Wine bars had their heyday in Washington, but seemed to fall out of favor with the subsequent waves of cocktail dens and beer halls. Still, we may just have a wine bar renaissance on our hands—or at least the start of one—when Flight opens in Penn Quarter on Saturday.
Owners Swati Bose and Kabir Amir set out to create a fresh take on a neighborhood wine spot in the 60-seat space. Yes, you’ll find an ample number of vinos with about 70 labels and 30 offerings by the glass, and familiar faces such as Oregon Pinot Noir and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But there’s also plenty on the drink menu to keep the wine-weary interested. The husband-and-wife team sources a number of bottles from lesser-known areas including the Balkans, Greece, and Lebanon, as well as smaller growing regions in well-trod wine countries; think France’s Savoie and Jura. Gadget nerds will like the Coravin wine system, which Bose views as a game changer. The accessory allows bartenders to pour wines by the glass without extracting the cork, meaning you can get a taste of pricier varietals that would ordinarily be saved for by-the-bottle purchases.
Chef Bradley Curtis, whose résumé includes stints at DGS Delicatessen and Zaytinya, turns out dishes that are even more unusual than some wines. Ever imagined ordering a Boston baked dinner with your pour of Pinot? Now you can. The menu leans Mediterranean, so even this New England staple of baked beans and brown bread gets spicy linguiça sausage. Vegetarians can also do well here, even beyond the cheese plate. A stuffed squash with chili-lime dressing stands among the mains, while meatless “light bites” include a roasted beet salad with a soft-boiled egg and grape leaves with pepitas and yogurt.
Those longing for a stronger drink will find wine cocktails (we’re calling the new “wocktail” trend now). On opening night you can order a mix of lemon-based grappa, club soda, and crushed mint, with more options to come.
Flight Wine Bar. 777 Sixth St., NW; 202-864-6445. Open Monday through Thursday and Sunday 4 to 11:30, and Friday and Saturday 4 to 1.
“The chef recommends ordering three to four share plates per person.”
If these words make you cringe, then consider heading to the new Medium Rare when it opens on Barracks Row next week. In the age of small-plates dining—not to mention snacks, half entrées, and other portions “meant to share”—owner Mark Bucher’s Americanized steak frites concept is decidedly off-mode. Not only are plates full size, but Bucher also removes entirely the need for menu negotiations. Eat at either Medium Rare and you will be served fresh bread, salad, steak, “secret sauce,” and fries, all for the fixed price of $19.50 per person.
There’s more wiggle room for diners when it comes to homey desserts such as brownie sundaes (priced separately), and brunch, which offers five entrée choices. For vegetarians, there’s an off-menu grilled portobello mushroom with roasted red pepper sauce. But otherwise consistency is the name of the dining game, even between the sister restaurants. The menus and prices at the Cleveland Park and Capitol Hill are identical, though the latter space is slightly bigger, with 75 seats. Bucher says the concept wins fans not with surprise but with a lack thereof, comparing it to a well-worn pair of Levi’s jeans. “It’s not meant to be slick, because it’s not meant to go out of style,” he says. “When you do one thing and you do it really well, it becomes a nice business.”
Medium Rare certainly doesn’t own the idea. L’Entrecôte in Paris is the famed pioneer of the steak frites model, which many eateries have adopted since—remember Georgetown’s Le Steak? Spike Mendelsohn gave it a shot nearby on Capitol Hill with Béarnaise, before expanding the options to encompass a larger bistro theme.
For such a simple design there’s a lot of attention to detail and secrecy involved. Medium Rare’s fries are started a day ahead; potatoes are freshly cut, blanched, refrigerated to draw out moisture, and dunked twice in a secret blend of oils for extra crunch. Butter is brought to room temperature and pots are salted individually before service alongside warm, fresh bread. The “secret sauce” is likely the most involved element; only Bucher and one other person know the formula, and components arrive either unlabeled or mixed together so cooks can’t steal the recipe.
Restaurants that clone themselves often have aspirations for multiple branches, but Bucher says he isn’t planning to take Medium Rare national. Still, you can expect at least one more; Bucher says the concept is bound for a location in Baltimore’s Fells Point sometime this year.
