Restaurant Reviews

Rustico: Best beer bar or church of the hopped and malted? Both, actually.


I am not a man of faith, but I have heard the word. I have gotten religion.

I have spoken with Greg Engert.

If ever there was a revivalist pushing the gospel of quality hops and barley, Brother Greg would be that man. His church would be Rustico.

For the past three years, Greg has been beer director for the Alexandria restaurant. In that time, his passion for beer -- craft and otherwise -- has turned the neighborhood eatery into one of the area's best beer bars.

Rustico5 The day I arrived to talk to Greg, he was getting the restaurant and his staff ready for Rustico's Oktobeerfest and the 3,000 eager beer drinkers who would descend on the place the next day. It looked like they were gearing up for a military campaign. Kegs, many, many kegs, of pumpkin beer and other fall seasonals were double stacked in the walk-in and along the bar's back wall. Out back, tables, coolers, taps and tents were stacked in the parking lot, ready for assembly.

This is the third year Rustico has put on the event and Greg was expecting the masses. He knows these people. So in addition to the Maerzens and harvest beers, Greg set up a couple cask condition ales. He was gilding the lily. The beer geeks and drinkers who'd show up the next day would be more than happy with 14 craft beers, but the two cask ales would put them over the top.

Greg knew this because it would put him over the top, too.

Rustico2 I realize Rustico is a restaurant, but look at the beer menu. Actually, when I sat down with Greg to talk about Rustico's beer program, he popped out of his chair to show me the menu. Rather than organize beers by style (pilsners, stouts, IPAs) or geography (British, German, etc.), Greg organizes them by flavor. Want something crisp? Try a Brooklyn Lager. How about a beer with a roasted flavor? Have a Founder's Breakfast Stout.

In fact, Greg's fingerprints are on all of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group's (NRG) properties. So if you like the beer lineup at Columbia Firehouse, thank Greg. EatBar? Thank Greg. And then there's the much-anticipated Birch & Barley and ChurchKey, an incredibly ambitious beer bar NRG is opening in D.C. Its success or failure will depend mightily on Greg.

Though these outlets, Greg has quietly spread the word about good beer. Beer enthusiasts who trek down to Rustico know there's a lot of craft beer to be had. But the people heading over to Vermillion can opt for craft over cocktails. The guy who'd be just as happy to have a Bud with his burger at Columbia Firehouse can try a better American beer instead.

And soon, all of us will have a lot more access to a lot more quality beer when Birch & Barley and ChurchKey opens on 14th Street. In a way, Birch & Barley and ChurchKey is the result of Rustico's success and Greg's meticulous work as beer director (Speaking of ChurchKey, check out the blog Greg launched. There's 2,000 words on glassware. This guy is into beer).

Talking to Greg about beer is like talking to Baptist minister about sin and Jesus Christ. He wants you to know why he does what he does. He wants people to enjoy the beer and Rustico as much as he does. Birch & Barley and ChurchKey may be the next big thing, but Greg fully intends for Rustico to remain a destination for beer geeks and regulars.

Although Rustico was launched in March 2006 as a restaurant and beer bar, for the first few months there wasn't consideration given to the beer selection. It lacked focus. The NRG folks recognized this and recruited Greg from the Brickskeller to improve the lineup.

He did.

Rustico3 Today, Rustico has 24 American crafts and imports on draft, as well as a beer engine, because they know from good beer. Local beers regularly find their way onto the taps (Clipper City's Big DIPA Double IPA was on the hand pump the last time I was there), but Greg doesn't necessarily emphasize them. Again, it's about the flavor.

In an effort to strike a balance with Rustico's beer line up, Greg maintains a steady rotation of flavors on draft and in the cooler. So the Hop, Roast, Malt, Smoke and other flavor categories may feature Troegs, Flying Dog and Starr Hill one day. And they may feature Samuel Smith, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, and Left Hand the next. It all depends.

Speaking of Rustico's cooler, there's a lot of beer in there. More than 200 different beers as a matter of fact. And the cases of beer stacked on an upper shelf near the ceiling in the back? They haven't been forgotten. Rustico rigged the air conditioning system to keep the rare reserve bottles cool.

All this is well and good, but Birch & Barley and ChurchKey will have 50 beers on draft, and four different beer coolers will be kept at different temperatures to ensure that the beer stored inside will be at the optimum temperature, and the draft-line system will look like a great big beer organ. So why the hell would anyone in the District hump down the damn George Washington Parkway when they have all that right there?

Because it won't all be at the ChurchKey.

Sure, there will be a lot of different, very special beers at the new D.C. spot, but some things -- like the beer Greg brewed at the Sierra Nevada brewery -- will only be available at Rustico. And events like Oktobeerfest, brewer's dinners, private beer dinners and launch parties, will continue at Rustico. So will Greg.

Birch & Barley and ChurchKey is a big project, which Greg is personally and professionally invested in, but he plans to continue overseeing the beer lineups at all of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group's properties, including Rustico. And as long as Brother Greg is at the pulpit of the beer bar he made grand, that place is going to be alright.

Rustico4 Now, Rustico might be a great beer bar, but it ain't perfect. First, Rustico is a restaurant. As I've said before, I like my beer bars to be bars. Chef Steve Mannino might be doing some good work in Rustico's kitchen, but I'd prefer more division between the bar and restaurant. As it happens, Greg and Steve work to bring them together. In fact, Greg is quick to acknowledge the fact that Rustico is a restaurant first and a beer bar second.

Then there are the bartenders. This might be where the most work can be done. One night, the bartender is eager and friendly, introducing himself and attentive to our questions and needs. Another night, another bartender meanders behind the bar. When he gets around to taking our orders or to check our drinks, the 1,000 yard stare is locked in place. The guy may be there, but he's definitely not there. If Greg had a cadre of bartenders working as hard as the first guy, he'd have a hell of a team. As it is, he has a pretty mixed group: some mediocre, some outstanding.

