Columbia Firehouse (Full Review)

In Old Town, Columbia Firehouse fits right in

Michael Babin, co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, has a knack for creating restaurants that fit perfectly into their surroundings. They range from the popular Birch & Barley/ChurchKey on DC’s 14th Street to the quietly ambitious Vermilion in Old Town. In the same Alexandria neighborhood is Columbia Firehouse, which opened a year ago but had a rocky start. Its original idea—half steakhouse, half bistro—didn’t jell, and the opening chef left after a month.

But the restaurant drew customers into its rustic dining room, a soaring space with exposed brick that hints at the building’s 19th-century roots as a firehouse. The bar area, popular with a younger crowd, feels more like a dark and clubby saloon.

Dishes in the dining room are a cross between pub fare (burgers, chili) and trend-conscious American bistro food (meatloaf, three kinds of steamed mussels). Some creations—such as hand-cut French fries with pimiento-cheese, goat-cheese, and smoked-mayo dipping sauces and the crunchy fried chicken with buttery cornbread—marry the two concepts well. Others, such as a Reuben sandwich reinvented as egg rolls, miss the mark.

Many dishes are typical of casual neighborhood restaurants: good-enough food that sometimes surprises. In this category are baked oysters, decadent with bacon and cheese, and a hanger steak with béarnaise sauce. Desserts are at the top of this class. A take on a chocolate Hostess cake puts most cupcakes in town to shame, and a fudgy square of brownie is nearly as good.

Columbia Firehouse has a pleasing quality that works well with Old Town’s crowd of families, tourists, bargoers, and foodies. In other words, it fits right into the neighborhood.

-August 2010