Ri-Ra has the feeling of a grand Victorian pub mixed with a more formal restaurant, thanks to the dark, wood-paneled walls, decorated with framed black-and-white photographs and advertisements, long banquettes and a sizeable, century-old bar in the rear. Near the ceiling are paintings that seem inspired by the pre-Raphaelite works of John William Waterhouse; a huge copy of his "Lady of Shalott" is the centerpiece.
High tables and bar stools are vastly outnumbered by the sheer number of seats for dining, though so far, anyone who wants a table has been free to grab one, whether they're just meeting for pints of Smithwick's or ordering a full meal. Congestion has been a serious problem, though, especially when bands perform on a makeshift stage in one corner Thursday through Saturday.
If you can, slip up the back stairs to a narrow mezzanine that offers nine tables, a stubby little bar with room for a few stools and great views of the action below. (Just note that before 11 this is the smoking section; the main restaurant area is smoke free.)
The bartenders are friendly folks -- if they're not slammed, they're willing to chat and perform party tricks such as writing your name in the foam on your Guinness.
Being part of a seven-pub chain has its advantages; some of the staff trained at the Bethesda branch for a few weeks before opening, while others are hired guns who move from Ri-Ra to Ri-Ra to break in new locations.
Although Ri-Ra is still finding its feet, it's a nice place to drop in with a group for drinks and Irish music, though you'll want to go early -- it's spacious, but it won't be long before Ri-Ra is one of Clarendon's most popular nightspots.
-- Fritz Hahn (March 2006)