Finally, there's the beer. Certainly, Rustico has one of the best selections of taps and bottles in the D.C. area. But I do have a few quibbles. Let's take the beer engine. My love for this machine is a matter of record. It's one of the greatest devices Western Civilization has ever created. However, it does require a skilled hand to operate. That might explain why during one visit when I ordered a cask ale, the bartender poured half my pint from a pitcher in the refrigerator and finished it off with the pump. When I asked why he did that, I was told it was to reduce waste. That didn't make sense to me then and it still doesn't now.

Also, I don't understand why there isn't a more specific focus on local breweries. One of the great things about the craft beer movement is the emphasis that's placed on supporting local brewers. To Greg's credit, I've always found a few local beers on draft, if not in the bottle. However, being local doesn't assure a brewery a spot in Rustico's lineup. I would hope that it would.

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), and Franklin's (14 of 20)

Want to see more photos of Rustico? Check them out here.

Kaz Sushi Bistro


With all the innovative cuisine available to the contemporary gourmand, it is amazing how the simplest preparations still have the ability to impress. For lack of human intervention, its hard to top sushi; little is any cooking, very little spicing to speak of, and when it comes to sashimi, there is naught to be done besides slapping the fish on the plate. In a world where foams and fusions are now commonplace, it is surprising that a sushi chef, using the most ancient and ascetic of processes and products, can still even raise the occasional eyebrow.

Kazuhiro Okochi (Kaz to his friends) comes from an unusual background for a sushi chef, having studied fine art in Oklahoma before a lengthy stint in Osaka, where he studied traditional Japanese, French, and Chinese styles of cooking. In 1988 he returned to the US as Executive Chef at Sushi-Ko, the oldest and most esteemed sushi bar in DC. After a decade, Kaz set off on his own, founding Kaz Sushi Bistro, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year on April 14th. Many years ago, when both KSB and I were pretty new to the city, this place really widened my horizons, exposing a guy who could hardly stand overcooked salmon to the joys of raw fish. I have made a point of going as frequently as my checkbook will allow ever since. Realizing that it had been almost a year since our last visit, Eliza and I went with some friends during August's Restaurant Week to reacquaint ourselves with Chef Kaz's simple but extraordinary style.


Kaz does indeed have a very "bistro" feel; it is small, a little cramped even, with bare black tables and an open kitchen / sushi bar in the back. We were led to pleasant little four-top facing Eye Street. For Restaurant Week, I had always considered Kaz to be a bargain, so I was disappointed to learn that, despite the price increase, the menu structure had not changed. For $35.09, patrons are given a choice of one appetizer, six pieces of nigiri, two maki rolls, and one dessert. While options and portions are plentiful, it would have been nice to see a complimentary plum wine thrown in with the deal, or another such add-on that other restaurants have done to off-set the change. But no matter -- by the end of the night, we had ordered so much ala cart so as to render the RW menu moot.

I'm gonna cut right to the chase here: Kaz has gotten its share of mediocre reviews online from first time visitors who were left less than impressed. The California Roll, the Spicy Tuna Roll... yeah, they are good quality, but do little to justify shelling out the extra dough. Don't get me wrong -- the fish is all great, and Kaz has some of the best unagi I have found in the city. However, if one were to go in and order the usual suspects, I could totally see where he would find the hype unjustified. At Kaz, it's all about the signature stuff. The Restaurant Week menu featured a few of these -- including the Tuna with roasted Almond, which is beautiful for its balance and richness -- but we soon lost patience and started ordering some old favorites off the regular menu.

On the specials that evening was the smoked mackerel, offered both as an appetizer with seaweed and vinaigrette ($10.25), and a two piece nigiri with herb miso ($5.50). The Norwegian fatty mackerel is smoked in house, and still had that almost campfire aroma when it arrived at the table. Blissfully reminiscent of pulled pork, the mackerel was stringy and pleasantly firm, with more of that intense wood smoke on the palate, along with a slightly salty, nutty finish. This dish perfectly encapsulates the chef's ethos of combining new world flavors to a traditional dish, and is a must try if you still see it on the menu.


The previously mentioned tuna with roasted almond ($6) is also delicious, and has a wonderful crunchy and buttery texture contrast that works far better than you would expect. If your tastes are a bit more on the decadent side, the tuna with fois gras miso ($7.50) features the same great tuna richness, amplified by the tangy, gamy, fatty topping. The Kaz tuna experience is further improved by the addition of Hon, real crushed wasabi root available for $3 a teaspoon. Unlike the powdered stuff normally served, Hon is not bitingly hot, but more mildly spicy, with a pleasant green flavor, and a novel, stringy texture.

Far and away, for straight up hedonistic pleasure, nothing in town beats Kaz's seared salmon belly with soy-lemon sauce ($6.50). This sizable piece of nigiri looks obscene, all pink and glistening with fat, and smells like very mild grilled salmon. Once eaten, the sushi melts away like butter as you chew, all the


while bursting with fatty goodness, balanced perfectly with the acidic sauce. Dear lord, I swear we ordered at least eight orders of these things for the table, and even if everything else had been wretched, I would have deemed the meal a success.

If any of these sound appealing to you but you still feel a bit timid, take a friend and go for the Kaz Sushi Tasting 009 ($32), which features eight different pieces of nigiri (chef's choice, mostly from the signature menu), and one signature roll. It's a great tour of what Kaz has to offer for $16 each (assuming you don't mind splitting each piece), and I have never been disappointed or felt cheated by the chef's selection. If you are a sake fan and have some money to spend, Kaz also features a sizable selection of bottles and carafes. Though the menu is categorized by type, with a brief primer on the side, I find sake types to be ridiculously vague and unhelpful, so bring an aficionado who will know them by name. For beginners, I suggest a bottle of Kaguyahime ($38 / 500ml), which is light, floral, and just slightly off dry. All in all, though, I felt just as well served by a big ol' bottle of Kirin for nine bucks.

After such a long absence, it was nice to see that Kaz was just as grand as I'd remembered. Though undeniably pricey for a casual sushi joint, the culinary adventure that is the signature menu, and the universally fresh and high-quality fish make Kaz well worth the price paid.

