the beer from the coolers to the taps are insulated and cooled to ensure that the beer filling your glass is the same temperature it was when it left the keg.

It's an attention to detail most people will overlook, but it separates ChurchKey from most bars in the country, much less D.C.

33680014 Consider the bottle list. It's 500 deep, yet there are dozens and dozens of names you probably don't recognize. As he did with the beer list at Rustico, Engert organized the beers by flavor rather than style or place of origin. Understanding that hundreds of somewhat obscure beers don't sell quickly, Engert keeps a limited number of each beer. And when one sells out a new one usually comes in.

33680017 Engert's regular rotation of rare and eclectic beers, on draft and by the bottle, has led some folks around town to question how he gets such unique products. Some have suggested that ChurchKey and the
Neighborhood Restaurant Group can spend more money than other bars and restaurants, while others speculate that because ChurchKey is the popular beer bar in D.C., brewers and distributors are lining up to get their products in.

Engert said it's none of those things. Rather, he said, it's simply a matter of working harder than everyone else to find out about new beers entering the market, establishing relationships with the brewers and distributors, and keeping his draft lines pristine and his coolers at the proper temperatures. ChurchKey also maintains a stash of 76 casks that they ship to breweries to keep the hand-pump selections interesting.

And then there's the beer dinner series and meet-the-brewer nights, the vintage beer list, and the firkins (because five beer engines pumping fresh cask ale just isn't enough - and it's not), but I should stop. I should note that ChurchKey may be designed with beer enthusiasts in mind, but they make their nut on the curious and the uninitiated.

For Engert, ChurchKey is an opportunity to teach. The less you know the better. Come in and peruse the pretty draft menu or thumb through the bound bottle list. If you can't make up your mind, that's fine. Engert and his staff will show you the way. That's why he spends an hour and a half every day working with the bartenders and servers in ChurchKey and Birch & Barley on the beer program. If you have a question, everyone should have an answer.

"We believe very strongly that this would be an eye-opener for many people," Babin said. "You get people in the right mood to try new things."

Of the many trips I've made to ChurchKey and Birch & Barley since it opened last fall, I've only caught one bartender off guard. The guy gave me the wrong beer and assured me the stout I ordered was the bitter I received. However, he double checked with Engert, who relaized the mistake and got me the right beer. A rookie error by a new bartender that was quickly addressed.

That's it, though. Babin and Engert have hired a lot of staff, and all of them (well, most of them) are clearly well trained.

48580017 When ChurchKey is packed, I like to grab a seat at the bar in Birch & Barley. All the beer is the same and you get to admire the copper "beer organ" that houses the draft lines coming from upstairs. However, Birch & Barley's bar doesn't have direct access to the bottles or cask ales on the hand pumps. Nevertheless, the bartenders always seem more than happy to run upstairs for an order. It's a nice touch.

Babin and Engert are quick to note that much of ChurchKey's success - and Birch & Barley's for that matter - is also due to the work of Executive Chef Kyle Bailey and Pastry Chef Tiffany Macisaac. They're right to do so. Bailey and Macisaac do an excellent job servicing two restaurants with semi-distinct menus (there are some crossover dishes). They even keep in the spirit of things by working beer into a number of dishes.

I would add to that Nahem Simon, who's worked with Engert for years, bartending at both Rustico and ChurchKey. Simon is an excellent bartender and may be as well versed in his product as Engert.

So is there a bad thing to say about ChurchKey? Maybe some nitpicking.

DSCN5408 One man's eclectic beer list is another man's frustration. Engert obviously puts a lot of thought into his bottle beer list, but I think it's a bit over thought. As much as I like to try new things, I also have a number of favorite beers I'd expect to see at a place like ChurchKey. Rather than an obscure gueuze beer from Belgium, how about sticking in a couple Titan IPAs from Colorado?

I'd also like to see more local beers. Engert is skeptical of the concept of localism and builds his beer list around flavors rather than geography, but I can't see the harm in supporting local breweries. He's done a few events with Frederick's Flying Dog and Brian Strumke of Baltimore's Stillwater Ales, but he can do more by keeping a few bottles of our exceptional local breweries on hand.