Medium Rare. 515 Eighth St., SE. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10, and Friday and Saturday 5 to 11. Sunday brunch from 11 to 2:30.
Washingtonians love a good rooftop—a fact area native Alan Pohoryles realized when working at Parker’s in the early ’90s. He’d travel to crowded decks in Adams Morgan and Arlington for an al fresco drink, but wished there was a Bethesda destination. Now there is: Welcome the appropriately named Roof Bethesda, with one of the largest outdoor spaces in the area.
A late December opening doesn’t call to mind an outdoor party, but Pohoryles’s two-story spot includes plenty of indoor seating for chillier weather. What began as a bar concept for the Tommy Joe’s owner morphed into a bar/restaurant space that caters to a sit-down dinner clientele (complete with that increasingly rare bird, the tablecloth), as well as to those who want to perch at the bar in front of seven flat-screen TVs or head outdoors for drinks. The second-floor dining room has 80 seats and another 40 on an adjoining patio, while the rooftop deck offers space for more than 200 across lounge areas, tables, and standing room.
Chef Jed Fox is also a Washington native, who trained at notable restaurants including the Inn at Little Washington and Bistro Bis and recently left a sous-chef position at Ris. The menu—which is fairly concise for the large space—features both Southern and French influences, including dishes such as crispy Chesapeake oysters, shrimp and grits with chorizo and smoked tomatoes, steak frites, and pots of steamed mussels. As the restaurant gets up and running you’ll find brunch and lunch menus, plus more casual bar offerings that will be available in the downtime between lunch and dinner, as well as late-night.
Behind the bar is Josiah Alexander, who also doubles as the pastry chef. On the sweets lineup you’ll find such dishes as a caramelized-banana parfait with house-made salted-caramel ice cream; house concoctions also feature in the specialty cocktails. In addition to classic martinis and mules are sips like beet-infused tequila with salt foam and a gin-based “green refresher” with cucumber ice, perfect for sipping in the sunshine.
Roof Bethesda. 7940 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 240-245-7663. Currently open for dinner Monday through Sunday at 5 (call for current hours).
If there’s one thing brothers Eric and Ian Hilton know how to do, it’s open nightlife spots with distinct style. Think about bourbon-heavy American Ice Co., Satellite Room and its rock-diner vibe, and the pubby Brixton—all of which are within an easy bar hop from their latest venture, El Rey. The Mexican-themed watering hole and taqueria promises to bring something new to U Street: a year-round beer garden, made possible by a retractable transparent roof and plenty of heaters. Oh, and nearly the entire structure is fashioned out of shipping containers. Here’s what to expect from “the King,” opening Friday at 5.
The Hiltons aren’t the first to use shipping containers in the design—the Bullpen boasts a number—but no one else in DC has imported five via heavy-duty crane to make up their structure. The heavy metal boxes were used for the kitchen, bar, dining area, bathrooms, and more, and are covered by a retractable roof over the beer garden to bring the outside in (though not too much; Ian says heat lamps keep things toasty, even in the dead of winter). Once the weather warms, the panels will be pulled back so you can sip Pacificos in the sunshine.
Traditional tacos and Natty Boh micheladas
Chef Jorge Pimentel—who once owned the Latin-inspired Sabor’a Street food truck and now helms the Brixton’s kitchen—is behind the menu. Much like the pub, El Rey offers fare designed for drinking and snacking your way through the evening. Eight traditional tacos on your choice of corn or flour tortillas arrive for $3 to $4 a pop, filled with the likes of charred skirt steak, grilled fish, or crispy chicharrón. Rounding out the options are more street eats like tamales, elote (grilled, cheesy corn), and churros dunked in Mexican hot chocolate or dulce de leche caramel. Pair it all with a pitcher of margaritas or sangria, tequila cocktails (we like the sound of the mezcal-infused “short Mexican stiffy”), or a Natty Boh michelada. The Bloody Mary-esque drink swaps beer for vodka, and can soften the harshest of hangovers.