Kaz Sushi Bistro
1915 Eye St NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 530-5500
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30am to 2:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 6:00pm to 10:00pm
Closed Sunday
Dress code: Casual

Franklin's: Stellar beer bar, great brewpub, completely unlikely success

Franklin1 Franklin's is a great brewpub, but it shouldn't be.

Before opening the Hyattsville establishment in 2002, Mike Franklin never ran a restaurant and had zero brewing experience. None. The guy sold toys, for Pete's sake.

He chose the location based on the fact that he liked the old building that now houses the shop attached to the brewpub. It's also walking distance from his house.

You know what else is walking distance from his house? Squat.

This is Hyattsville, Md. Located between the Northeast D.C. and College Park, and famous for absolutely nothing at all. There's a small neighborhood and a few gas stations, but not a whole lot else. There was even less back in 1992 when Mike decided to buy an old hardware store and convert it into an "urban survival store," replete with toys, games, knick knacks, and a damn fine selection of craft beers and wine tucked away in the back. Originally, the shop also had a sandwich counter, which was the precursor to the brewpub.

After a few years, Mike got to a point where he figured he either had to grow his business or sell it, so he gambled on growth.

Although he sold Bud and Miller in the shop, Mike noticed that a lot of his regular customers were buying the craft beers he stocked. In the late 90s, brewpubs had a slightly better success rate than restaurants (meaning they were failing a little less than restaurants), so Mike figured he had an audience that wanted craft beer and the data to justify launching a brewpub.

Recap 1: A two-story brewpub located close to nothing that features a menu that's more bistro than bar grew out of a beer cooler and a sandwich counter. This shouldn't work. Yet, Mike and wife Debbie have one of the best beer bars in the D.C. area. Go figure.

"This turned out to be a 'build it and they will come' story," Mike said.

Despite Mike's complete lack of restaurant and brewing experience, he clearly knows how to run an operation. Since the day it opened in 2002, the place has been a destination for Mike's Hyattsville neighbors and beer geeks throughout the region.

Luck seems to be a reoccurring theme for Mike. While he was building Franklin's, Mike hedged his bets and had the space designed so that if he couldn't find an affordable brewing system, the areas he set aside for the tanks could be converted into dining room space.

Franklin2 No need. Mike lucked out and found out about an Ohio brewpub that was going under and auctioning off its brewing equipment. He headed north, placed a bid, and called Debbie to let her know he just bought a brewery.

As every brewery needs a brewer, Mike put the word out that he needed someone to run the operation. Two dozen applications and five in-person interviews (beer tastings) later and Mike found Charles Noll, Franklin's resident brewer.

Given the consistent quality of Charles' beer, it's clear that Mike got lucky again.

Like Mike, Charles didn't set out to be in the brewing business. He graduated from college in New York with a degree in criminal justice. But Charles was always more interested in home brewing than busting perps, so he followed his sister out to California to try and get into brewing. He did. While living out of a campground in Northern California, Charles went from apprenticing at a local brewpub to enrolling at the American Brewers Guild.

Once a certified brewer, Charles headed back to Albany where there was a growing craft beer scene, but fewer people vying for jobs in the industry. There he spent a few years as head brewer at the now-defunct Malt River Brewpub. Although he was able to produce a few beers based on his own recipes, most of the beer was brewed using a mishmash of previous brewers' directions. Eventually, it became clear that the Malt River Brewpub was not long for this world, so Charles began checking help wanted ads. He found Mike's.

Franklin3 Recap 2: the toy guy (right) who never ran a restaurant or a brewery hired a criminal justice grad (left) whose primary brewing experience came from a failed brewpub where he followed other brewers' recipes.

Of course this would work. And it has.

Enough about the back story, let's talk beer. Charles makes good beer. And to be clear, the only recipes that Charles brought from Malt River were his own. At any given time, Franklin's has eight beers on draft, five of which are constants ... sort of. Anarchy Ale is the house beer, but no two batches are alike.

The ale tends to be a hoppy style, but Charles tinkers with the recipe with every batch to keep the beer geeks happy and avoid too much repetition. The rest of the standards - the Twisted Turtle Pale Ale, Sierra Madre Pale Ale, Private I.P.A, and Bombshell Blonde - cover most of the popular beer styles. Charles also tries to keep a stout or porter on tap most of the time, but like the Anarchy Ale, the recipe changes. During my recent visits, Charles had worked up a batch of pepper stout. (I liked the stout, but didn't get any of the pepper. However, a guy seated next to me at the bar nearly gagged on his sample because it was too "hot" for him. I guess spice is relative.)

For the rest of the taps and the rest of the year, Charles produces a regular rotation of seasonal beers. This summer it's been the Summer Wheat Ale and a German-style Helles. With fall closing in, Charles' Oktoberfest will be returning. During the holiday season, a Christmas ale is produced, and spring means Maibock.

Along with the seasonals and standards, Charles brews up a variety of rotationals, including red ales and malty session beers, like Mission Accomplished, which was still on draft when I stopped by last.

On top of all of this (because producing more than 2 dozen different styles of beer a year just isn't enough), Charles has a firkin.

Actually, let me back up. Franklin's has a nitrogen tap, which makes any beer poured through it very smooth and creamy (think Guinness), albeit artificially. (Beer taps in the U.S. use carbon dioxide to force the beer from the kegs to the taps. The CO2 also preserves the beer longer, reducing waste. While efficient, it does inject additional carbon dioxide into the beer. Replacing the carbon dioxide with nitrogen allows the beer to come out at its natural CO2 level, but with a bit of added N.) The natural way to do this is to use a beer engine, or handpump, which requires the bartender to manually pump the beer out of a beer cask. This is the way most British ales are drawn in the U.K. However, you can't use a standard keg with a beer engine (American kegs are designed for the gas systems), so it can be a pain for most American bars that don't want to deal with special beer taps or casks. That's not the case with Franklin's. Because the beer is brewed on-site, it wouldn't be a big deal to keep a couple casks on hand for the beer engine. Charles said his biggest problem is lack a space to set up a beer engine and cooler for the beer cask.

