The Talk of Glover Park
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, October 7, 2005
Even in the anything-goes world of nightlife, this sounds unlikely: Five guys who've worked at such riotous bars as Tom Tom, McFadden's and Adams Mill Bar and Grill -- favorites of students, interns and kickball squads looking for a post-game pitcher -- join forces to open their own place in Glover Park. Within a month, Town Hall is on its way to becoming the new Smith Point.
Smith Point, for those out of the loop, is a Georgetown restaurant-cum-nightspot that became very famous outside of Washington when Newsweek, the New York Times and USA Today revealed that it was a favorite spot for Jenna and Barbara Bush and numerous preppy young Republicans who needed a place to let their hair down. That you could only get past the velvet rope and into the basement-level party if your name was on the list gave Smith Point a bonus level of cachet in certain circles, even if the experience -- drinking out of plastic cups and talking to guys in khakis who went to Auburn or Washington and Lee -- was more akin to a fraternity party than hanging out in a VIP room. That low-key atmosphere was part of the appeal.
Times change, though, and Smith Point's luster has dimmed. It looks like the void will be filled by a restaurant and tavern about a mile up Wisconsin Avenue, on a strip where entertainment options include two gentlemen's clubs (Good Guys and JP's), one very cool neighborhood bar (Bourbon) and a grungy rock 'n' roll club that has been hosting bands for decades (the Grog and Tankard).
It's an unlikely scenario, especially because Town Hall is not a nightclub -- at least the way most people think of one. It's a pleasant enough modern American restaurant during the day: Huge plate-glass windows let in a lot of natural light. Soft yellow walls are decorated with arty photos of alternative Washington landmarks such as Ben's Chili Bowl, the Albert Einstein statue and a hand bearing a blurred, inky stamp from the 9:30 club. A heavy dark-wood bar takes up one side of the room, with a long leather banquette along the other. Wide, high-backed booths are an inviting place to sink in, grab a drink and gossip with friends.
Those high, round bar tables and chairlike leather barstools are in place and in use after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, though just about every other free square foot of space is filled with young professionals (late twenties, early thirties, more J. Crew than Urban Outfitters) who are talking (or, given the noise, shouting) to friends, glancing at "SportsCenter" and doing what seem to be endless lemon drop shots at the bar.
Up a short flight of stairs, there's another dining room with another bar, more chairs and more tables. That's where we found Jenna Bush last weekend, hanging out with a group of friends.
What surprised me most about Town Hall is that it doesn't have a dance floor or a DJ. Instead, it's a pre-programmed mix of MP3s that runs the gamut from indie guitar rock (Hot Hot Heat and Bloc Party) to Kanye West and Jay-Z's booming beats. No matter what's playing, the large crowd is clearly here to socialize.
"We don't need a dance floor," explains Paul Holder, a partner who spent three years at Tom Tom. Besides, he says, a dance floor "just keeps people from talking and makes guys think the only way they can communicate with a woman is to get her onto the dance floor. We wanted it to be implied in the name Town Hall that this is a meeting place without the pretensions that you find at D.C. nightlife establishments."
Besides dancing, Town Hall avoids a number of other usual trappings -- there's no cover charge, no list, no dress code. (Unofficially, at least; most guys are sporting polo shirts with the optional popped collar or have their oxford shirts tucked into stonewashed jeans. The women, on the other hand, have made an extra effort to look good, with satiny tops, plunging necklines and trendy bags that would fit in at most clubs.) Of course, you can also stop by on Saturday or Sunday afternoons to watch football games on one of the high-definition flat-screen televisions. During the week, a mix of regulars -- again, twenties and thirties with a smattering of older clients -- nurses beers or glasses of white wine at happy hour.
"People are surprised by Town Hall because we [the owners] came from gin mills, for lack of a better term," Holder says. "In coming to this neighborhood, we were trying to do something nicer. Part of the reason I got out of Adams Morgan is because walking down 18th Street at 2:30 on a weekend night, you better be wearing a flak jacket. Coming out of a bar and trying not to get in a fight in the pizza line -- it's not something I want to deal with on a weekly basis."
They made the decision to go more upscale and try to hit an "underserved" area, which Holder believes is the source of Town Hall's sudden popularity. "A lot of young professionals are moving into this neighborhood," Holder says. "People who live in this neighborhood had to travel to Georgetown, Adams Morgan or Dupont. Now they can just come here."
Despite the weekend bar business, Holder says "the restaurant is a priority. We wouldn't have gone out and gotten an executive chef [Paul Madrid of Paolo's] if it wasn't." Though I haven't had a full meal at the restaurant, I've explored the small plates and found it pays to stick with the spicy -- chicken wings with jerk spices and a crispy golden crust, quesadillas with andouille sausage and sharp cheese. Another nice touch: The full menu is available until 12:30 on Friday and Saturday and 11:30 during the week.
The downside of the bar's burgeoning reputation is that it can get as crowded as those Adams Morgan saloons the owners left behind. At peak times, you're standing elbow to elbow with your neighbor, but the crush is only uncomfortable around the bar, where customers are three deep, waving cash and credit cards at bartenders in futile attempts to expedite service. Compounding matters, on one night I was there, only two guys were behind the counter, and one seemed to be paying special attention to a group of friends -- maybe favored regulars -- sitting together at one end, doing shots.
(In the bar's defense, Holder says that the owners have been surprised by the volume on weekend nights. They've added an additional bartender upstairs and probably will add more staff in the future.) What's strange -- and perhaps more worrying -- is that I've twice found myself standing in random shards of broken glass, even though the staff seems pretty diligent about cleaning up spills. Accidents will happen. At least here, when someone has bumped into me or moved a chair onto my foot, they apologized quickly and even made some small talk.