Craving a few tequila-absorbing tacos after the bars close? A taqueria takeout window opening onto U Street should do the trick. The quick-grab section will be open during regular kitchen hours in the opening stages, but eventually you’ll be able to order most menu items an hour after last call: through 3 on weekdays and 4 on weekend nights.
Wrestling and dominos
Most Hilton bars host some form of entertainment, and El Rey is no different. Ian Hilton says the crew will screen Mexican wrestling tournaments early in the week, and have live music on weekend nights (but no mariachi bands, sorry). You may also find domino tournaments run by an enthusiast on the bar staff.
Talk of more Hilton projects
El Rey is likely the Hiltons’ last shipping-container-based bar, says Ian, but don’t expect it to be the brothers’ final venture in the neighborhood. They own a couple of properties on Ninth Street that have yet to be developed, as well as the former Hanoi House space next to Marvin. After several iterations—including the recent Maketto pop-up—the space will likely turn into a casual neighborhood bar with, we’re guessing, a certain Hilton panache.
El Rey. 919 U St., NW. Open Monday through Thursday and Sunday 5 to 2, and Friday and Saturday 5 to 3.
With its array of vendors and tasting counters, Union Market is already a food lover’s paradise, and it’s about to get even better. Welcome Bidwell, chef John Mooney’s 120-seat restaurant set to open for dinner on Thursday.
Mooney, who also helms Bell Book & Candle in New York’s West Village, got a start in DC cooking at Red Sage and Raku in their respective heydays. Since then, he’s worked in India, Ireland, and New York, and Bidwell’s eclectic menu contains influences from all three, plus some from Mooney’s Midwestern background. You might start with deep-fried deviled eggs kicked up with plenty of mustard and dunked in house-made ranch dressing, or Swedish meatballs fashioned from a family friend’s recipe. Small plates are a good idea if you’re planning a progressive dine through the market—Mooney says the lobster tacos are a must—but a variety of entrées will please the non-grazing crowd. With a tagline like “responsibly sourced,” you can expect plenty of local ingredients, plus in-house preparations of everything from burrata cheese to Thousand Island dressing inspired by a 100-year-old recipe.
A large portion of the menu carries over from Mooney’s Manhattan spot, including signatures like the “gin and tonic” wild salmon that he quick-cures in juniper and lime, sears, and serves with caramelized cauliflower and herbs from the rooftop garden. Another element the two restaurants share: aeroponic greenhouses, which grow produce with air and mist instead of soil. Bidwell’s plot is larger, and will officially start churning out vegetables, fruit, and herbs in March. The year-round haul of tomatoes, eggplants, lettuces, and peppers will show up in everything from salads to pickles to cocktails. For now we like the sound of the “chef’s soup of the day”: a dirty gin martini with house-blue-cheese-stuffed olives that got its name from Mooney’s grandfather, who called such concoctions “loudmouth soup.”
Bidwell opens Thursday for dinner, with lunch and brunch to follow. Also keep your eye out for fun events such as an outdoor pig roast and moonlighting guest chefs.
The chef recommends: crispy deviled eggs; fried oysters with green chili-buttermilk sauce; lobster tacos; gin-and-tonic salmon; raclette grilled cheese with a slow-poached egg (“I eat one of those a week,” says Mooney).
Unexpected vegetarian dish: Irish-American onion soup, a riff on the classic French made with vegetable stock and smoked Irish cheddar.
Drink this week: Chilly weather calls for a cup of glogg, spiced warm wine with port and brandy.
Fun fact: Bidwell refers to John Bidwell, a US army general and farmer in the 1800s. He developed the Bidwell melon, and is said to have harvested California’s first commercial raisin crop.
Reservations: Available, but not required.
Bidwell. 1309 Fifth St., SE; 202-547-0172. Current dinner hours are Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday 5:30 to 10, and Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11.
When Southern Efficiency officially opens on Saturday, it’ll be the third bar on the 1800 block of Seventh Street, Northwest for Derek Brown. Like the sherry-themed Mockingbird Hill and oyster-cocktail den Eat the Rich, the new spot is small with a keen focus. In this case, Brown and his team have turned their eye towards the South.
“Sherry appeals to my intellect,” says Brown. “The cocktails and oysters at Eat the Rich appeal to my gullet. But whiskey speaks to my heart.”