Franklin4 So until Mike builds him a beer engine station (please Mike, build him a beer engine station), Charles has a firkin to fall back on. Firkins really are the second best thing to a beer engine. Basically a firkin is a 9 gallon keg that Charles can fill with one of his standard, seasonal or rotating beers, or he can whip up something special. And because the firkin relies on gravity, not a CO2 tap, the beer comes out completely unadulterated. Every Friday, Charles puts a new firkin on the bar. Rarely does it see Saturday morning.

If that's not enough to convince you that Franklin's is a great beer bar, they also sell and fill growlers. Although Mike did a great job designing the place, sometimes you'd like to drink the beer at home. That's where growlers come in. You can buy one of theirs or bring in your own.

(Being able to fill any growler is big. I have a growler from a North Carolina brewery that I once took with me on a trip down to one of my favorite beer bars in Durham. Although the place sold growlers, they would only fill their own. They really didn't care that I carted that damn thing four hours, hoping to fill it with some of North Carolina's finest hoppy goodness.)

Franklin5 And if that's still not enough to convince you, consider that Mike Franklin still has one of the best selections of craft beers in the area. The sandwich counter was converted into shop space when the brewpub opened, but he never stopped selling beer and wine. In fact, he's expanded the shop's beer selection since the brewpub opened.

There are a few places in the area to get fresh beer: District Chop House, the Rock Bottoms and the Capital City locations. None of them produce beer as consistently good as Franklin's. Add to that the extra touches like the growlers, craft beer selection and Friday firkins and you have one of the best beer bars in the D.C. area.

That's not to say I don't have a few quibbles. First off, Franklin's is a restaurant first and a brewery second. That means the food is quite good (the onion rings are kick ass), but this isn't a restaurant review. As bars go, it's not much of one. But that wasn't Mike's goal. He intended to open an establishment that would attract neighbors, families and beer enthusiasts, in that order. To that end, he has succeeded.

Franklin6 But I'm a purist at heart. I like my bars to be bars. At Franklin's you're just as likely to see a family having dinner as you are a few guys unwinding over drinks after work. All that being said, Franklin's is a God-send to beer geeks with kids. There are few places around here where mom and dad can enjoy a well crafted beer while the kids root around for a new toy or fist-fulls of candy. I also like Mike's decision to put the bar on the second floor, away from the toys and (most of) the tots.

The bartenders are another issue. Every bartender I've encountered has been very friendly. On the other hand, I've swung though on a slow Friday and had to work to get the bartender's attention ... while sitting at the bar. Other times, I got the impression that the bartender was content to give me the beer menu and allow me to engage in a bit of self-study. I don't expect the bartender to go though the ins and outs of every beer with me, but a good bartender should be knowledgeable about the beers and (most importantly) willing to talk about them. I would also expect the servers in a brewpub to be knowledgeable about the beers.

Franklin7 Then there's the general store and Web site. Both do a great job of hiding the great selection of beer and wine for sale. Unless you wandered past the stuffed animals, candy bins, greeting cards, various tchotchke and into the back of the store, you would never know there was a large selection of craft beers, imports and wines available. And no where is it posted that you can buy a bottle of wine from the shop and bring it into the restaurant for a $10 corkage fee (although why you'd want to drink wine at such an excellent brewpub is beyond me). Unfortunately, the Web site is no help. The section on the store has more information on the shop's former life as a hardware store than anything on the beer and wine available. I wonder how many regulars have gone elsewhere for craft beer unaware of the selection Mike keeps hidden in the back.

But how can I blame Mike for a few miscues when he's running an otherwise great beer bar? After all, it's not like the guy has ever done this before.

Score: 14 or 20 (beer: 6 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 3 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)

The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), and Franklin's (14 of 20)

Want to see more photos of Franklin's? Check them out here.

Pizzeria Paradiso: The New Dupont Location is Open for Business!

Paradiso1 Way back in 1991, a small restaurant called Pizzeria Paradiso opened up on P St in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, and quickly made a name for itself. Featuring wood-fire baked, Neapolitan style pizzas of unusual quality, the pizzeria soon outgrew its meager floorspace, and so was born Paradiso 2 in upper Georgetown. With continued acclaim, and the addition of one of the city's finest beer programs, business kept rolling in, and soon little Paradiso 1 just couldn't handle the crunch. So, after a year's construction and the usual cadre of setbacks, please welcome the new Paradiso, which opened up last Saturday in a custom-built space right up the road from the original. I wandered over around 8:00 that night to meet some friends and scope things out.

Paradiso5 Those familiar with the Georgetown Pizzeria Paradiso will feel instantly at home in the new space. Clearly designed with a similar mindset, the new space is all exposed brick, cream-colored walls with wood accents,and big windows -- even those cute, rustic pizza-pie sculptures aligning it's sister's basement feature here along the bar partition. The space appears to seat about 75+, and will accommodate another 24 once the large, seasonally-heated patio is opened later this month. The bar is a good deal larger than either of it's predecessors, and will seat a 15 or so in relative comfort.

Paradiso3 Opening night was packed: over the course of my two hours there, I saw many a party turned away at the door, which is both encouraging and not surprising given Paradiso's cache. As I had other things to attend to (binge drinking is "other things;" don't judge), I did not sample the food that night -- that said, rest assured that if you love Paradiso's formula of thin, chewy crust, fresh mozzarella cheese and myriad meat and veggie toppings, it does not appear that you will be disappointed. If my nose and eyes are any judge, the food at the new Paradiso is exactly what you might find at the other locations. If you are at all concerned, grab a table in back, and watch your pizza being flipped, topped and baked in the restaurant's open kitchen.