Normally I knock beer bars that have a strong dining presence, but for all of Chef Bailey's hard work (there's poutine, people), the food is a supporting player at ChurchKey.

Finally, this might be might strangest criticism yet, but ChurchKey is just too popular. It's been open nearly a year, and it still draws a mob. In time, the crowds will thin and the line to get in will disappear. When that happens, ChurchKey will cease to be a scene and settle into being D.C. very best beer bar.

Score: 18 of 20 (beer: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 4 of 5, bartenders: 5 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), Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20), The Black Squirrel (16 of 20) and Dr. Granville Moore's (15 of 20). And don't miss our special feature on D.C.'s best German bars.

(Note: The Best Beer Bar series is going on hiatus. I'm taking six months off to check out new beer bars or beer bars I haven't visited in a while. I will also be revising the criteria that I use to judge the beer bars. If you have any suggestions for places I should visit or what I should look for in a good beer bar, leave me a comment below.)

Dr. Granville Moore's: Best Beer Bar is Belgium on H Street

Every bar is the same: four walls, one roof and booze to drink. What differentiates one from another, importantly, is the atmosphere inside.

A good bar will have a good atmosphere. The beer, the liquor, the food, all that's secondary. The people around you and the people serving you will determine whether you stay or you go.

Then again, sometimes you go because you're an idiot.

Halloween 2008, my buddy Columbo and I walked up to Dr. Granville Moore's from my old apartment on Capitol Hill. The Belgian restaurant looked as it always does: the low ceilings of exposed timber, the knotty wood bar backed by elegant beer cabinets and chalkboards advertising food specials and beer. Amongst it all was a hive of people feasting on mussels and emptying glasses of golden ales and Flemish reds.

66020001 What I remember most, though, was our bartender. Decked out in a little pink cowgirl hat and little jean shorts, she asked if we liked whiskey. We said "Yes ma'am," unhesitatingly. With that, the three of us and a waiter hanging out behind the bar shared a round of American bourbon ... gratis.

I loved it. A generous moment with strangers, free whiskey, and those short shorts. Man, those short shorts. Without a doubt, it was the highlight of the evening. Then we made the biggest mistake of the night, we left. The night was too young, so after a few beers and food, we decided to check out a couple other places. Nothing was as good. We peaked early and the rest of the night was a slow let down.

On a recent Saturday night, my wife and I stopped in for a beer. The hectic energy of the Halloween night was replaced by families and twenty-somethings drinking quads and dining on the signature mussels and fries. We sat at the downstairs bar between a couple guys pouring over pints and a punch bowl of fries, and a 10-year-old girl and her family having dinner.

Both nights were great.

I know I rant about families and food in bars. I still prefer my drinking establishments to be drinking establishments, not family-friendly eateries. But this is what a pub looks like in Europe, at least the ones I've visited. The Belgian gastropub may have been designed with New Orleans in mind, but the creaky floors, tight spaces and dim lighting give the H Street restaurant an appropriately older feel. It may be in Northeast, but it feels like Antwerp.

66020019 Again, that's just the trappings. Disney can get the trappings right. What seals it for Granville Moore's is the people on either side of the bar. Three years in, the place remains one of the most popular destinations along the increasingly crowded Atlas corridor. Certainly, some of the folks filling the booths and bar stools are tourists and Food Network fans hoping for a pot of Chef Teddy Folkman's (left) blue cheese mussels and maybe a glimpse of the man himself. But the rest, the bulk, are a healthy mix of neighborhood regulars and beer enthusiasts.

Assisting them all is a hurried group of servers and bartenders who are happy to take the time to sherpa you through the beer list, steering the wary toward the safe (Stella Artois) or the adventurous toward something new (St. Louis Gueuze), all the while getting jostled in their tight confines.