Country tunes drawl from the sound system, old tractor seats top the stools, and curved wooden ceiling beams give the impression of drinking inside a bourbon barrel. Chef Julien Shapiro looked to circa-1950s Southern eateries for menu inspiration (see a sample below), and you’ll find more unusual dishes than the ubiquitous fried chicken or shrimp and grits. The sample drink list of 30-odd American whiskeys, bourbons, and Scotches also contains rarer finds, but bartender J.P. Fetherston has a taste for the often under-appreciated classics like Wild Turkey and Evan Williams. Strong drinkers can sample flights, while house-made sodas and cider are on offer as mixers. You might try switchel—Brown describes the gingery non-alcoholic brew as 19th century Gatorade—which Fetherston spikes with blackstrap. His house-smoked cola and white whiskey cocktail on-tap is also well worth a try for those skeptical of the un-aged stuff. Regardless of drink preference, northern charm is nowhere to be seen.
Southern Efficiency. 1841 Seventh St., NW. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 12:30; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 1:30; Sunday 5 to 11:30.
If you haven’t been to Navy Yard since baseball season ended, you might not recognize the dining landscape (or even know that there is one). Two of the year’s bigger openings, the Bluejacket brewery and Osteria Morini, debuted over the past month. Now comes Agua 301, a modern Mexican eatery by the Zest American Bistro owners that’s helmed by former Masa 14/El Centro chef, Antonio Burrell. The 106-seat space is set to serve its first dinner on Saturday.
The warm-hued interior seems fitting for the water views from its large front windows. Come spring, guests can relax on a 44-seat outdoor patio with pitchers of margaritas or sangria. For now you’ll have to stick to the chili-infused dishes for warmth. Of course there’s fresh-made guacamole to start—plus one de la dia, currently a version studded with pomegranate seeds—ceviches, and a variety of bocaditos, or small bites, like grilled oysters with chorizo, tuna tartare tostadas, and beef barbacoa flautas (described on the menu “like a Philly cheesesteak,” albeit a Mexican one with caramelized onions, roasted poblanos, and queso fundido).
Crispy fish tacos or kimchi-topped carne asada are also more snack-like (generally $7 for two).Thankfully, for the small plates-adverse, the offerings aren’t all “meant to share.” One of Burrell’s favorites, short rib mole chichilo, is particularly fitting for a late December debut. The meat is braised in chilies and coffee, sauced with a robust mole, and served over polenta-like nixtal made from the same cornmeal used in the tortillas. You’ll find similar portioning when lunch and brunch start in the coming weeks, with the likes of huevos rancheros, ginger butter-topped pumpkin pancakes, and a double-decker hamburguesa with chorizo and beef patties, beans, avocado, and a fried egg. The latter should come in handy after taking advantage of the daily happy hour.
301 Water St., SW; 202-484-0301. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday, 3:30 to 10 PM; Friday and Saturday 3:30 to 11 PM. Happy hour 3:30 to 7 PM daily. Lunch (starting December 28) Monday through Friday, 11 AM to 3 PM. Brunch (starting January 1) Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 AM to 3 PM.
In a wave of Italian newcomers, Roberto Donna is among the old guard. The veteran toque pioneered Italian fine dining in Washington with Galileo and has cooked all over the spectrum, from elaborate tasting menus in Galileo’s Laboratorio to wood-fired pizzas at his current post at Al Dente. You'll find a mix of both at the latter’s sister restaurant, Alba Osteria, opening December 30. Located in an area of Mt. Vernon Triangle more densely populated with apartment and office buildings than restaurants, the eatery was planned with neighborhood needs in mind; think anything from a quick pizza to a decadent dinner, and of course, an extensive happy hour. Here are five things to expect from owner Hakan Ilhan’s latest.
