Nine Holes and a Margarita on H Street
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009
The buzz: When anyone asks for the perfect spot to take a new date, go out with the guys or bring out-of-town friends, my repeated answer lately has been the H Street Country Club.
I mean, who wouldn't love a bar with a nine-hole indoor mini golf course, Skee-Ball machines, table shuffleboard, margaritas and a decor that could double as an art gallery? Particularly a course where servers deliver beers and take drink orders.
"Paying $7 [to play mini golf] beats a ridiculous cover to get into some other cookie-cutter place," said Chris Outlaw, a 28-year-old network engineer who praised the "unique decor."
The course: Developed by local bar magnate Joe Englert and crafted by artist Lee Wheeler, H Street Country Club is a synthetic turf-covered love letter to Washington. You putt your ball into the narrow alley between the Lincoln Theatre and Ben's Chili Bowl, knock it around arcing curves and loop-de-loops of a crash-filled Beltway, and try to avoid zombie presidents rising from their graves.
"You can tell they put a lot of thought into it," said David Miller, a 41-year-old mental health advocate. "I don't really play mini golf, but it's pretty innovative. For D.C. to have a space this big dedicated to golfing is kind of cool."
Other holes feature King Kong climbing the Washington Monument and giant Lego-inspired office workers swinging briefcases to block the cup. Most likely to bring smiles to the faces of longtime D.C. residents? Marion Barry makes an appearance in a hole modeled after the statue "The Awakening."
Sometimes it seems as if people are ignoring their game to marvel at the decor, especially the zombie Lincoln and Roosevelts, or a giant painting of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Look closer, and you'll see it's given texture by hundreds of green plastic army men glued to the wall.
The course is a lot of fun, but don't be fooled by its small size: This is a very tricky par-22, especially the hole that requires you to putt up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial.
"It's deceptive," said Michael Solem, 38, who works for the Association of American Geographers and was playing a round with his friends. "It looks so simple, but it's not. . . . It's very evocative of D.C., especially the parking attendant [on hole No. 7]."
The scene: The course isn't the only attraction at the Country Club, a large building that has almost 7,000 square feet over two levels. On the first floor, groups of 20-somethings to 40-somethings crowd around the long bar or nestle into comfy booths, cheer for friends playing Skee-Ball or challenge one another to games of pool. Perhaps the coolest place to have a drink is the cozy upstairs bar, which features hundreds of used golf balls behind glass panels, sculptures made of old birdhouses and a forest of golf trophies.
In your glass: Margaritas, Mexican beers and sangria are the beverages of choice. The margaritas are basic, but well made, and the house sangria is very drinkable. I did raise an eyebrow when I was charged $6 for a bottle of Dos Equis. (I'd rather just pay the extra buck for a margarita.)
On your plate: There's a Mexican menu developed by well-known chef Ann Cashion that includes pork rib carnitas and lamb enchiladas. Be aware that the full entrees, which are $15 to $22, are served only in the upstairs dining room; a smaller selection of appetizers (nachos, tamales, a tasty lobster tostada) is offered at the bar.
Need to know: If you want to play golf, you should arrive early. Last Wednesday, the course was relatively clear at 8:30 p.m. but had a line of patrons waiting to get onto the first tee an hour later. On weekend nights, waits of 30 to 45 minutes are common. Leave your name at the desk and head downstairs for drinks or games until it's your tee time.
Also, the golf course itself is generally restricted to players 21 and older "because there's alcohol served on the course," explained manager Ricardo Vergara. On Tuesday evenings and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., though, children are allowed as long as they're accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Nice to know: Englert's grand plans include another nine holes on the building's rooftop deck. "We'll invite people to submit ideas and designs for holes, and then we'll name the hole after them," he explained. Sounds great, but considering it took almost two years to get the Country Club up and running, Englert jokes that the planned opening date for the expansion is "2019."
Price points: A round of golf costs $7 per person. (One member of each group has to leave a credit card at the front desk in case of you "damage the course.") Playing shuffleboard or pool is $15 an hour. Drinks are mid-level: Margaritas are $7 to $12, depending on how fancy you want the ingredients, and the cocktails, including a lovely Pimm's Cup, run $7 to $10. Beers cost between $4.50 and $6.
What people are saying: "How can you beat a place where you can have sangria and play Skee-Ball at the same time?" asked Amanda Seese, a 25-year-old auditor. "That's pretty clutch."
Tom Sietsema wrote about the H Street Country Club for a First Bite column in June 2009.
Joe Englert helped put the Atlas District on the food-and-fun map with the likes of the Belgian-flavored Granville Moore's and the Red and the Black, a New Orleans-inspired tavern featuring live music. Late last month, the Washington entrepreneur introduced yet another whimsical concept to the neighborhood: H Street Country Club, its two-story facade carpeted in . . . AstroTurf?
"I love mini-golf!" explains Englert, who finally made good on a promise to his two young sons that he would create a place for them to play the game. Originally, Englert says, he looked for a vacant lot in the District, but "outdoor zoning is so freaky" in the city. So he settled on installing a course on the second floor of his 6,800-square-foot combination dining room and bar.
You read that right. Patrons 21 and older can hit little balls around indoors (for $7 a head). Englert being Englert, the holes challenge with an assortment of comical obstacles, including a miniature of "The Awakening" sculpture found in National Harbor and an outsize of a D.C. parking meter attendant with too much flesh on display. The putt-putt theme spills over to the adjoining bar, where hundreds of golf balls are showcased behind glass and stuffed squirrels cavort in trees and lawns painted on the walls. (Come to think of it, this guy uses squirrels the way Hitchcock employed birds; "This is an urban golf course," jokes the Country Club's owner.)
With this fifth addition to his empire, "we've moved from a club to a tavern to a restaurant mentality," says Englert, whose other holdings are the Argonaut restaurant and the Rock and Roll Hotel, a bar and performance space. For his latest creation, he hired chef Pablo Cardoso, a veteran of Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan and Jackie's in Silver Spring, to serve a Mexican-themed menu upstairs.
We dropped by the very first day, which might explain the food slips, including dry pork rib carnitas and tender but also salty calamari jazzed up with jalapeo peppers. Shrimp tacos were better for their seafood than for their stiff wrappers. To our (partial) rescue: St. Norita, a margarita enlightened with elderflower liqueur. The drink is one of more than a dozen cocktails featured at H Street Country Club, where the dark and moody ground floor features a 40-foot-long bar, skeeball machines and pool and shuffleboard tables.
"For better or worse," says Englert, in addition to serving food and drink in the Metro-less Atlas District, "you have to entertain people." Scanning the SRO crowd in the 300-seat Country Club on opening night, we'd say he's become the host with the most.
(June 10, 2009)