Before D.C. fell hard for craft beer, it was infatuated with the Belgians. In 2004, Bart Vandaele opened D.C.'s first Belgian restaurant, Belga Café, on Barrack's Row. Three years later, Dr. Granville Moore's and Brasserie Beck followed suit. And then came Marvin, Et Voila, Sur la Place, and now Mussel Bar in Bethesda.

Clearly, there are a lot of places to spend your money on Trappist ales and croque monsieur, but there's no better place to do so than Dr. Granville Moore's. This is a bit if a surprise if you consider that with the exception of Marvin, it's the only Belgian restaurant that isn't owned or affiliated with someone from Belgium. Yet, it's easily the best Belgian beer bar of the lot.

Joe Englert is a prolific bar and restaurant owner, who's responsible for several places along H Street, including The Argonaut, Palace of Wonders, The Rock and Roll Hotel, The Red and the Black, The Pug, Sticky Rice, and the H Street Country Club.

Englert's managing partner in Granville Moore's, Chris Surrusco, built the original beer list and recruited his college buddy, Teddy Folkman, who was running the kitchen at Balducci's and had no experience with Belgian cuisine.

Keeping the theme going, Granville Moore's new beverage director, Matt LeBarron (sitting next to Teddy), grew up in Annapolis working in his parents' butcher shop. Aside from talking his father into stocking a few Belgian beers, LeBarron had no experience with Belgian beer before Granville Moore's. After working as a host and server for six months, LeBarron was given the keys to the beer cabinets and told to update the beverage program.

If you know anything about Belgian beer, you know that developing a beer list can be difficult. First, most people don't know much about Belgian beer. Second, there are hundreds of styles of beers produced by hundreds of breweries in a country about the size of Maryland. Add to that the growing number of American craft breweries that make Belgian-style beers and you have and bewildering variety of beers to build a list from.

66020011 So far, LeBarron's approach is to keep the core list of 40 or so bottles intact, keep the seven taps rotating at a break-neck pace (with the exception of Stella, the beers change multiple times per week) and add more than a dozen 750ml bottles and branch out into French ciders and meads. In the next several months, he hopes to double the bottle selection (a daunting challenge seeing that he already stores cases of beer in the dining room). LeBarron has instituted training classes for the staff and he's hosting beer dinners that bring Folkman out of the tiny kitchen and into the crowded dining room.

Above all else, though, LeBarron's job is to keep the customers happy. Case in point: if you don't like your beer, you can send it back, even the wine-bottle sized 750s. This doesn't mean much if you're dealing with a $3 Coors, but when it's a $16 Rochefort that's a nice touch. LeBarron said he'd rather replace the beer and eat the cost then have someone go away unhappy. And the thing about Belgian beers, it's easy to drop $20 on a beer you'll hate.

For example, just because you like the sweet clove flavors of a Delirium Tremens doesn't mean you'll enjoy the face-puckering qualities of a Monk's Café Flemish Sour. A Poperings Hommel farmhouse ale might look like a Gouden Carolus tripel, but it sure doesn't taste like it.

To minimize the buybacks, LeBarron and the bartenders will warn customers about what to expect, especially if someone is transitioning from a pint of Hoegaarden to a bottle of Duchesse de Bourgogne (they're very different). But if it's a sour you want, it's a sour you'll get.

Despite the complexity of Belgian beers and the proliferation of American craft beer bars in the area, Belgian restaurants are as popular as ever. On weekends, you can still face an hour wait for a table at Granville Moore's. Robert Wiedmaier, who opened the Belgian-themed Brasserie Beck in 2007, is drawing crowds to his newly opened Mussel Bar in Bethesda.

Folkman chalks up the popularity to the fact that the District is a city of transplants, many of whom are open to new experiences. D.C. residents are also a traveling bunch, so it's not unusual for someone to come into Granville Moore's looking for a beer or a meal they enjoyed in Brussels.

Whatever the reason, places like Granville Moore's and Belga Café set the stage for the American craft beer craze now thriving in D.C. Belgian beer gave us a foundation to build on, an identity. As with any trend, craft beer and Belgian beer will eventually surrender the floor to the next big thing. When that time comes, it will be the quality of the service, the loyalty of the regulars, the atmosphere that will keep a place like Granville Moore's alive.