The name Alba refers to a town in Donna’s native Piedmont, and you'll find dishes prepared in the hearty style of the region; it’s well known for truffles, egg-rich pastas, and Barolo wine. Chef Amy Brandwein, most recently of the shuttered Casa Nonna, was chosen as chef de cuisine and reunited with Donna after acting as his executive chef at Galileo. The two concocted lunch and dinner menus full of robust dishes. You might start with a variety of meats and cheeses accompanied by hazelnut honey and fry bread, snack on small plates, or go in for decadent-sounding pastas like braised beef agnolotti with bone marrow and spinach gnocchi with sausage ragu. Meat and fish entrees make up the smallest portion of the menu to leave room for specials, such as swordfish with parsley and capers or roasted lamb.
Pizza or foie gras (or foie gras-topped pizza)
A trait of neighborhood restaurants is their versatility, and you can find multiple dining experiences under Alba’s roof. You could drop by during lunch for a quick salad or pork shoulder panini, or take home one of the many wood-fired pizzas for dinner. On the other side of the spectrum, linger over wine and a fontina pie topped with chestnuts and truffles, or really go overboard by adding seared foie gras. Yes, goose liver lovers can add the luxurious offal to any dish (within reason). A good candidate: beef tenderloin with porcinis and marsala.
A space divided
With 226 seats (including 63 on an outdoor patio come spring), the modern-industrial eatery isn’t your average corner nook. Helping the atmosphere feel more intimate are sectioned spaces throughout, like a pizza bar, an off-set dining room enclosed in a wine cage, and a 12-person communal table for upcoming chef dinners. Fun fact: the window-like partitions dividing the dining room are actually early 20th century windows taken from the American Crayon Factory in Sandusky, Ohio.
You can belly up to the square-shaped bar for 20 beers and four wines on tap, plus plenty more by the glass and bottle. The details are still being finalized on the happy hour items, but look for specials on drinks and eats alike. You may even snag free mortadella sausage.
A number of unusual dishes dot the menu, such as capunet (cabbage-wrapped braised duck) and batsoa (braised pig’s feet fried until crisp). Possibly the most fun: zuppa alla cavanesana. The bowl arrives with a round of fontina bread pudding, plus a French press filled with beef consommé and vegetables alongside. Press the soup, release some of the vegetable flavor, pour, and you’re ready to eat.
Alba Osteria. 425 Eye St., NW; 202-733-4454. Open Monday through Friday, 11 to 4; dinner Sunday through Thursday, 4 to midnight; Friday and Saturday 4 to 1.
Takoma Park is about to get a new neighborhood—and possibly destination—restaurant. Restaurateur Jeff Black, who’s behind BlackSalt and Pearl Dive, among others, has teamed up with longtime chef and Takoma Park native Danny Wells for a seventh venture. Here’s what to look for in the funky space.
A collaborative menu
You’ll find influences from both Black and Wells on the menu. As at every Black Restaurant Group spot, the kitchen houses a wood-burning grill, local bivalves star on the raw bar, and Addie’s mussels are a mainstay. Wells started as a line cook at the now-closed Rockville restaurant and worked his way up through the ranks at BlackSalt, eventually becoming executive chef at Pearl Dive. Signatures from each stop are present, including Pearl Dive’s wood-grilled oysters with garlic-red-chili butter. Wells says his own style is influenced by ten years with the company, meaning robustly flavored dishes such as whole black bass with pancetta and smoked greens, Portuguese-style fish stew with roasted shellfish and chilies, and citrus-brined brick chicken.
Vegetarian and vegan offerings
Fitting for the neighborhood—and a time when “meat as garnish” is a culinary trend—you’ll find plenty of ways to eat your vegetables. Options change seasonally. You may find roasted acorn squash with chestnuts and brown butter, a smoked-vegetable-studded johnnycake with poblano cream, or an ancient-grain salad tossed with pomegranate seeds and pistachios. Certain veggie items may look like they’re better suited for omnivores—say, braised kale and garbanzo beans with Surryano ham—but Wells says the dishes can be ordered sans meat and/or dairy to taste.
Takoma Park style and a Cash bathroom
One of Washington’s funkier neighborhoods calls for a restaurant with a similar aesthetic. Designer Molly Allen and the team traveled about the East Coast, hunting for vintage finds and salvaged wood. To that end you’ll find (slightly) unlevel floors of North Carolina reclaimed pine, banquets fashioned from reupholstered Victorian sofas, and a classic stereo filled with vintage toys, which Black happens to collect. Johnny Cash fans should head to the unisex bathroom—which isn’t as weird as it sounds—where the musician’s image is plastered on the walls and his music plays exclusively.