Town Hall's neighbors have become concerned about the growing buzz, and Holder says he and his partners are working to defuse any problems. Free parking is provided across the street at USA Parking to keep customers' cars off residential streets. Additional soundproofing was added, and, Holder says, he walks around the neighborhood at night to check the volume. Litter and noise on surrounding streets remain a touchy issue. There's a bouncer at the door to keep order when patrons exit. After all they went through to get the place open, Holder says, "we don't want to lose our license" because a patron walks out carrying a beer.
To encourage more local business, they offered free "get to know us" meals for their immediate neighbors.
For such a new establishment, Town Hall is doing a lot of things right. It knows its crowd, it delivers what they want, and they're flocking in droves to take advantage. Soon, we may even start wondering which bar is going to be the next Town Hall.
Town Hall: An Ideal Meeting Place
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Sep. 1, 2006
Tim Walsh once responded during a TV casting call Q&A by saying that his idea of the perfect meal was macaroni and cheese. Which might explain the goat cheese mac at Town Hall; it's a comfy-sofa side dish that would make the silliest reality show palatable.
In fact, Walsh's answers helped land him a role on the reality-show-that-wasn't, "Last Chance for Love," which was the fake dating game that was the premise of the real (relatively speaking) reality show "Joe Schmo 2." He won, which is the relevant fact (money often is): Walsh, who worked -- along with his four partners, Jeremy Carman, Paul Holder, Hank Shields and Darrell Green-- at a series of Adams Morgan bars, used the "Schmo" dough as his stake when the fivesome bought the former Saveur restaurant in Glover Park last year. Not that Walsh wears his sometime celebrity on his sleeve; in fact, he's as meticulous and low-key a bartender as ever. But every once in a while a party of twenty-somethings will do a mild double-take, so now you know why.
Town Hall is the five experienced guys' vision of the ideal neighborhood restaurant, part tavern and part familiar but not-too-predictable American restaurant, with a nice mix of bar tables, stools and stand-up in the lounge (the two flat-screen TVs are considerately on mute), tables upstairs and private booths in the back. The decor is classic-hangout wood with eccentric food-centric photographs. And it has a remarkably comfortable atmosphere, though it does assume at least a moderately comfortable income as well: Those $6-9 cocktails can add up.
Still, it would be hard not to eat your fill here; and you can, if you pay attention, do it on the cheap. Several of the appetizers are quite generous, and so are the sandwiches -- and that's not even counting the complimentary spinach pesto dip with crispy wonton chips. Prince Edward Island mussels in a fine red coconut curry broth are a meal in themselves, though the kitchen could be a little more attentive to the number of unopened shells. The portobello ravioli -- two giant ones at $9 or four for $16 -- were notably lighter one night than another, but both times the pillows were stuffed full and luxuriating in Parmesan cream. And if it's not the largest steak salad in town, the carne asada version with black bean salsa, Sonoma Jack cheese and avocado comes close (though calling the cilantro lime vinaigrette "vinny" is pushing clever a little over the cutesy line).
As suggested by that goat cheese mac 'n' cheese -- which comes with a double-cut pork chop that's close to triple-rib size, and nicely trimmed of fat -- the menu is heavy on updated or rejiggered homestyle dishes. There's the two grilled cheese finger sandwiches that frame a roasted tomato soup, "for dipping," as the menu says. There's the crab cake sandwich (and burgers) on brioche; and the pizza-size quesadilla given a personality boost with andouille and manchego cheese. The club sandwich, gussied up with turkey breast, avocado and applewood-smoked bacon, comes with a huge pile of fresh chips (or fries) and the extra dollop of mayonnaise you secretly always longed for. Even the tuna tartare, which comes neatly layered over a molded tower of fresh guacamole, could hold you for several rounds.
Scallops with peas and a more flattering smattering of pancetta over red pepper coulis were just a trifle too stiff, but a rib-eye steak with shiitake glaze was cooked exactly as requested, as was the pork chop. And almond-crusted baked brie may be a cliche, but somebody must be ordering it: It has been on the menu all this time. Brie and chardonnay -- why argue with success?
On the other hand, the balance of less assertive dishes can be off. Careful salting is one thing, but the saltimbocca, which began with a nice piece of veal and was upscaled with prosciutto and just a veil of cheese, seemed to have bypassed the shaker altogether: The veal needed a touch of salt in its breading (and maybe a little more pounding) to keep up its end of the layering, and the wash of sage butter on the bottom of the plate was much too scant and retiring to rescue the pile of unseasoned egg noodles that topped it. The capellini that accompanies the crab cakes was similarly nondescript, and the crab cakes themselves, while a respectable blend of lump and backfin, were overwhelmed by the flavor (and almost aftershave-strong aroma) of Old Bay. The tartare depends on your blending in the soy sauce beneath, which is fine, but a little more lime in the guac would brighten the whole dish. Even the mac 'n' cheese might be more outgoing with a touch of white pepper, but there's black pepper in grinders on the tables.
The menu goes back to upscale comfort food at brunch: pastrami hash, "white" omelets (or the usual), a sort of frittata ya-ya with andouille, crawfish and cheddar; amaretto French toast, rib-eye with fried eggs, etc.
Town Hall also plays up its neighborhood status by offering 15 percent off to anyone who can show proof of a Glover Park address on Wednesdays and a general 15 percent off the menu weekdays from 5 to 7. (You should watch the clock yourself; a final bill that made it through the credit card machine at 6:59 was not discounted.) You can also get half-price bottles on Tuesdays and bring in your own wine for a $15 corkage fee.
Note that wheelchair access is limited; the bathrooms are in the back, down one step and without special equipment, but the less handicapped may be able to use them.