What we love: The laid-back vibe. Of all the clubs on this list, Iota is the one where it’s easiest to feel like you’re just “hanging out.” The brick walls, dim lights and low stage make it seem like less of a concert venue and more like an old-fashioned juke joint.
What we don’t: No advance tickets. This is when things get too laid-back. Tickets are available only at the door, day of show. Granted, 97 percent of the time this isn’t a problem. But for shows that are sure to be packed, it would be nice to have a pre-sale option. And when you call to find out whether a big crowd is expected, no one ever picks up.
--David Malitz, Sept. 16, 2011
For 16 years, food and music made a harmonious match for Jane Negrey Inge and her brother, Stephen Negrey. Then last year the co-owners of Iota Club &a Cafe in Arlington decided to give their culinary conceit a tuneup.
They swapped out orange paint for white in the club's anteroom, rearranged the bar setup and added a walk-up counter with a low-key menu. Used to be you could do only dinner at Iota; now, 22 sandwiches and other "easy eats" are available for takeout from morning till night.
"Sean Lennon was just here with his friend Charlotte. They played one night and then they came the next day, ate our food and loved it," said Inge. "We have all this space that we need to utilize so that we can keep Iota alive and rocking. It's good to be open during the day. Everybody has to eat."
On a recent visit, the Shroom-Gruyere Smasher with sweet caramelized onions was cut with just the right dose of hot English mustard ($8.25). The pan-roasted Salmon Caper Swich starred moist fish dressed with a light, lemony mayonnaise ($9.75) that contained bits of capers.
Many of the sandwiches and smashers, which are basically riffs on panini, come on rolls from Washington's Lyon Bakery. The turkey-ranch with bacon ($8.25) and the avocado-Gruyere with tomato ($8.25) are top sellers, said Inge. Longtime fans of the club's Crispy Catfish Wrap can take it to go, with roasted tomato-black bean salsa and chipotle mayo ($9.25).
Inge said she and her brother, who designed much of the menu, were looking to put some textural play into the mix by pairing the sandwiches with potato sticks and a delicious "clear slaw" with olive oil, rice vinegar and slivers of Vlasic kosher dill pickles.
Of the dessert options - creme brulee, chocolate brownie and day-old pastry sauteed in butter and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($6.50 each) - the latter admittedly wasn't the most sensible for a Metro ride home. But the warm banana muffin, from Hawthorne Fine Breakfast Pastry in Severna Park, packed so much buttery flavor, we didn't much care that it had cooled. Iota serves breakfast pastries from Hawthorne as well; menu listings for a breakfast bread pudding ($8.75) and almond butter-and-banana sandwich ($7.75) might send us back for a morning visit.
Next time, we'll get a growler to complete the meal. Twenty-two bucks (or $17 through February) buys a refillable vessel that you can load up with one of a dozen American craft beers ($12 to $18).
-Kristen Hinman (Good to Go, Feb. 9, 2011)