A Fascist Killer cocktail—and beer, of course
Noting that a bar stocks craft brews these days is like mentioning the soda on tap. Still, bar manager Brett Robison is more of an expert than most, having worked at a local brewery, written a beer blog (Divine Brew), and continued as an active home-brewer. Cocktail fans aren’t left dry, with a lineup of drinks named after the politically “free-spirited” nature of the neighborhood. Think along the lines of the Fascist Killer and former Takoma Park mayor Sammie Abbott.
Outdoor music and (fingers crossed), a double-decker food bus
While a December opening isn’t ideal for al fresco dining, Republic will debut with a back patio equipped with heat lamps that will eventually seat around 40 diners. Once dinner and the soon-to-come lunch and brunch services are running smoothly, you’ll find live music in the restaurant and outdoors. The patio looks out onto a spacious lot, and Black is currently plotting options for it. Among the considerations: a double-decker bus, a regular bus outfitted with a dining table, or a food truck that’ll hit the streets for lunch. Black is pretty tight-lipped about the concept (and no, it won’t be po’ boys), but says he’s currently partnering with two former college friends for a quick-service operation in his home state of Texas that could be adapted to street vending when it arrives in Washington. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for a wagon blasting Cash and serving Sammie Abbotts.
Look out, 14th Street: Washington’s next hot dining neighborhood is on the up. Just on the heels of Bluejacket/the Arsenal’s opening on the Capitol Riverfront, Michelin-starred restaurateur Michael White debuts Osteria Morini Tuesday night. The warm-toned Italian eatery is a near-identical sibling to White’s SoHo original, boasting a hearty menu inspired by the Emilia-Romagna region.
The restaurants’ namesake is Gianluigi Morini, chef/owner of the famed San Domenico restaurant near Bologna where White worked for seven years. The meat-centric menu falls in line with the robust style of the region’s capital city, but also includes a number of seafood dishes as a nod to the waterside location. Hearty bowls of agnolotti sauced with short-rib ragu or seafood stew are far from tapas—but executive chef Matt Adler, who cooked at the Manhattan flagship as well as the Altamarea Group’s Marea and Ai Fiori, suggests sharing multiple dishes instead of the individual appetizer-entrée-dessert approach. You could arguably make a meal from just starters such as wooden boards piled with Italian meats, cheeses, and fresh fry bread; an array of crostini; hearty salads—we like the sound of bitter greens, caramelized onion, and a poached egg; and antipasti like prosciutto-mortadella meatballs or braised baby octopus over polenta.
Still, sticking to appetizers means skipping pasta, and pasta is a White specialty—as former New York Times critic Sam Sifton observed, “Michael White cooks pasta, and people go crazy.” All the pastas are made in-house, including less-common varieties such as rag-like stracci, dainty pipette tubes, and short curls of gramigna. Most arrive with more meats and cheeses, and a sense of indulgence—think truffled ricotta ravioli with prosciutto or a béchamel-laced lasagna with beef, pork, and veal ragu. If you’re in the mood for true decadence, a two-pound New York strip priced at $82 should do the trick. The cut is aged for 40 days by the meat gurus at Pat LaFrieda, the same purveyors behind White’s cultish White Label burger. The Florentine-style behemoth is cooked on a wood-burning grill and served for two (at least) with sweet-sour cipollini onions.
The restaurant is currently only open for dinner, but weekday lunch and weekend brunch are set to start in about three weeks. Look for dishes such as the much-lauded Osteria porchetta, here in sandwich form on house-made bread with shaved fennel, Emmenthaler cheese, and rosemary-mustard aïoli. Also on the horizon: nearby sibling eatery Nicoletta Pizzeria, which will serve takeout pies that can be eaten with beer and wine at patio tables overlooking the river.
Osteria Morini. 301 Water St., SE; 202-484-0660. Current hours: Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10, and Friday and Saturday 5 to 11. The bar opens at 4 Monday through Saturday, and remains open an hour after dinner concludes.