As long as Folkman and LeBarron keep doing what they're doing, Granville Moore's will be just fine.

That's not to say there aren't a few things to nit pick.

66020013 First, LeBarron does need to expand the beer list. What they have is good, but with so many Belgian beers available, the list could be many times larger. I'm not suggesting adding 200 labels, but LeBarron needs to find room for another 40 to 60, even if that means Englert rents them some off-site storage. That would put them in the same range as Brasserie Beck, arguably their chief rival.

That expansion could include a few more Belgian-style beers made here in the states. Had LeBarron kept the beer list Belgian only, I'd be fine with it being Belgian only. But he opened it up to the Americans, so he should take the opportunity to further explore what's available. The handful of American offerings seems unduly small. Organizing them on their own beer list or chalkboard would also help customers differentiate between what's made in Belgium and what's inspired by Belgium.

And how about some signage out front? Obviously, Granville Moore's doesn't have a problem drawing customers, but I've walked by that beige row house numerous times without realizing it. I now use The Pug next door to let me know when I've arrived. I'm all for preserving Dr. Moore's legacy, but I think he'd be fine with dangling a shingle out front.

Score: 15 of 20 (beer: 6 of 8, atmosphere: 4 of 5, bartenders: 4 of 5, other elements 1 of 2)

The Best Beer Bars so far: The Black Squirrel (16 of 20)  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.

(Bonus!: New to Belgian beer and not sure what to order at Granville Moore's? LeBarron says you should consider a Houblon, a hoppy triple that he describes as "Belgian candy," a Saison Dupont, a cloudy gold farmhouse ale with a crisp, dry flavor, or the malty and robust Maredsous 8. If you don't like one of these, you don't like Belgian beer.)

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

A Restaurant By Any Other Name Is Not a Gastropub

Gastropub: (British) A public house that serves high-quality food.

This Wiktionary definition is the best I could find for gastropub, but it's illustrative enough. A gastropub is generally understood to be a public house (read: bar) that serves equally high-quality food and beer. In other words, a place you're just as likely to go for a few great beers as a nice meal. The concept hasn't been around all that long, but it has certainly found traction here in D.C.

Well the term has found traction, the establishment of actual gastropubs, not so much. Jamie Leeds (above) is the co-owner and executive chef of one of D.C.'s two gastropubs, Commonwealth. Granville Moore's on H Street, is the other. I would be just as inclined to visit either for a few quality ales as I would their upscale dishes. 

Yet, a Google search of the terms "gastropubs" and "D.C." pulls up a number of restaurants that either refer to themselves as gastropubs, or are referred to as gastropubs. Againn is clearly a restaurant. So is Brasserie Beck. Both have good beer selections (Beck's selection of Belgian beers is excellent, in fact), but the small bar areas, large dining rooms, showcase kitchens and raw bars (is that a new trend, too?) indicate that these places were designed to be restaurants, not drinking establishments. Rustico, which was named D.C.'s best gastropub in 2008 by the City Paper, could be a gastropub, but Beer Director Greg Engert and the management of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Rustico, are very clear about the fact that it is very much a restaurant.

48580022 This also goes for the NRG's beer palace, ChurchKey. One floor below is Birch & Barley, ChurchKey's sister establishment. Executive Chef Kyle Bailey offers several dishes that could be served in any white tablecloth dining room in the District, including pan-roasted skate and braised pork cheeks. But because burgers and flatbreads are the focus up stairs, ChurchKey is not a gastropub (though, the deviled duck eggs with duck pancetta and sweetbread dishes nearly do the trick). And though Birch & Barley diners have access to all of ChurchKey's 555 beers, the six seats at the bar are an excellent indication that this is a place geared toward diners, not drinkers. Fortunately, no one at NRG refers to either establishment as a gastropub, so there's no issue here.

