Cocktails and Cuisine: DC's Finest Pairings

by garrett peck
photography by andrew kahl
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January 5, 2012 | Home Page

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City wall: A District mural at P.J. Clarke’s
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Sidecar also sports a mean menu that includes this crab and corn chowder
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Sidecar’s namesake

It is lunchtime in Washington, and the usual hustle is in full swing at P.J. Clarke’s. Tables are loaded with plates of food; servers and bussers make haste with carefully stacked dishes; glasses clink, the occasional spill is wiped away; the decibel level of chatter rises. It’s the happy chaos of diners on a mid-day break.

Clandestine Cool at P.J. Clarke’s
But we suggest you skip it. Head downstairs instead. Trip the hidden sliding door, step inside, and find yourself at Sidecar (1600 K St. NW, 202-463-6630), P.J. Clarke’s private dining room and bar, and an oasis of white tablecloths, familiar barkeeps, nostalgic décor, flattering light, and hushed conversation. This isn’t a dine-and-dash kind of place; it’s a spot for regulars, power brokers, a clublike atmosphere with a distinct members-only vibe. Chilled cocktails are the norm, and a familiar accompaniment to a filling lunch or dinner. Sidecar is one of several DC dining establishments taking cues from the past, nodding to clandestine cool and speakeasy chic. Fitting, as Prohibition-era Washington was something to behold and anything but a model dry city: Up to 3,000 illegal speakeasies were in operation during the Thirteen Awful Years, as H.L. Mencken called them—up to 10 times the number of legal saloons that operated before. Even Congress employed its own bootleggers. Washingtonians prided themselves on being wet, and not much has changed since.

The influence of that era has slowly made its way back to the fringes of the mainstream. The bonus of gourmet grub sets Sidecar apart, a place that, despite its speakeasy roots, is all about the three-hour meal—with a side of high-quality cocktails, of course. This is, after all, not the type of place where anyone passes judgment on day-tonight sipping. “It’s like a men’s club, but for both men and women,” says Jewels Kennedy, Sidecar’s manager. Here regulars are treated with respectful familiarity, and many can be found occupying the leather banquettes on a daily basis. Some even have their names stenciled on plaques.

Once you have found Sidecar, which opened last year as an offshoot of the original New York location, which opened its doors in 1884, it’s hard to stray from the timeless charm. The menu offers an array of comfort-food favorites: fresh crab and corn chowder, juicy cuts of meat, salmon served on a bed of seasonal vegetables. The dining room’s namesake cocktail, which was invented during Prohibition, is an appropriately lovely creation of Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice, with a sugar rim. Sidecar also is open to members only from 3 to 5 pm— like a late-afternoon Starbucks run, only with mixed drinks. Bartender Erich Berg is always ready with a quip. “I’m gonna give you a glass of water, hon. I like you,” he says to a thirsty customer.

Wondering what to order for a drink? Sidecar (what else?). The bar has no cocktail menu but specializes in the classics, like a strapping Manhattan or Erich Berg’s Old Fashioned, which can restore the sun on the gloomiest winter day. “Don’t threaten me with a good time!” he jokes. Cocktails are $10 to $13.

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A cozy spot for a winter evening retreat
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The Tabard Inn’s scallops with agnolotti

The Inn Crowd
A few blocks away from Sidecar lies another of Washington’s best-kept secrets. Yet, instead of sophistication and tradition, the Tabard Inn (1739 N St. NW, 202-785-1277) is known for bohemian charm and a lackadaisical splendor. Still a proponent of privacy and hipster cool, the inn is a refuge, and its restaurant and bar are no exception: With a roaring fire in the winter, it is a cozy and romantic spot to gather. The hotel opened in 1922, and the business has had only two owners since then, a testament to the worn-in, familiar feel. Best of all, “bar chef” and head mixologist Chantal Tseng mans the cocktail creations, offering a special menu with a playful mix of classics and inventiveness. “I feature drinks that are historic or my own,” she says. Her approach is proudly quirky, blending cocktails with sherry or tea. “It’s more about the forgotten stuff, off the beaten path.” The result is strictly speakeasy enchantment, and patrons linger with little else on their minds but for a multicourse meal and a soul-warming adult beverage. In the restaurant, chef Paul Pelt brings the same individuality to his eclectic and satisfying cuisine as Tseng does to her cocktails. On a recent menu, the chef featured a house-made charcuterie plate, a savory bacon and onion tart, seared sea scallops, and a way-above-average grilled Angus burger. Stop in on a weekend for the popular brunch, but make reservations—and yes, order the doughnuts, courtesy of pastry chef Huw Griffiths.

For a preprandial sip, try whatever Tseng offers on her weekly special menu. She also makes a proper Sazerac to go with the gumbo, as well as the Tabard Cocktail (tequila, sherry, Drambuie, orange bitters and fresh thyme). Cocktails are $10 to $11.

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Would you like a seat with your Scotch?
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To pair with your whiskey: braised pork belly with salted radish and an herb purée

Jack Rose in Full Bloom
In the raucous neighborhood of Adams Morgan, a hush-hush joint has opened in recent months. Refreshingly, it’s the kind of spot where you won’t find youngsters on the prowl for tequila shots and Jaegerbombs. That’s because the Jack Rose Dining Saloon (2007 18th St. NW, 202- 588-7388) isn’t for them—it’s for adults. Walk in and get ready to be stunned: More than 1,000 whiskey bottles line the shelves, like a library of refined booze. So many, in fact, the bartenders use a ladder to reach them. “It’s almost like going to Scotch church,” says beverage director Rachel Sergi. “It’s a temple to spirits.” That’s not to say the food isn’t equally worthy of praise. Critically acclaimed chef Michael Hartzer, who is cultivating a unique brasserie-style menu, mans the kitchen. Look for his interpretation of the “Wedge” salad, here with radicchio, grapefruit, and walnuts, or sample creations such as buttermilk- fried frogs’ legs, house-cured salmon, braised local pork belly, and small plates of sharable chilled pickled shrimp and baby cheddar biscuits with prosciutto.

But the lure of old-school spirits is what spurred co-owner Bill Thomas, a veteran of several DC watering holes, including Bourbon, to open the rather intimate Jack Rose. In addition to a roof deck, which was designed to accompany the main floor shenanigans, Thomas and his team will any minute unveil the aptly named Prohibition Bar on the lower level, the perfect place to hide out and really get to tackling those thousand-plus bottles of distilled perfection.

It’s a sin not to order whiskey, especially when half-ounce pours cost as little as $4. Sergi’s favorite? Old Grand Dad 100 Bourbon and Ardbeg Corryvreckan Scotch. Cocktails include classics like the namesake Jack Rose and Bees Knees, and new creations like the Knuckleball and Oh Henry Highball. All cocktails are $13.

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