By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, April 17, 2005
Booths with portholes! A communal table with its own flat-screen TV!
The owners of Beacon Bar & Grill really, really want you to like their hotel restaurant. To that end, they hired a designer, Walter Gagliano, to create an underground dining room that is both hip and intimate, and a chef, Ron Reda, to come up with a menu that calls to everybody but also feels personal. Gagliano made Cafe Atlantico and Ten Penh, among other Washington hot spots, more inviting places to dine; Reda previously worked at Dish in Foggy Bottom, where he specialized in serving American comfort food with a twist.
Good looks and appealing food go a long way toward making Beacon a welcome new neighbor in Dupont Circle. But the $3 million or so sunk into remaking the former 17th Street Bar & Grill seems not to have funded an important detail: training the staff. Brunch menus get passed out mistakenly at dinner; bread baskets fail to make timely appearances; and waiting for a bottle of something red from California seems to take as long as flying there to retrieve it would. Managers appear to be everywhere, but most of them are blind to anyone who isn't standing up and flagging for help. One night, pals and I waited and waited at a host stand in the bar for someone to show us to a table; after 10 minutes, we wandered through throngs of after-work revelers to the dining room, standing first on one side, then the other, looking for someone to direct us.
Some of what followed rewarded our patience. Calamari gets a nice boost from a dusting of crisp fried cilantro, and a cool wedge of iceberg lettuce comes draped with a velvety green goddess dressing and crunchy bits of bacon. But cream of asparagus soup is too restrained -- pureed vegetable served with no garnish whatsoever to break up the verdant picture -- and a pretty salad of tomatoes alternating with goat cheese is mostly tang (and a reminder that tomatoes aren't at their best this time of year). Cured salmon wrapped like a cornucopia around sprouts and poised on a soft potato cake looks odd but tastes just fine.
You might not think to order shepherd's pie in a restaurant, but you should consider doing so here, where ground beef is mixed with corn and topped with a cover of mashed potatoes that has been slightly crisped in the oven. A generous main course, it sticks to your ribs as it conjures thoughts of good home leftovers. Reda also resurrects a few hits from his previous employer, including fried chicken that gets a zesty punch from hot pepper sauce. The bird is flanked by very good coleslaw and corn polenta that is so oversweet it could pass for hot breakfast cereal. A fat pork chop, rounded out with peppery spinach, is plenty succulent.
The chef's rockfish is simple and sophisticated -- a moist slab brightened with Mediterranean accents such as olives, artichokes and tomatoes. A lobster risotto, on the other hand, comes off like a damp rice casserole -- more Betty Crocker than Roberto Donna.
A buddy from New Jersey nods with approval as he bites into Beacon's crisp cannoli. I'm content with a slice of warm apple pie. We savor each bite, knowing it might be a while before we can get the waiter's attention to ask for the check.
I have a dysfunctional relationship with Washington's rooftop bars: They treat me bad, but I still keep going back.
The Hotel Washington's Sky Terrace is the grand dame of Washington's cocktail-and-a-view destinations, and its vistas of the Mall and the White House are extraordinary. On the other hand, the tables are jammed so close together that you can't help but eavesdrop and bump elbows, the frozen drinks are consistently weak and the metal chairs are uncomfortable. Still, it's a good place to take folks who want to see the city at night.
I enjoy hanging out on the roof of the Reef early in the week, but it's so crowded on Fridays and Saturdays that they've had to begin using a Cheesecake Factory-style pager system to control the flow of people. Not cool.
And just when I found one rooftop with a view that I really, really liked -- Afterlight, the poolside party on the roof of the Hilton on Embassy Row -- it jilted me after a year, and won't return.
Ever hopeful, I just made a trip to the new rooftop penthouse at the Beacon Hotel. The ground-floor Beacon Bar and Grill suffers from such awful service and dicey cocktails that I'd written it off completely as a happy hour spot, even if the deals (half-price beers and house martinis) were occasionally tempting.
Located atop the ninth floor, the Sky Bar has a pretty nice setup. Until recently, this was the hotel's penthouse suite, with a wide deck around two sides of the building. Since it didn't seem to get much use, the hotel reconfigured the space for public use Wednesday through Friday. (Doors open at 5, and it will stay open until 10 or 11, depending on the number of customers.)
There are tables for two or four and there's a tiny bar in one corner of the roof. You can see the National Cathedral off in the distance, the dome of St. Matthew's Cathedral, and the sunset was especially attractive. Oh, and Serena Williams has already visited.
If only that was all you needed. Sadly, the penthouse suite ain't the deeeeluxe apartment in the sky that my friends and I were expecting.
Let's start with the service, which left us sitting for so long that we had to get up and go directly to the bar to order drinks. (We weren't the only ones; I noticed other people with empty glasses trying to flag down a waiter/waitress.) It happened again when we were ready for round two.
Then there's the sticker shock: $7 for a bottle of Harp or Corona. $10 for a glass of average Pinot Grigio. $11 for a "house martini" with Grey Goose.
Is it worth it? Not on a regular basis, no. But if you're dying to sit outside at happy hour with a date or a friend or two, you possess a modicum of patience and you're willing to splurge to enjoy the weather, this isn't a bad place to add to your repertoire.
-- Fritz Hahn (May 2006)