Greg Engert leans across the table, using both hands to explain why Pilsners and lagers are meant to be served colder than barleys and stouts. His eyes widen as he talks about how he analyzes a beer’s crispness and aromatic content to determine the “purest representation of the brewer’s intention.” He interrupts his draft discourse to shout numbers up to several movers hauling kegs into what look like three oversize bank safes. “No one in the country has ever done this before,” he says.
Introducing Birch & Barley, a seasonally driven American dining room, and above it ChurchKey, a grazing-friendly upstairs bar/lounge. After a year-and-a-half delay, both beer-centric spots opened yesterday in the old Dakota Cowgirl/Ramrod space near DC’s Logan Circle. Though visitors first step into Birch & Barley’s slick dining room downstairs, the building’s focal point is found up the steps, where beer director Engert, who oversees the suds at the beer-obsessed Rustico in Alexandria, has stocked 555 beers from 30 countries. The bar offers 50 artisanal drafts and five hand-pumped, cask-conditioned beers. Beer geeks will admire the three temperature-controlled vaults—which rang in at $100,000—nestled overhead. Inside them, kegs cool at their optimal temperatures according to each brewer’s specifications. A roster of old-school cocktails—Aperol spritzes, Moscow mules—is available for those not in the mood for a pint.
This split-level venture is the first foray into DC by the Virginia-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns seven Northern Virginia restaurants, including Tallula/EatBar, Vermilion, and Rustico. The owners have charged executive chef Kyle Bailey and pastry chef (and wife) Tiffany MacIsaac—both formerly of New York’s Allen & Delancey—with creating the menus for the two concepts.
Upstairs at ChurchKey, gold-and-orange embroidered booths sit opposite worn leather barstools. Oversize cast-iron church lights hover from the soaring ceiling, and a 70-foot bar lined with printed church keys runs the length of the space. The vibe is relaxed but regal. The bar snacks have a similar theme: Veal tongue finds its way into the pastrami Reuben, tater tots are stuffed with foie gras, and the grilled cheese sandwich is topped with truffles. The menu is divided into “pressed” (sandwiches), “fresh” (cheeses and charcuterie), “roasted” (spiced nuts and burgers), and “fried” (sweetbread poppers, hush puppies) categories.
Downstairs at Birch & Barley, dangling lights drip down like teardrops, stiff tablecloths hold flickering candles, and a series of metal pipes from the 50 kegs upstairs resemble a grand beer organ in a cathedral of drink. Bailey says his menu is styled after the “urban American melting pot.” To that end, there’s char tartare with yuzu, ginger, and sesame chips; a loin of venison with wild rice, popped cranberries, and squash; and risotto with beets and whipped goat cheese. The dessert menu features upscale comfort food such as a peanut-butter/chocolate tart with a whisky/vanilla shake, and MacIsaac’s riffs on oatmeal-cream pie and the Hostess cupcake.
Despite being handed free rein in the kitchen, Bailey admits that his menus are designed to attract the thirsty city dwellers who’ll ultimately decide the fate of the two new spots.
“Most of the menu items for both places came together by tasting the beers and thinking of dishes that would suit them,” he says. “But when you have 555 beers, there’s not much you can create that isn’t beer-friendly.”
Birch & Barley is open Monday through Friday for lunch, Sunday through Thursday for dinner, and Saturday and Sunday for brunch (starting in November). ChurchKey is open Monday through Thursday 4 PM to 1 AM, Friday 4 PM to 2 AM, Saturday noon to 2 AM, and Sunday noon to 1 AM.