Paradiso2 Of course, no offense to the pizza, but to me, Paradiso is all about the beer. As previously stated, Paradiso has one of best beer programs in town, featuring an eclectic, well-document collection of brews from every style available. In addition to an extensive bottle list, the new Paradiso has 11 draughts, one of which, like the flagship bar, is dedicated to cask-conditioned "real ales." Though lacking your macros like Miller and Bud, a Paradiso list is never wanting for diversity, so lovers of any style are bound to leave satisfied. That night, I had the good fortune to sample (amongst others) the Brouwerij Bockor Cuvee Des Paradiso4 Jacobins Rouge ($8), a Belgian Flanders red ale whose acquaintance I had not yet made. My friend Tim described it as "SOOO Good," so I chanced it, and he was right. The Jacobin is a full-bodied, heavily cherry accented beer, with a complicated nose of sour cherry, wheat, and spices, and a pleasantly dry finish; thank God for it's reasonable 5.5% abv, as I drank two in absolutely no time. In recognition of the bar's opening, beer-guru Greg Jasgar has created a couple of unique, beer-centric cocktails. I tried the Cosmoplambic ($10), a unique blend of vodka, lime juice, Grand Marnier, and raspberry lambic that really hit the spot, and pretty much put a bullet in any of my plans to drive home.

Paradiso7 For burgeoning beer lovers and snobs alike, the GT Paradiso has one of the best happy hours in town, featuring half-priced draughts from 5-7 PM on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The best news in all of this is that the new Paradiso will offer the same deal, albeit with a different selection, and a lot more standing room. If frantic crowds of sweaty beer nerds have kept you away in the past, make a point of checking out the new Paradiso's happy hour before they catch on! Alternatively, to you regulars out there, check out the new space for an airier, more Metro-accessible dose of what you've come to love and crave.

Pizzeria Paradiso
2003 P St. NW
Washington, DC

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

Spy Diner

SPYCART1 Consider the food cart. These ubiquitous urban fixtures exist for a reason — SURVIVAL. The urban jungle is a harrying place, and crowded, so sometimes one just has to resort to foraging. This isn't to say that cart food can't be great cuisine —  hell, I and many of my fellow GWU graduates owe our very lives to Manouch and his magical hot dog cart, rendered all the more fantastic for it's being open till four in the morning. Though I was less than a gourmand in my college years, I have to say that Manouch worked some real magic in that tiny kitchen, as I'm sure he continues to do to this day. A true chef is not the sum of his tools, but rather an amalgam of skill and a love of the craft; good food can be made anywhere, from the four star Michelin kitchen to the camper's sterno can. Knowing this, I was more than a bit intrigued when I heard about Spy Diner.

Late last month, the good people of DC Central Kitchen teamed up with Stir Food Group (the creative minds behind Zola and Potenza) in an innovative venture in culinary philanthropy. For twenty years, DCCK has been collecting our city's massive load of wasted foodstuffs, and turning it into good, wholesome meals for those in need -- today, the group reprocesses more than one ton of unused food donated by local businesses everyday. In recent years, the group has expanded its aim to attack DC's unemployment problem, and with its Culinary Job Training program it has educated and placed hundreds of our city's struggling citizens in local commercial kitchens, where they may thrive and feel needed.

Spy3 Spy Diner is DCCK's newest venture to this end. The creative minds at Stir provide the recipes, and the burgeoning chefs fresh from DCCK's Culinary program take it from there. I'd been meaning to swing by for awhile, and professional reasons put me in just the right neighborhood yesterday, so I made an impromptu visit.

The corner of 9th and F St was surprisingly quiet at 11:40 am, so I had the good fortune of a lineless lunch. The cart itself is your standard model, if a bit newer, bearing the usual array of propane burners and refrigerated bins. The man behind the counter greeted me kindly, and I perused the menu, which I have transcribed below:

(Served 8:00 - 11:00 am)
Egg Sandwiches with cheese - $2.75
w/ Taylor Pork Roll or Ham or Bacon - $1.75
served on a bagel or housemade roll

Fresh Baked Muffins - $2.00
Housemade Coffee Cakes - $2.50
Bagels (grab and go) Cream Cheese, Jelly or Butter - $2.50

Nantucket Nectars Juices - $2.25

2 Sliders

Lamb Meatballs
Romaine Red Pepper Slaw and Goat Cheese Aioli - $6.00

Roast Beef Melts
Emmanthaler Sauce, Carmelized Onions, Horseradish Bun - $4.00

BBQ Pork
Coleslaw, Salt & Pepper Bun - $4.00

All American Burger
Romaine Pickle Slaw - $4.00

Tomato & Brie - $4.00

Slider Combos
Add a Bag of Chips and a Soda or Bottled Water for an Additional $1.50

Soup of the Day - $3.75
Chips - $1.00

Cookies - $2.50
Cupcakes - $2.50
Rice Crispy Treats - $2.50

Nantucket Nectar Juices - $2.25
Sodas - $1.50
Bottled Water - $1.25

Spycart2 Those of you who have been to Zola will probably recognize the slider selections, as they are pulled straight from the bar's awesome happy hour menu. For my undying love of caramelized onions, I ordered the Roast Beef Melts, and waited patiently for my order. In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with my host, a man by the name of Derrick*. 

Derrick has been in the program for about 11 months, and it turns out that I came by on his very first day on the job. Despite this, he aptly and confidently started preparing my meal, even amidst my incessant questioning. Derrick is a recovering alcoholic, and wasn't shy to tell me this. We got to talking about food, and DC chefs —  Derrick has met a good number of them (lots of local chefs donate time to DCCK), and is happy for the experience. While he was topping my beef off with the Emmanthaler mousse, I asked my chef what he thought of the program. After some thought, Derrick replied that it was great, for numerous reasons, but mostly because "it makes you want to serve instead of just taking." I took my lunch, bid him adieu, and promised to come back.

As far as the food goes, I gotta say, you are not likely to do much better downtown for less money. The portion of sliced beef was more than satisfactory for the price paid, and it was cooked to perfect temperature. The caramelized onions boasted just the right combination of sweetness and earthiness, and Spy4 the Emmanthaler sauce was generously applied, and decadent. This, for $5.50 with drink and a bag of chips? Sure, Potbelly's, Subway, and the like can give you a much larger pile of crap for about that price, but I seriously doubt it would be as filling or satisfying. I was glad I left a tip, and honestly wish I'd left more.