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped Urbanspoon. The restaurant review Web site lists ChurchKey and Birch & Barley as gastropubs. It also lists, Againn, H Street Country Club (you know, the place with the mini golf) and Scion in Dupont Circle as gastropubs.

Therein lies the problem; the more people misuse the term, the less meaning it will have. As Leeds puts it, the term gastropub is becoming the new bistro. Beer is trendy now, and the gastropub concept is closely aligned with it. And like the term bistro, gastropub is the exotic new concept. It's British, and right now things that are British are nearly as trendy as beer. So why call your restaurant a restaurant, when you could call it a gastropub?

On the other hand, it's fair to ask what difference does it make what a restaurant calls itself. Without a true definition, gastropub is more of an adjective than a noun, so it describes establishments rather than defines them.

The thing is, I like gastropubs. Back in 2004, my friends Emma and Tom turned me on to gastropubs during a trip to London. They lived around the corner from The Junction Tavern, a beautiful old pub in London's Kentish Town neighborhood. The Junction specializes in real ales from local breweries and offers an upscale seasonal menu. It's a model gastropub, and a fantastic one at that. Ever since then, I've been very interested (maybe a little giddy) when a new one opens up in D.C. -- and disappointed when it turns out to be just another restaurant.

To gain some clarity on the subject of gastropubs, I e-mailed David Bulgar, a reviewer for the British pub review Website, Fancyapint. David has visited his fair share of gastropubs.

So David, what's a gastropub?

58290018 "I think most English drinkers would define a gastropub as a pub that focuses on restaurant quality dining, often serving modern British cuisine. Some gastropubs manage to operate as a good place to simply go for a pint as well as food, while others kill the drinking experience by looking and feeling to much like a restaurant, not a pub."

Maybe Brasserie Beck does fit the definition. But as he said, the establishment should be as much a pub as a restaurant.

When Commonwealth opened in 2008, D.C. finally had its own gastropub. The decor is a nod to the concept's British roots (though not necessary for a gastropub), but more importantly, the beer list is solid, with a respectable mix of British and American craft beers on draft and in the bottle, as well as pair of handpumps mounted on the bar. Keep in mind, Commonwealth came along a year and a half before ChurchKey and its five handpumps opened its doors. Like the Junction, the food coming out of the kitchen struck the right balance between traditional pub fare and smart, upscale cuisine. Given all the Irish bars we have around D.C., I know not to expect anything more interesting than the perfunctory shepherd's pie or fish and chips, and an ice-cold Smithwicks. Leeds, however, offers a menu of local, organic, sustainable dishes and pints of real ale.

And it's because of the attention Leeds and her business partner Sandy Lewis pay to the beer program that makes Commonwealth as much a drinking destination as a dining spot.

As David said, this is what separates gastropubs from restaurants.

58290023 A gastropub, he said, is "first and foremost a pub. It will have all the features of a pub, i.e. a bar, an area for simply drinking, without the need to order food. An English drinker will be able to distinguish between a bar, a pub and a restaurant a mile off. Pubs are generally older, serve a range of ales and lagers on tap, and have simple wooden chairs and tables, maybe a pool table and or dart board, and sell crisps and nuts as snacks; bars tend to be newer buildings, the often do not serve draught ale, and commonly only serve bottled lagers, they will have more modern furnishings, and would not have darts, pool, the crisps and nuts etc, in their place will be a cocktail menu and louder music. A gastro pub is distinctive because it will look more like a dining room than a drinking room, with tables set with menus, wine glasses, etc."

Walk into Commonwealth or Granville Moore and the bar is the very first thing you see. At Againn and Beck, the first thing you encounter is the hostess stand, followed by the raw bars.

58290002 Now that the gastropub trend is gaining steam in D.C., in name at least, I went back to Commonwealth to talk to Leeds. Commonwealth was envisioned as a gastropub that would have a robust beer program, casual, but elevated cuisine, and ultimately a place that would be responsive to its neighborhood clientele. Leeds said Lewis developed the beer program, while the menu was her design. Wanting to do something besides seafood (Leeds and Lewis also own Hank's Oyster Bar), Leeds decided a gastropub would give her the chance.

