Columbia Heights

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.

Room 11 - First Impressions

DC's Columbia Heights neighborhood is one of the city's most diverse and interesting. Unlike some areas that have gentrified beyond all recognition, Columbia Heights has remained diverse and vibrant, with the population representing the full range of age, race and income. The local businesses reflect that diversity -- big-box Target abuts the family dry-cleaners; fancy beer bars coexist with Peruvian chicken joints, etc. Columbia Heights boasts the most varied list of amenities in DC, and with the opening of Room 11 last week, you can add to that list a neighborhood wine bar. I swung by on Monday evening for a cocktail and a quick bite.

Room11_1 Brainchild of bar manager Dan Searing (formerly of the Looking Glass Lounge and the Punch Club, pictured at right) and Paul Ruppert, Room 11 is a sort of miniature hybrid of Cork and the Gibson, combining the best assets of a high end wine bar and a cocktail lounge, reset in the context of a neighborhood bar. While the restaurant has a sizable patio, the inside is decidedly cozy -- the dozen seat bar shares the space with a handful of tables, and that's about it. That said, despite a surprisingly large Monday night crowd, the space did not feel cramped, and the clientele was not inclined to elbow. With the paint just barely dried, I was surprised to find the place so homey; the brushed-aluminum bar, dark brown cabinets, plain red shop stools and hardwood tiled floor give the place a comfortable, lived-in feel.

The bar itself hosts an esoteric array of lesser-known spirits including local rye, French Calvados and Martinique rum. Dan is also using Room 11 as a sort of Frankenstein's Lab for booze; a collection of Room11_3 ominous looking jars above the bar hold Dan's supply of green walnut infusions (which should be ready by Christmas), and he's already got a homemade clementine bitters doing duty on the rail. Room 11's 24 item wine list covers all the bases, from Spanish Verdejo to California Cab, with most selections priced in the very reasonable $6-$8 range. That night I forewent the vino, though, and just had myself a cocktail. That night, Room 11 was featuring the 'Ti Punch, a simple concoction of Rhum Agricole (rum made from sugar cane instead of molasses), cane syrup and a hint of lime. Though a bit strong at first, as the ice melts the cocktail takes on a lovely green and floral nose, and even a bit of nuttiness, without any of the cloying sweetness typical of contemporary rum drinks. Go by and try one for $8, or feel free to ask Dan to whip you up something special -- he is a consummate and adventurous mixologist, and his creative take on cocktails is sure to become one of the bar's core assets.

Room11_2 Chef Ben Gilligan has put Room 11's undoubtedly small kitchen to surprisingly efficient use. For $13 you can select three options from the sizable meat and cheese menu, which includes the usual array of goodies both foreign and domestic. At the Punch Club, Chef Gilligan was famous for his paninis, which may be had here at $10, with house salad. No Quiznos style sandwiches these, Room 11's sammies include such offerings as Cheese & Chutney and Roasted Garlic and Cauliflower, which is totally on my list for the next visit. For those in need of heartier fare, the lamb cutlets (pictured right, $10) smelled fantastic, and the trout and fennel salad ($8) was both sizable and exciting, featuring a great melange of oily, salty and sweet flavors. As for afters, I will sum up Room 11's dessert menu in three words: Honey Goat Cheesecake. Would that I had had the time!

No doubt, Room 11 is a great boon to the Columbia Heights drinkin' community, but I definitely consider my trip as a non-local well worth it. Friendly staff, good drinks, cheap wine, and plenty to nibble on -- what's not to love? Stay tuned for a full review after I really get to sink my teeth in.

Room 11
3234 11th St. NW
Washington, DC 20010
(202) 332-3234
Mon - Thurs: 5pm - 1am
Fri - Sat: 5pm - 2am
Brunch: Coming Soon

CommonWealth Gastro Pub - First Impressions

Pic0235 About one month ago, Jamie Leeds and business partner Sandy Lewis opened CommonWealth Gastro Pub in the up and coming (or perhaps already came) Columbia Heights neighborhood. Conveniently located at the top of the steps of the Columbia Heights metro, it's an quick metro ride from anywhere in the DC area.

For a "pub", CommonWealth is quite large and offers 35-seat outdoor patio. While the decor is trying to make it look rustic and worn out, it needs a bit more breaking in before it will have that neighborhood pub feel. I don't mind either way though because I tend to focus on the food rather than the decor, but be warned that if you're looking for a quite evening meal, this is not the place for you. After 6 PM, the happy hour crowd is in full swing and it gets loud and boisterous. The cement walls don't help much with this either.

Pic0236 Much to our liking here at D.C. Foodies, the menu concentrates on local ingredients for a majority of it's menu. Many of the pork products come from the local vendor, Eco-Friendly. In fact, half a pig gets delivered each week for use in the regular dishes on the menu like the cured pork belly, head cheese, and rilletes. The loin and shoulder cuts are used for other special dishes throughout the week as well. I can attest to the quality of the meat from personal experience at the local farmers' markets in Dupont and Arlington. The grass-fed beef is sourced locally from a farm in Maryland, and most of the vegetables come from farms local to MD, VA, and PA.