It feels great to lend one's money to a good cause; to use one's power as a consumer for good, rather than wasting it on convenience. But ya know, I am an inherently selfish creature, and I ain't gonna eat crappy meals ad nauseum for altruism's sake. Fortunately such a dilemma did not present itself here: as far as I can tell, DCCK is doing a wonderful job with their students, and they and their partners should be lauded for their efforts. If you live or work in the Chinatown region, and value good food and good, well, values, take a trip to the little food cart at 9th and F. As for me, I plan on making good on my promise to Derrick in the very near future.

Spy Diner
Northeast Corner or 9th and F St. NW
Breakfast: Monday - Friday: 8:30 am to 11:00 am
Lunch: 11:00 am to 5:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday Hours: 11:00 am to 6:00 pm

* If you are reading this, sir, please let me know if I spelled your name wrong!

The Galaxy Hut: Great bar is refuge for locals, smokers and beer enthusiasts


By now, everyone, I mean everyone, has seen or heard about Arlington: The Rap. The send up of Clarendon, Courthouse and Rosslyn is absolutely brilliant because it is absolutely spot on.

During the past 10 years, these North Arlington neighborhoods have gentrified something fierce. Fortunately, the Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, Cheesecake Factory, Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks (the dude was right about all the Starbucks) and other chain stores and restaurants haven't completely ruined the place.

No, there are a few hold outs. A few places that don't answer to a corporate master.

There's still the Hut. And as long as there's the Hut, everything will be alright.

The Galaxy Hut, a sister bar to the old Dr. Dremo's, was one of the first bars I discovered when I moved up to the D.C. area in the late 1990s. It was tiny, dark, and filled with smoke and locals. A few nights a week, you could sit two feet from a band - or just some dude - beating the shit out of a couple instruments until your eyes teared and ears bled. Today, with a gelato shop next door and a Whole Foods across the street, the Hut remains a tiny, dark joint full of nicotine and locals. The ear bleeding has been scaled back to a couple days a week.

God, I love that place.

45The Hut has everything a beer geek could want in a great beer bar: a great selection of quality beers on draft (20), several bottles and cans (including Duck Rabbit and 21st Amendment during my last visit), a solid juke box and a cave-like environment where you can disappear for a few hours or days.

Technically speaking, The Galaxy Hut is a restaurant. It pulls in more than 51 percent of its revenue from the food coming out of the open kitchen behind the bar. Long-time bartender Bill Arthur told me the Hut easily clears that much in food sales a month.

Fine, the Hut's a restaurant. The Hut is a dark, smoky, fairly average restaurant that you shouldn't take your mother or your kids to, because it's filled with a bunch of beer drinkers and nicotine addicts.

But it's one hell of a beer bar.

33I haven't lived near the Hut in 10 years, but I need little reason to hop the Metro to the Clarendon bar for a few beers. Of all the places to get a drink in the D.C. area, the Hut is one of the very few real bars. There's no TV, no scene, no rules about standing or sitting or ordering, and there's no password, dress code (looking at you PX) or secret signal necessary to get in. There's just a lot of quality beer and some of the best damn tater tots this side of middle school.

I know I just made a point of saying that the Hut's only a restaurant in a technical sense. Well, the kitchen does produce some kick ass tots. Hot, crunchy and salty, these cylindrical treats kick the shit out of beer nuts, and should be heralded as beer's best friend.

Speaking of the beer, owner Lary Hoffman keeps the Hut stocked with a solid selection of American craft and imports, particularly Belgian ales. Lary bought the place in 2005 and is responsible for the Hut transitioning from a great local bar into a great local beer bar. He also made sure to keep Ben Claassen's art on the walls, which is as much a part of the place as the arcade games and band flyers.

The taps are rotated weekly, with a few beers moving out as a few move in, including the occasional local beer. Although Lary's a fan of IPAs and Belgian beers (who's not these days?), he keeps the selection balanced by ensuring other beer styles are always on draft. Unlike many beer bars in the area, all of the Hut's drafts are available by the pint and by the pitcher.

That means 64 ounces of stinky, freaky, hoppy Green Flash IPA. And that, my friends, is a lot of hoppy beer.

As for the bottle selection, Lary admits to keeping a couple "wretched" beers like Miller Lite and PBR on hand for the "I've never heard of any of these beers" crowd. Bill, who's put in 8 years behind the bar, says the people ordering Miller Lite are few and far between, but they do show up.

When he's not explaining the beer lineup to the latest brown flip-flop to shuffle through the door, Bill's greeting regulars, taking orders, pouring beers, running food and busing tables. He's the Hut's everyman, and he does it all with a smile and a smoke. Bill Arthur is a very good bartender.

And let me say this about the Hut allowing smoking: I like it, and I don't smoke. Of course, I should knock the Hut for allowing smoking. Lord knows my wife and friends do. But I like the cigarette smoke, like I like the crappy bathrooms, beaten up bar stools and cardboard letters dangling in the front window. The ashtrays and butts are a few of the many things that make The Galaxy Hut restaurant a better bar than Harry's Tap Room.

Bars - the good ones, anyway - should be a little repellent. They should keep the riff raff in and the Cub Scouts out. When I wake up in the morning and stink like Winstons, I know I was out having a good time.

15 However, all this is moot. Come Dec. 1, the Commonwealth of Virginia will require the Hut to ban indoor smoking for good. The smokers inside will replace the nonsmokers on the patio. Lary says the cigarette smoke is the only thing people complain about at the Hut, but because business is good, he doesn't worry about it. Still, when the ban takes effect, he expects business to get even better.

Smoking policy aside, there are weightier issues to grouse about. For one, the size of the beer selection. I realize the Hut is a small joint, but surely a bit more room could be made for an extra cooler and a few more beers. If Lary chooses to keep a few Millers on hand, that takes space away from the Troegs, Victory and Great Divide beers (not to mention the local stuff) he could be stocking.

Although I appreciate that the local guys make an appearance in the Hut from time to time, the bar is the perfect place to specialize in local beer. I'm not suggesting Lary turn over half his draft lines to Flying Dog and Starr Hill, but a steady rotation on tap and few locally made beers in the ice box would be ideal for his neighborhood beer bar.