To be honest, even Commonwealth wouldn't fit David's strict definition of a gastropub. In Britain, he said, most gastropubs are old pubs that decided to upgrade their menus. Well, London has a lot more old pubs than we do, so unless Leeds had taken over the kitchen at the old Mr. Eagan's, Commonwealth and Granville Moore are the closest we're going to get to true gastropubs.

Although beer was always a focus of Commonwealth, Leeds said she's surprised that her gastropub has become such a destination for area beer enthusiasts. Leeds said Commonwealth remains focused on catering to its Columbia Heights neighborhood, but its beer sales are "through the roof" thanks to all the regional traffic the bar gets.

Now, compare Commonwealth to Againn. I don't mean to pick on the place, but it's the latest restaurant to call itself a gastropub. Its beer selection is fairly large, but it's heavy on the familiars (Harp, Stella, Dogfish Head, Heineken), and has several multiples from a few breweries. Mind you, it's great that they carry five or six different beers from Founders and Brewdog, but it also shows a laziness or ignorance about beer. Rather than taking the time to select a few beers from a variety of breweries, Againn has padded its beer list by selecting many beers from a few breweries. Also, the staff is either too new or too indifferent to know much about the beer list. If you're going to run a gastropub, the staff should be knowledgeable about the beer. Situated between the raw bar and the dining room, Againn's bar seems like most restaurant bars: a place to have a drink while you're waiting on your table. It just doesn't feel like a place you want to spend an afternoon or evening drinking. 

Does this mean Againn is a bad place? No, it just means that it's a restaurant, not a gastropub. In fact, it has all the makings of being a good restaurant, and it doesn't have to call itself a gastropub to achieve that goal.

So if I want to go out for a nice meal, I may go to Againn. If I want to try a few quality beers, I may head to ChurchKey. But if I want both, I'll go to Commonwealth or Granville Moore's.

Best Beer Bars Special: DC's German Trio

On warm, sunny days, it's nearly impossible to walk past the corner of 4th and Massachusetts at Stanton Park. There you will find the outdoor patio of Café Berlin packed with people pulling back perspiring liters of German lager the size of small children. I used to walk by every afternoon on my way home from work. Often, I'd end up calling my wife to ask her to meet me there. I never got an argument.

I love all the new beer bars popping up around town. And it's fantastic that so many bars and restaurants are now serving great American craft beers. But before this latest American revolution took hold in D.C., the Germans were already entrenched.

So for this best beer bar post, rather than profiling one best beer bar, I'm shining the light on all three of D.C.'s German beer bars. It turns out they serve great German beer before and after Oktoberfest. Go figure.

58280003 If beer had a family tree, one of its grandparents was German. The country gave us lager beers, which gave us pilsner, the kingfish of all beers. But I'm not going to hold garbage beers like Budweiser against the Germans. No, not when they've given us hefeweizens, doppelbocks, dunkels, maibocks and Kölsch style beers. Their beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, gave beer the structure we know today by mandating that German brewers could only use water, barley and hops (yeast was added later when they figured out what it was). And let's face it, Oktoberfest is the greatest beer festival in the world. Hell, the annual event even has its own beer style.

Over at ChurchKey, Beer Director Greg Engert lists the type of glass each of his 555 beers should be poured in. Over at Café Mozart, Café Berlin and Old Europe, you're choices are steins, pints and tall glasses for hefeweizen. They always have been and they always will be, and that's great.

Sure their selection is much smaller than Pizzeria Paradiso's, and they're kitschier (well, mostly Old Europe) than The Black Squirrel, but they're just as significant when it comes to the District's beer scene. Engert made an interesting point during his recent interview on the Kojo Nnamdi Show. He said the rise in craft beer is due, in part, to people's desire to really enjoy the experience of drinking that beer.