Rarebit_yorkshire_etc The bar at CommonWealth boasts two cask-conditioned ales. You'll find two on the menu on the chalk board with a US pint being around $7.50, and an English pint running you around $8.50. If you're wondering what the difference is between a US and English pint, and English pint is roughly 1.2 US pints. I had a Victory Prima Pilsner on my second trip after the casks were finally ready. The beer lacks the bubbly texture of a typical keg beer, but was all flavor. The cask beer is served a little warmer too which allowed the flavor of the beer to come to the surface.

So there are the lets see what we thought from our visits.

I am a great fan of Great Britain's beers -- for casual drinking, you can have your extremely hoppy American IPAs; I'll take a bitter, please. This was reason enough to compel me to make the trek to Commonwealth, and to drag along a couple of good friends. The promise of cuisine based on deep frying only sweetened the deal.

Scotch_egg Since our party consisted of a good number of close friends, we wound up ordering a mish-mash of appetizers and entrees, and casually sampled a little of each. To describe everything I ate would take far too much space; suffice it to say the food ran the gamut from awesome to awful. The scotch egg from the "Snack" menu and the "Butcher's Plate" pork belly were the two standouts in my mind. The former was crispy and flavorful, and came with a great selection of sauces, including a parsley/anchovy concoction that complimented the dish beautifully. The pork was subtlety seasoned and beautifully textured -- it is obvious that Commonwealth puts a lot of stock in the quality of their charcuterie, and I wish we had ordered more from this section.

The biggest disappointments of the night were the Welsh Rarebit and the Yorkshire Pudding. These are both British treats I've enjoyed in the past, and I was rather let down with Commonwealth's dry, tough, flavorless offerings. I have a feeling that both were reheated, and therefore overcooked -- if such is the case, the chef still has a bit of work to do in the prep kitchen.

Everything else was good, but forgettable in light of our fantastic apps. All in all, everyone was satisfied and completely stuffed. When the check arrived, and we found that we owed only about $50 per person, food AND drink included, no one found any reason for complaint.

Loved: The fantastic quality of certain dishes, the warm and welcoming service, and the undeniable value per calorie consumed.

Hated: The inconsistency between dishes, especially on those well known British classics.

If I lived in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, Commonwealth would be my go to place for a pint and a bit of meat over a game of football (American or otherwise). If you are a fan of British fare, I heartily suggest you visit, as you are unlikely to find anything more authentic in the DC area, especially at so reasonable a price. That said, if you are not an ardent Anglophile, I cannot advise you go too far out of your way yet, as the food is a little inconsistent still.

Shortly after I received the press release about the soon to open CommonWealth, I found out that the chef de cuisine would be none other than Antonio Burrell, previously of Viridian in Dupont Circle and Eleventh Street Lounge in Arlington. I've been a big fan of Antonio Burrell as he's not only an amazing chef, but he's also been a frequent commenter on DC Foodies.

Pic0243 I eagerly awaited the opening of the restaurant and I had the opportunity to make two separate trips, both with significantly different outcomes. On my first trip, I stopped by without reservation on shortly after opening day with a friend of mine. The service was warm and embracing and the food exactly what I expected. Our server made a point to make sure that our questions about the dishes were answered.  I had the bangers and mash with onion sauce. The dish only came with one large sausage, but the sausage was juicy and perfectly cooked with great flavor.

My friend also had the fish and chips which was crispy but not over fried and and the chips (or fries) were crispy as well. While I know that's not "traditional", I despise oily chips. You can also order sides of chips for $5 with cheese and/or gravy for an extra $2 each. While that might sound a little steep, I think they're worth it. The other starters or "Snacks" range from $5 to $13 and tend to be expensive for the portion size.

On my second trip, I went with a much larger group of people later in the evening. We were a party of 8 with two children. Suffice it to say, service was not as smooth as I would've liked between dishes that we ordered not coming out at all and dishes coming out cold, but I chalk that up to the size of our party and how soon it was after they opened. I had a roasted veal sweetbreads special that was slightly inconsistent at $23. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked and tender on the inside, but the prawns that came with it were small and dry.  My friends oyster pie was only lukewarm, but a couple of people in our party recently from England said they thought the food was very authentic.

Beer selection is still growing. When I was there last, all of the taps were not completely installed, but they still have a good selection of US and British tap beers. Beers by the bottle tend to run on the expensive side  for my taste, especially the imports.

Loved: Great local food at reasonable prices; two available cask ales; good cheese selection.

Hated: Inconsistencies in the service of the food; expensive "Snacks", pricey beers by the bottle.

CommonWealth Gastro Pub
1400 Irving St NW
Washington, DC 20010
(202) 265-1400


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