Dave Alexander is the undisputed king of beers in Washington. He and his wife, Diane, run the Brickskeller, the venerable Dupont Circle saloon with the world's largest beer selection (as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records). But having more than 1,000 bottled beers wasn't enough. In January, the couple opened R.F.D. Washington, which has 30 brews on draft -- the largest selection in the city. When an additional room opens in a few weeks, 10 more taps will join the lineup. Then there are another 300 different beers in bottles, which is the second highest total in town.
R.F.D., which stands for Regional Food and Drink, is the perfect marriage of Dave and Diane's interests. He's Beer Guy Dave, who spends his time ferreting out new brews for the Brickskeller's inventory and keeping up the stock. Diane, who trained at L'Academie de Cuisine, is the daughter of a Cordon Bleu French chef. The common ground? Beer, of course.
You'll find water, hops and barley everywhere at the spacious, high-ceilinged R.F.D., from the advertising on the walls to the custom-designed coolers behind the bar to the menu, which is filled with foods marinated or flavored with ales and lagers.
"We were interested in doing a more serious attempt at the restaurant scene," Dave Alexander says. "At the Brick, we have a tiny kitchen, so we can't really get into sauces and presentation. Here, we have two focuses: local ingredients and food with ties to the area, and using world-class beers as taste-enhancing ingredients."
Cooking with beer is popular in Belgium, but it's not as common in this country. "What started everything was Diane making chicken and artichoke hearts simmered in Anchor Steam [a rich amber beer brewed in San Francisco]," Dave recalls. "We were like, 'Wow.' We started playing around, trying things like making ice cream with peach lambic beer.
"Then we got our chefs and sold them on the idea. French soup is usually braised in Burgundy, but we gave them an old ale and barley wine to try instead. We converted them."
I'll leave a thorough evaluation of the menu to my gastronomically inclined colleagues, but the food I've tried has been praiseworthy, especially the huge brew burger, which is marinated in a rich ale. But what I've seen at R.F.D. on my numerous visits -- whether at happy hour or after an event at the nearby MCI Center -- are people clamoring for the brews.
Alexander says he didn't set out to have the largest number of draft beers in Washington. "I think that 30 beers is a good number," he explains. "I know guys that opened bars with 70 taps, but now four of them are Guinness. You have to know what you're doing and know your customer." Alexander makes good on that. The 30 draft beers are a good mix of microbrews and imported favorites, and the selections of dark stouts and Belgian ales particularly strong. He's still experimenting with the beer lineup, while trying to educate R.F.D.'s patrons at the same time. "We'll take a classic European pilsner and put it next to its American counterpart, so people can try them both," he explains.
As the name implies, R.F.D. offers regional specialties on tap as well as on the menu. The bar has an impressive collection of draft beers from Washington, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. Although they rotate often, you'll usually find that about a quarter of the taps are regional in nature; those from Rehoboth Beach's award-winning Dogfish Head Brewery are always worth a try.
Regional beers will get even more exposure when R.F.D.'s back room opens. It's about half as big as the existing bar, and will be used for special events, such as beer dinners, but will also have 10 taps of its own. "We'll give eight of them to regional brewers," he explains. "I'll tell them, 'You own a tap down here. If you want to try a seasonal or a new recipe, go ahead. It's yours to do what you want with it.' " While nothing has been finalized yet, he plans to offer them to some of the top brewers from Pennsylvania and Delaware as well as the Washington area.
Until then, there are still 300 varieties available in bottles. Alexander admits it was hard to trim the beer list from the Brickskeller so drastically. "I tried to keep the ones that had really good reactions from people," he says. "At the Brickskeller, we have beer from 56 countries. Here, we're just trying to feature a selection. They're proven winners from the Brickskeller's list."
He's especially pleased that the bar will be carrying British real ales whenever possible. A staple of pubs, these are beers that undergo a secondary fermentation when served and are poured from a cask without extraneous carbon dioxide. Their serving temperature (slightly below room temperature) and the "live" state of the beer give the ales a different taste and feel than most other drinks on the menu.
When warm weather rolls around, R.F.D. will open its outdoor patio, nestled in the building's courtyard, for alfresco drinking.
This all sounds like a beer-geek wonderland, but R.F.D. is a far cry from the dimly lit, dive-bar atmosphere of the Brickskeller. You could bring best friends, a new date or your parents here for a drink and a bite to eat. With so many beers to taste, you might want to bring them all.
-- Fritz Hahn (Feb. 28, 2003)