Yeah, there we were, hanging outside the basement steps leading down to The Dabney Cellar, a few minutes before opening time. Looking up at the sky, checking the time on our phones. (As if we were waiting for a secret code…or something.) We’d just walked over from Maydan, after a fruitless line standing experience (we’ll try again), ready to take our chances at The Dabney. The small subterranean The Dabney Cellar is the English basement outpost below The Dabney and faces 9thstreet with its own entrance. J had put in our names upstairs at The Dabneyfor a table and we took the recommendation to spend an hour and a half in the Cellar around the corner from The Dabney’s Blagden Alley entrance. (For customers, there’s no way into The Dabney directly from the Cellar.)
The Dabney was surprisingly unpretentious for being one of Washington DC’s best restaurants; the tables a happy distance apart and the kitchen low and open at the back, the food (smallish plates) consistently vibrant and green. The Dabney was excellent, but the Cellar was a find. Comfortably dark, warmly lit and nicely cozy. Fitted with an L-shaped bar and high tops, tables on an upper deck. J and I sat at the bar, checking out the wine list for interesting tastes, talking to the welcoming bartenders about the wines, snacking on melon salad and crostini, a cover of Steve Winwood’s Valerie in the background. Comfortable, friendly, and low key.
Arlington’s own urban beach bar is just a couple of blocks from the Clarendon Metrorail station. Yes, I said Urban Beach Bar. The outdoor bar (and patio triangle) at Northside Social occupies a former trolley depot, smack in the middle of a tough intersection of now traffic-heavy boulevards. I had been frequenting Northside for their morning lattésand great baked goods (blueberry muffins come to mind) and dense, flavorful bread (especially on a spinach, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich).
But when I’m sitting mid-day at the outdoor bar with my BLT and sparkling water, a light breeze – always – whether sunny or cloudy, watching the bartenders pour glass after glass (after glass) of pastel pink rosé from bottles in galvanized tubs and wheat-yellow beers from the outdoor tap, Steven Tyler rasping overhead, “Don’t want to close my eyes, I don’t want to fall asleep, ‘cause I’d miss you babe and I don’t want to miss a thing,” I feel like I’m happily hanging out at a beachside bar, the ocean just a few steps away.
When I’m looking for hope, it’s really no further than my local farmers market. My ritual Saturday morning excursion to a vibrant Arlington Farmers Marketreplenishes my creativity and optimism. My mind starts churning delicious possibilities not only for ripe heirloom tomatoes and dark green poblano peppers but added enthusiasm for the start of the weekend and what it holds.
The walk up starts with a detour to Java Shackfor the requisite morning latte, and ends with a #3 veggie, egg, and cheese burrito from El Piquin’stent at the Market. Made right in front of you, it’s not only hot, but tastes exceptionally of fresh spinach, mushrooms, and peppers, flavors only enhanced by the spicy red and mild green salsas (on the side). If you’re tempted by grilled cheese in the morning (and, I am), a greens and tomato “breakfast sammy” when on the grill at Cowbell Kitchen(tent next door) is a favorite especially if there’s homemade catsup.
The Market explodes color in all directions. And I’m made fully aware of seasons, what’s grown from Pennsylvania to Virginia, and when it ripens. Red strawberries arrive in June, for a short month, before the really good blueberries show up in July. I grab white ‘n green or purple ‘n green spring onions every week in, well, Spring before they get too small or too large for grilling in Summer. Don’t expect shiny green shishito peppers until August, but all types of red, yellow, purple, orange, and striped tomatoes start crowding the tables in late July. Along with pale yellow sweet corn and tomatillos for salsa. And even when Summer fades, I know Fall blows in with brussels sprouts and their purple-tinged leafy cousin, the kalette.
There’s always a veggie to look forward to transforming into a great meal. The Market’s always alive with fellow Arlingtonians and a few of their dogs (yep). And hope and optimism are renewed.
We’d had five straight days of unrelenting drenching rain. I’d just spent a late, sad Thursday night at the Capital One Arena witnessing the Washington Capitals hockey team lose Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals (but which they went on to win in Game 7 to play for the Stanley Cup!). It was Friday evening and I was looking for happy. Could that be found at a restaurant in a non-descript suburban office building in Arlington, Virginia? Why, yes it can. SER was that place. And mostly because of the owner’s graciousness and attention and our server’s congeniality, a comfort I appreciated even more on that sorry wind-whipped soggy night.
A Spanish restaurant (not a tapas bar as SER’s amiable owner Javier Candon impressed upon us), SER transformed a ground floor of open concrete space into Spain’s warmth with splashes of blues and yellows – in the covered bar stools and banquettes and centerpieces of small cans of olive oil – and lively tables of local diners, like ours, enjoying the catch of the day, a rich ventresca del atun (tuna belly) that dissolves in your mouth. Not as if we needed more than the ventresca, but we couldn’t pass up velvety Revuelto (mushrooms, egg, and shaved duck foie), and the appropriately garlicky shrimp that is Gambas al ajillo (with soft, crusty bread to ensure the cayenne tinged olive oil didn’t go to waste).
Then there was the Priorat (more about that under Get this wine.) SER felt like a neighborhood restaurant with an owner dedicated to creating as much as possible in Arlington a true taste and feel of Spain. “Ser” translates as “be” in Spanish, and “to be” in Catalan and Portuguese. “Being” in the moment, enjoying a meal with J and a friend and surrounded by people doing the same, no matter the long week or the off-putting weather – that’s what I happily got at SER.