And then there's the Web site. If you're going to have a Web site, you should keep it up to date. I need to know when the bar is open, what the phone number is, what the address is and what's on tap. The Hut's site has the correct phone number and address, but the hours are wrong (unless I follow the "menu" tab to the bar's myspace page), and there's no information on the beer line up.

These are but minor quibbles. The Galaxy Hut is one of the best beer bars in the D.C. area. And thanks to Lary and Bill, it will remain one of Arlington's few refuges from the rising tide of gentrification.

Score: 16 of 20 (beer: 6 of 8, atmosphere: 4 of 5, bartenders: 5 of 5, other elements: 1 of 2)

D.C. Beer Bars: Birreria Paradiso - The first and the best

18 Here in the D.C. area, we are blessed with an abundance of bars. Well, maybe not blessed, but we sure do have a lot of them.

In the sense of four walls and booze, all bars are basically the same. But there's more to a watering hole than elixir and shelter, much more.

In this new series, we're looking at a very special category of bars - beer bars - and telling you of the very best in our area. Stealing the rating system Top Gear magazine uses to rate vehicles (it really is a great magazine), I'll be rating beer bars on a 20 point scale. I'll consider the beer, particularly the tap selection, the bar's atmosphere, bartenders and other elements, such as the presence of a beer engine, all of which make up a great beer bar.

I'm getting ahead of myself. If you think about it, you know what a beer bar is, sort of. I came across the term on the Beer Mapping Project's fantastic Web site. Beer geeks from around the world plug their favorite beer bars into the site's maps so that other beer geeks can track them down. Whenever I travel, I consult the Web site to find the breweries, beer stores and beer bars in the cities I'm visiting. It's a fantastic resource that if you're not using, you should.

Anyway, a beer bar is obviously a bar that serves beer. But a beer bar is an establishment that specializes in beer, that pays particular attention to the beer it serves. It may do other things, such as the beer bar in our inaugural profile, but there is a distinct emphasis on beer.

If you agree with my selections and ratings, great. If you don't, let me know. And if you know of a beer bar I should check out, let me know that, too.

The first beer bar in this series is the best beer bar in the D.C. area: Birreria Paradiso. Tucked into the basement of the Georgetown pizzeria, Pizzeria Paradiso, the Birreria is a destination for area beer lovers. The basement and sunnier ground-floor bar feature a regular rotation of American craft beers and imports.

And that's just the 16 taps.

I've visited the Birreria quite a few times, and on several occasions I've been surprised by what was on draft and what was hidden away. During last year's election, I came across Avery's limited release Ale To The Chief on draft in the first floor bar, complete with a hand-painted Obama tap head. There was the evening my wife and I were chatting with bar manager Greg Jasgur about how hard it is to find North Carolina beers in the D.C. area. He spun around and produced a bottle of Gaelic Ale from Asheville's Highland Brewery.

That's Asheville, North Carolina.

7 Local beer geeks will know the story of Greg flying to Chicago only to drive back with a moving truck full of Three Floyds. And during a recent visit, Greg (pictured) had Three Floyds' Robert the Bruce Scottish Ale on the beer engine (a magical machine, if ever there was one).

Between the regular rotation of drafts and the 200 or so bottles, 25 percent of which are rotated regularly, Greg runs a quality beer bar. Does it hurt that he doesn't stock any beers from the big three American imports (Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller)? No, it doesn't hurt at all. Sorry Bud lovers, but anyone willing to eschew the bounty and revenue that comes with keeping the big three on hand is taking a chance to do something right.

And while owner Ruth Gresser gives Greg the reigns on stocking beers, Greg is willing to turn some of the decision making over to his customers. Got an idea for a beer that the Birreria doesn't offer? Let Greg know, he might just have it the next time you come in.

16 So, will the best beer bar in D.C. score a perfect 20? I'm afraid not. As much as I like the Birreria, it is a pizzeria first and a bar second. You could argue that that means there is always great food available to go with your Double Dead Guy. That's true, but that also means that you're sharing the bar with the Johnson family who brought the kids for pizza. As wonderful as I'm sure the Johnsons are, they take me out of the moment. When I'm in a bar, I want to be in a bar, not a family restaurant.

Despite the fact that Pizzeria Paradiso caters to diners and beer lovers equally, I have come across the occasional server and bartender who didn't know much about the beer. Fortunately, the beer menu does a decent job describing the styles and characteristics of the beers, but to be great, all the bartenders should be well versed in the beers on draft and familiar with the bottles on hand. The servers should at least be familiar with what's available.

Finally, and this is a minor quibble, but there could be a better focus on local beers. One of the things I appreciate about the bars in the Triangle area of North Carolina is the fact that it's not uncommon to find local beers on tap, often two or three. Locals drink local beer, so local bars kept them on draft. I understand that D.C. is a city of transients, but that's no reason a few of the quality beer bars, like the Birreria, can't dedicate a few draft lines to the likes of Hook & Ladder and Flying Dog.

Still, Birreria Paradiso is a damn fine beer bar. If you haven't wandered downstairs to pay Greg a visit, you're missing out. He's running a fine establishment with consistently the best selection of quality craft beers and imports you're going to find in the area.

Score: 17 of 20 (beer selection: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 4 of 5, bartenders: 4 of 5, other elements: 2 of 2)

Ray's the Steaks' New Location

Rays1 Chef Michael Landrum has been a busy guy of late. Building on the well-earned esteem garnered from his flagship restaurant, Ray's the Steaks, Chef Landrum has built a miniature empire of DC area restaurants, including Ray's the Classics of Silver Spring, and Ray's Hell Burger of Arlington, to which he will soon be adding Ray's the Nets, a reasonably priced seafood option modeled on his established trope of cheap-but-awesome meateries.

When I learned that Landrum and his crew were moving Ray's the Steak's -- synonymous this past eight years with criminally under-priced, house-aged steaks and rich-as-Midas sides -- I was a bit concerned. Why mess with success, I  asked myself? Yes, the old space was cramped, to the extent that even taking reservations was out of the question, but they had a formula! It worked! The place never had a spare seat, and ... what? Did you say that the new location is at 2300 Wilson Blvd, a mere seven minute walk from my apartment?  What a brilliant idea! It's high time they moved out of that old crapshack, anyhow. Status quo be damned!

