A Tonic for the Neighborhood
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, May 21, 2004
Tonic is a new neighborhood bar in one of the city's most diverse and eclectic neighborhoods. Of course, it's hard to just open a "neighborhood" bar -- that's a title that must be earned over slow off-nights as well as packed weekends, as locals stop off on their way home or just come by to hang out and socialize. But Tonic is off to a promising start.
The beauty of Tonic is it doesn't try too hard to have a hip, unpretentious vibe -- it just does. Exposed brick walls and dark wood fittings in the low-ceilinged basement space give off a warm glow. Three television screens hang behind the bar, and groups are clustered around most of the tables. Upstairs, the nonsmoking restaurant is sunny and colorful, faux-finished and decorated with vintage posters.
"This is a really cool neighborhood place," says co-owner Jeremy Pollok, who most recently managed a trio of the city's swank hotel bars. "I loved Helix, Topaz and Rouge. I thought those were really great places, but they didn't personally fit me."
"You're not that cool," offers co-owner Eric "Bernie" Bernstrom. "That's what it is."
Bernstrom and Pollok are old friends; they met in 1996 while bartending at Republic Gardens and were reunited a few years ago at Topaz Hotel's stylish bar. Pollok went on to work at Bar Rouge and Helix Lounge, but he and Bernstrom were itching to open their own place. The chance fell into their laps last fall.
Bernstrom has lived in Mount Pleasant for more than 10 years, including a spell on the third floor of this building. So when the owners of the Bella Roma Italian restaurant were looking to sell, Bernstrom and Pollok jumped at the chance. They took over in November, and unveiled new signs, a new menu and a new look earlier this year.
Already, Tonic is the best kind of local tavern, where, when someone walks in, most people turn and look -- not because they're checking him or her out, but because the new arrival might be a friend or neighbor. (Okay, maybe they're checking the person out.) It's the kind of place where, if you're sitting by yourself, the bartenders make conversation, or draw you into conversation with other folks at the bar.
During an Orioles rain delay last week, a bartender handed the satellite remote to customers and asked them to find something else to watch while she whipped up some cocktails. Then she laughed (and didn't complain) when a group of guys stopped on the Ultimate Fighting Championships and spent the next half-hour watching no-holds-barred brawling on the plasma screen. Regulars know that certain shows will always be on -- "The Sopranos," for instance -- although there's no theme party with special drinks. Tonic is just an extension of Mount Pleasant's communal living room.
"Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I don't recognize half the people that come in here," Bernstrom says. "Weekends are great, but Sunday through Thursday, we get a group of people who are . . . definitely your true regulars."
"There's a guy who comes in here, he's gotta be 70 years old," Pollok says. "He comes in every day, has a couple of beers and leaves. Then there's a 21-year-old who does the same thing. It's your typical neighborhood place, and it's neat, because you get to see those people communicate, when in everyday life, they don't, for the most part."
With a happy hour like Tonic's, how could they not wander in? From 5 to 7 Monday through Friday, all draft beers, burgers and rail drinks are half-price. Guinness is $2.75. Burgers (veggie or regular) are about $5. The deals are "a way to appreciate the regulars," Pollok says. "They're our bread and butter. Why not have something for them?"
Every time I stop by for a drink, I find myself staying to eat. Choices include well-made pizzas (named after nearby streets), cheesesteaks, bratwurst and pulled-pork sandwiches, as well as the full restaurant menu from upstairs -- rockfish filets, crispy half-chicken and a huge couscous platter. "We're not trying to be fine dining," Bernstrom explains. "We have tater tots with all the sandwiches. It's American comfort food, made from scratch." Families have been flocking in for the children's menu, especially on Wednesdays, when kids eat free with the purchase of an adult entree.
The intimate feeling doesn't just come from the neighborhood clientele -- Tonic really isn't that big. Walk past the bar, and you'll find a few more tables. That's it. Pollok wants to turn a rear storage room into a game room of sorts, with darts, maybe a Golden Tee machine, and a few more seats. "There's nowhere around here to go and play darts," he says, although there's no timetable for the addition.
Not surprisingly, Tonic's jukebox is also worthy of praise. Yes, there are places that have digital systems with thousands of albums available, but smaller, older jukeboxes are really a window into a bar's soul. The selection here is pretty diverse, veering from Hank Williams to the Beatles to Marvin Gaye to Massive Attack to the Pietasters. "[When we got the jukebox,] there were a couple things that weren't in there that you needed to have: it didn't have Bowie, it didn't have Zeppelin," Pollok says. Still, Bernstrom concedes that "the Raven might have us beat" with its selection of classic drinking music. Says Pollok: "Yeah, when I think of jukeboxes, I think of the Raven. We did a little scouting there." (Hence the Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Motown CDs at Tonic.)
Mount Pleasant needed a bar like Tonic, but I have to wonder about the effect on the older, more established hangouts like the Raven, Marx Cafe or Dos Gringos. "I don't think we're pulling off the Raven or Marx at all," Pollok says. "I think another restaurant in the neighborhood would help us more than it would hurt us, you know, make Mount Pleasant more of a destination."
Bernstrom thinks there's room for everyone on Mount Pleasant Street. "If you want to go drinking and drink hard for cheap, you go to the Raven. If you want to hear a DJ, go to Marx [Cafe]. If you want to hear Latino music and sit down for some good food, go to Haydee's. If you want a beer and sports fix and American comfort food, come here."