You’ll thank the monks who first tilled the soil in Catalonia, creating Priorat (only one of two wine regions classified as a Denominaciao d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) in Spain for consistent quality). I’ll raise a toast to Javier Candon of SER in Arlington, Virginia, for introducing me to the 2011 Cal Batlett D’Iatra Gratallops Priorat. Three Christmases ago J and I had capped a full day of family visits with a quiet dinner at the bar at SER. Even if I can’t remember the name of the wine, I remember how much I enjoyed that glass of Priorat with J on that Christmas night in the colorful surroundings of SER. Just as Javier described it, the D’Iatra Priorat on a subsequent rainy night was bold in flavor but nicely rounded at the finish at seven years old. Go get this wine and enjoy it this year.
Enjoying the restaurant scene in DC can sometimes be challenging. It’s the combination of very small, no reservation restaurants with restaurants that take reservations, but two weeks or a month in advance, at a precise hour, requiring you to stand, with fingers raised, at your keyboard or phone at the appointed time to claim a spot. Sometimes I’m not ready to make a reservation one month in advance, and certainly not every time I want a good meal out. And if you want to treat guests in town to interesting food at a smaller neighborhood spot, it’s hard to consider it a “treat” if you must start standing in line at 4:00 pm. And even then not be guaranteed a seat at the table that night.
One Saturday night, it was only me and J, and we thought that showing up at The Dabneyat 6:00 pm without a reservation would still give us a shot at a seat at the long bar. We were wrong. We could have put our names on the wait-list for seats about an hour and 45 minutes later, but decided to venture out into the neighborhood instead. After a glass of wine at Maxwell Park, we walked a few blocks down and over to the other side of the DC Convention Center, with fingers crossed, that we’d land a seat at the bar at Kinship. The restaurant’s facade is painted black with “Kinship” softly etched in a window to the left of the door. The name wasn’t visible at the time (it was dark) making the recessed entrance seem purposefully secret.
Kinship is the “less fancy” restaurant above Metier, the “more fancy” restaurant of Chef Eric Ziebold and Celia Laurent. (J and I ate at Metier for J’s birthday last year and it remains one of the best dining experiences I’ve had. But back to Kinship.)
The bar area is a long open space separated by a wall from the dining room. A few tables and small booths line one side The smooth white bar opposite had four vacant seats when J and I showed up. We took two and the couple walking in right behind us, the other two. We happily sat down and exhaled. At Kinship we didn’t feel rushed, we weren’t jostled by the comings and goings of people behind us, and we didn’t have to raise our voices to be heard. We indulged that night in meaty corned beef short ribs with delicate cabbage confit agnolotti – a stand-out “corned beef and cabbage” in a light broth. Along with velvety cauliflower soup and some reds by the glass, a cold evening in DC with no reservations turned into a warmly relaxed dinner at Kinship’s welcoming bar.
Capping off 2017, I tried two newer wine bars in DC – both in the Shaw neighborhood. One cheeky, one engaging, both welcoming in small, street front corner spaces, perfect for stopping in and trying a few new wines.
December was Merry Meritage month at Maxwell Park. The small corner wine bar was shoulder-to-shoulder people early on a Saturday evening for a drink before (or with) dinner. J and I weren’t sure we’d make it to a seat, but the amiable hostess assured us that a couple at the bar was just paying their check and the large party milling around them was about to leave. Both happened, just as she said, and there we were with two seats and two wine menus, exploring the meritage offerings. Bill Murray exclaiming “Murray Meritage” was emblazoned on some of the bartenders’ t-shirts, echoing the web site’s tongue-in-cheek, where “Wine” incites, “Trust me, You Can Dance.” The bar is clean lines and serious wines, but the wittiness assures a wine experience that is lighthearted and fun. Maxwell offers select bar snacks, with a few “mains” if you want to stay for a full meal. J and I enjoyed the thick slice of truffle-honeyed butternut squash with pine nuts and feta while we tried a couple of glasses of the meritage selections.
I made it to La Jambe on New Year’s Eve after reading their web site declaration to come by and ring in the New Year on Paris time! I was lured in by the opportunity for an early toast at a neighborhood wine bar I’ve wanted to try with no over-priced NYE set menu. La Jambe welcomed us, and later two friends, into a stylized modern bistro. The massive mural covering half the rear cement wall set a cool edgy tone softened by marble top bistro tables. A chalk board hanging on a cement pillar in the middle of the u-shaped bar announced specials. Strings of Christmas lights and a lighted tree in the street-facing corner windows gave off soft and twinkling light throughout. J and I chose from the menu a cremant rose from the Alsace (Cremant Rose Jean Claude Riefle) – dry, light, with a hint of pink – beautiful in color and taste. We shared as part of this aperitif a charcuterie and cheese plate, “Le Surprise” (with a very flavorful goat cheese), a basket of crusty bread, pickled vegetables and black olives.
La Jambe and Maxwell Park are two of a number of new wine bars (and bakeries and coffee shops) popping up in newly constructed or renovated buildings around Washington, DC, but offering happily unique atmospheres not dependent on older buildings layered in years of character.