Rays-Room1 On a whim, Eliza and I wandered over last Wednesday around seven o'clock, and managed to snag an eight o'clock seating (yes, Ray's now takes reservations!). The new space is huge, offering some 150 seats between its two large dining rooms. The set up is a bit schizophrenic: walk in the front door and look to your right, and it is just like the old place, complete with pirate flag, open kitchen, and a collection of tightly packed, bare-wood two and four tops; behind the host stand, Ray's has a more traditional steakhouse look, with burgundy carpets, black table clothes, and high-backed white chairs. We were seated in the "retro-Ray's" room, and after a few minutes, floor-to-ceiling windows notwithstanding, it felt just like old times.

Rays-Room2 I got to speak briefly with Chef Landrum the other day about switching locations. His one concern, if you could call it that, was that when you make such a dramatic change, psychologically, people want to find something wrong, something different from their idealized memories of the past. Well, let me assure you right now that, beyond general decor, Ray's has not changed at all. At all. The menu is the same off-white card stock it has always been, offering the same great steaks at the same great prices (though I've been told to keep an eye out for a new lamb dish in the near future). The service is as quick and efficient as ever, with the same crack staff dancing agilely between tables, and getting you through 8 oz of meat and a bottle of wine faster than you would have ever thought possible without being rushed. Eliza and I both ordered Rays-Pirate Hanger Steaks, rare, and they were exactly what we'd come to expect: perfectly cooked, flavorful, and the best damned steak deal in the area, period. New to me were the fois gras and bone marrow toppings ($9 and $3, respectively), which Chef Landrum tells me they started offering soon after opening Hell Burger. I got the marrow, and while I wouldn't call the additional fat strictly necessary, it was just the sort of beefy Jello I have grown to love, and was just the thing my decadent, Francophile ass was looking for.

If you loved Ray's as it was, do not fret: Daddy still loves you, he just had to move away, for grownup reasons. If you weren't a fan, and chalk that up to the chaotic ballet that was the old dining room, you might should see how you feel about the new plusher side. As for me, I am really bummed that Ray's moved into my backyard like two weeks before Lent; I was really not banking on that kind of temptation. I'm strong, I'll resist... but if you do happen to see me there on a Friday, please don't tell my mom.

Ray's the Steaks
2300 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22201

(703) 841-RAYS

Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Street Parking
Not Allowed.
Closest Metro:
Reservations: Taken for part of the restaurant. There is also a portion of the restaurant that is first come, first serve.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 2 out of 4 diapers. Laid back and casual environment. The restaurant is bigger and therefore, louder, but there is only one child seat.

Lola's Barracks Bar & Grill

Image001The newest restaurant on Barracks Row doesn't have a Chinatown sister and isn't generating nearly as much buzz as its neighbor, but it should.

Lola's Barracks Bar & Grill, across the street from the Marine Corps barracks and down the street from the new Matchbox location, is quietly becoming the shinning star of the 8th Street restaurant row.

Slipping into the restaurant on a recent afternoon, I was greeted by Lola's cozy setting and friendly bartenders. The room-length bar dominates the small space, but the dark wood and comfortable setting make the most of the restaurant's tight quarters.

Lola's is the quintessential neighborhood spot that could give nearby Tunnicliff's a run for its money. Whether it was a slow afternoon or a busy Saturday, with college football games on the picture-framed TVs lining the back of the bar, the bartenders were attentive and the food was quick.

When it comes to the kitchen, Lola's philosophy is clearly keep it simple, keep it good. The menu is straight-forward American fare, with burgers, wings and quesadillas making their mandatory appearance. Standard stuff, sure. But it's all done pretty well.

The fish tacos are among the best I've had in D.C. Wrapped in a grilled tortilla, the mahi mahi was gently seasoned and tasted fresh enough to have been swimming that morning. The salad that came with it showed the kitchen offers more than old lettuce pulled from the back of the refrigerator. On another visit, I skipped the greens and gave in to fries. I'm glad I did. The fries were crispy and salted perfectly.

And then there were the sliders, D.C. restaurants' favorite trend behind Belgium beers and just ahead of charcruterie platters. However, Lola's forgoes the gray-meat burgers for their take on the popular appetizer: sloppy joe sliders. Like the rest of the place, a simple idea done well. The sliders were messy -- as advertised -- and delicious. The cheese and pickle that capped the tiny sandwiches weren't necessary, but didn't get in the way of the “Wonder Years” moment the sloppy joe mix and dinner rolls gave me.

On tap, Lola's makes room for Fuller's London Porter, Dogfish Head's 60 Minute India pale ale and Magic Hat along side the ubiquitous Sam Adams, Bud Light and Miller Lite. Don't feel like a beer? The restaurant also has a full liquor bar.

Now, Lola's isn't without a few flaws. The overcooked Black Angus burger made me glad the sloppy joe sliders were well sauced. The Chesapeake chicken wings needed much more than a light dusting of Old Bay, though the blue cheese sauced tasted like it was made in-house. And as comfortable as the bar seating is, expect to get jostled if you're seated by the tables in the back. The narrow space between the bar and the tables is the only way to get to the restrooms.

Even the hospitality and service that were so good on two occasions had problems on the third. The staff that juggled a busy room on an earlier visit seemed a bit overwhelmed. Beers that were ordered sat poured and tantalizingly close below the taps as our bartender got distracted by other customers and familiar faces at the bar. After a while, we were able to catch the attention of another bartender speeding by long enough to get our drinks. The bartenders weren't the only ones harried by the crowd. Dishes that had come out quickly on earlier visits took more than half an hour to find us.

But such problems are fixable and easy to overlook as you tuck into a seat along the bar or snag the table at the front of the house, giving you a view of 8th Street and the Marines across the street. The restaurant a couple blocks down might be drawing more attention, but the other newcomer to Barracks Row might just be the better choice.

Lola's Barracks Bar & Grill     
711 8th St., S.E.
Washington, D.C. 2000