What we love: Everything. What’s not to love? The 9:30 Club spoils us with great sound, great sight lines and great service. Set times are announced the day of the show so you can plan your arrival. We take this for granted now, but the 9:30 was one of the first venues to make this information available regularly. Even the custom-made cupcakes are delicious.
What we don’t: You’re being watched. The club’s staff is very pleasant, but they’re keeping a close eye on you. Staff members are perched near both dressing rooms on the balcony and near the huge speakers on the sides of the stage, eyes peeled. You’ll feel safe, but it can also feel invasive.
--David Malitz, Sept, 16, 2011
At 9:30 Club, the food is no sideshow
By Alex Baldinger
Friday, July 15, 2011
It's a not quite sold-out Wednesday night at the 9:30 Club, and the sliver of a kitchen - wedged beneath the faded "Food Food" sign that once belonged to a Chinese restaurant near the club's original F Street NW location - has run out of hot dog buns. It seems that the evening's headliner, the moody English post-punk band Echo & the Bunnymen, has a taste for encased meats.
Sometimes the talent gets hungry and eats all your hot dog buns. That's one of the challenges of serving a comprehensive menu from a tiny walk-up window inside one of Washington's most popular live-music venues. But there are other challenges, too - such as convincing the quarter-million patrons who visit the club in a typical year that there's real, honest food there. After all, the surrounding U Street neighborhood can now offer concertgoers everything from preshow barbecue at American Ice Co. to gourmet banh mi from Dickson Wine Bar and best-in-the-city buffalo wings from Duffy's.
Presented with such options, why would hungry concertgoers opt to eat while standing inside a darkened concert hall? "Because there's no bands playing at American Ice Company!" says Seth Hurwitz, 9:30's owner and self-described "major league foodie" who frequents Peter Pastan's Obelisk and counts award-winning chef Jose Andres among his pals. "If someone is coming to the club and they want to eat, we want to make sure we have great food."
Most of the area's music venues serve food in some fashion, from the Black Cat's Food for Thought Cafe (which doesn't charge a cover to diners) to Iota Club & Cafe, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, regardless of who's playing that night. The Birchmere calls itself a dinner theater-style music club. And then there's U Street Music Hall, whose Pho Dog - a beef frank stewed in the fragrant Vietnamese broth - has been known to draw customers willing to pay the cover just to chow down. The venue recently introduced the Jelly Belly - a slice of pork belly sandwiched inside a grilled doughnut.
Hurwitz doesn't see all this as the beginning of an arm's race in the kitchens of Washington's music hubs, but when you have 1,200 potentially hungry mouths to feed at a sold-out show, what you serve matters.
So how is the food from the 9:30's three-person kitchen? Starters, or Sound Bites, are simple and fresh: The hummus ($5.25) is made in-house, while the mini pita pizza ($6) becomes a sophisticated snack with the addition of olive tapenade, fresh mozzarella or pesto. Most important, both items are portable, ideal for eating in a crowd of bobbing fans. The condiment-laden Nachos of Ulysses ($6.75), not so much.
The sandwiches, wraps and paninis are where you should direct your attention. The Great Balls of Liar ($9.75) is a chopped veggie burger on a baguette, with grilled onions, tomato sauce and melted mozzarella that does an impressive impression of ground beef; the Cordonini ($9.50) is a traditional chicken cordon bleu tucked inside the olive-kissed foccacia bread that makes all of the paninis worth a 10- to 15-minute wait (Lyon Bakery bakes the bread); and the Wienernini ($5), a quarter-pound hot dog served all-beef or vegetarian, may be mentioned in a future Bunnymen song. The vegan serape ($5.25) is flavorful and subtly spicy but not portable.
Then there are the chocolate cupcakes ($3): Tiffany MacIsaac's Buzz Bakery monograms them with the 9:30 logo. As with everything there, from band bookings on down, Hurwitz had the final cupcake say during taste tests: "The cupcakes were famously whittled down from a lot of contestants, but Buzz just kept coming back over and over, and I said, 'Well, it's okay.' After six tries, they came up with what I consider to be the best cupcake anywhere."
For regular 9:30 Club attendees, such as Robert Shackley of Reston, grabbing a bite there is part of the show-going routine. "Usually if it's a weeknight, I don't have time to eat elsewhere," he said between bites of a Freddy's Ham & Cheese sandwich ($7.50) on a Sunday night. "The ingredients are fresh, and they seem to make them on order. There's nothing sitting under a heat lamp."
Those who frequent the club are a captive audience; after all, you need a ticket before you can eat. It's unlikely anyone would choose a dinner spot based solely on something as incidental as a restaurant's choice in background music, so would they be any more likely to choose a rock club for the cuisine?
"When we first opened the club and I wanted to have good food there, people said, 'It's a rock club. People don't go there to eat,' " Hurwitz recalls. "I said, '[Expletive] that, man, why should you not be able to go to a club and have good food?'
"It should not be an aside. Why should it be anything but the best you can possibly do?"