58280010I couldn't agree more, and where you enjoy that beer can have a real influence on the experience. While I pick up the occasional six pack of German beer (especially when I can get out to the German Gourmet in Falls Church), there's nothing like having a few Spatens at the bar in Café Mozart or seeing an old woman in a dirndl heft glass steins across the dining room at Old Europe. Toss in a plate of sausages and kraut, and I'm practically in Bonn.

Like I said, these places can come off as a bit kitschy. But according to the missus, who spent time studying in Bavaria, they're not completely inauthentic. Café Berlin is the most typically German of the three (in her opinion) followed by Old Europe and Café Mozart (which apparently isn't particularly authentic, but neither is Lauriol Plaza and people seem to like that place). If you want the German experience with your German beer -- and you do -- then these restaurants have you covered.

(Before someone complains that I excluded the Saloon, let me explain why I didn't include it in the profile: it's not a German bar or restaurant. It has a respectable number of German beers on draught and by the bottle, but it is not particularly German in any other way, though all the rules would make you think otherwise. More importantly, the missus gave it the thumbs down on German authenticity.)

Let's talk about the beer. I get the sense that the great German lagers are getting lost in all the hoopla surrounding craft beer and the Belgium invasion (which I've played a part in). Aside from Oktoberfest, the last time anyone paid much attention to the German brewers was when Schneider Weisse and Brooklyn Brewing collaborated on a couple beers. So let's be clear: Germany makes some of the very best beer in the world. I appreciate what's going on in Italy, Denmark and Finland, but these countries will never have the impact on beer that Germany has had. And for as much as I like the various styles of beers that are coming out of the rest of Europe, I'll take an amber hued Paulaner Salvator or Weihenstephaner hefeweizen (hold the fruit, thanks) over any of them any day.

This isn't about competition, though. This is about celebrating German beer and our trio of German establishments.

58280021 Take Café Mozart, with its front deli selling traditional German meats and sweets. The bar, sandwiched between the deli and back dining room, is everything you want in a drinking establishment. The dimly lit room with low ceilings has a smattering of tables and a line of stools along the bar. Grab a seat and ask bartender Greg Brooks (pictured above) for a liter of Spaten Optimator. Hang out long enough and you may even catch a little live accordion music (that's German, people).

Then there's Old Europe, located down the street from the National Cathedral and up the street from a strip club, the German restaurant seems a little out of place. From the aging antlers and artwork along the walls, to the staff in dirndls and lederhosen, the place looks like it was built for Epcot. But my wife assures me that as over the top as Old Europe seems, it would fit right in back in Bavaria. Admittedly, the décor does start to work when the Bitburgers and wurst hit the table. Besides, after a couple liters of lager, who cares about what's on the walls?

Image004And then there's Café Berlin. Ah, Café Berlin. I have spent many afternoons that turned into evenings at the German restaurant on Capitol Hill. The Lagerheads over at the City Paper argue that D.C. won't have a beer garden until the Bier Garten Haus opens next month on H Street. Technically, they're right, but Café Berlin's outdoor patio isn't a bad substitute. The restaurant is practically designed to keep you outside. The dining room is nice, but small. So too is the bar. The one time I sat there I kept getting looks from the staff wondering why I wasn't outside (I knew this because they kept asking me if I'd like to move outside). They were right to be confused; Café Berlin's patio is one of the best spots to enjoy a beer in D.C. And when you consider the beer you're drinking, it makes the experience that much better.

Every fall when Oktoberfest rolls around, we get really pumped up to consume all things German. By mid-October, we move on. That's a shame, because we're fortunate to have three stellar watering holes where we can quaff a liter or two of Deutschland's finest all year long.

The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20).

Café Berlin
322 Massachusetts Ave., N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
(202) 543-7656

Café Mozart
1331 H St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 347-5732

Old Europe
2434 Wisconsin Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20007
(202) 333-7600

Lost Dog Café: Neighborhood pizzeria has been a best beer bar for a quarter century

Lost Dog Pizza Deli
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.

DSCN4721 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.

Lost Dog Pizza Deli MenuToday, 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.

DSCN4725 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.

DSCN4729 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
(703) 237-1552

2920 South Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA 22204
(703) 553-7770