More than the beer will bring you here
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, November 27, 2009
The buzz: Wander down 14th Street NW around happy hour on a Friday night and you might think you've stumbled across the District's hottest new lounge: a crowd of people waiting outside, a doorman warning new arrivals that they might not be able to enter for about 40 minutes, and people phoning their friends to ask, "Are you inside?"
But there are no velvet ropes at Birch & Barley and ChurchKey. It's just a handsome restaurant and bar that offers 50 draft beers, the largest selection in the city. Five hundred more beers from around the world are sold in bottles, the second-largest selection around, after the venerable Brickskeller. And most exciting, there are five traditional English-style casks, which dispense beers without excess carbonation. Around here, you're lucky if you can find a bar that has one.
Of course, any tavern could offer dozens of draft beers by padding the lineup with Budweiser and Heineken. Not so at ChurchKey, where "beer director" Greg Engert, formerly of Rustico, has crafted a list of epic proportions: The malty Old Man brown ale from England's Coniston. Avery's delicious IPA, dry-hopped with Centennial hops. Brooklyn Brewery's Manhattan Project, a rye ale with herbs designed to taste like a Manhattan cocktail. A tart 1809 Berliner-Style Weisse from Weihenstephan, which is almost unheard of on draft this side of the Atlantic.
A draft menu is broken into such categories as "Malt," "Tart and Funky" and "Hops" to help you browse the many beers on the list. It also includes details about serving size, the point of origin and even the appropriate glassware and temperature. Three-ring binders describe the bottles. Due next month: A "reserve list" stocked with rare and vintage beers.
No wonder every one of the 150 seats in the high-ceilinged upstairs bar and lounge is taken, and there are deep crowds fighting for the attention of the five bartenders behind the 60-foot-plus bar. (The bar has started to send tater tots and other snacks to the unlucky folks outside.)
The scene: ChurchKey opens its doors at 4 p.m. everyday, and it doesn't take long for the place to get slammed.
Matt Welch, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, his roommate Leslie Briggs and three of their friends had packed into one of the raised, cushioned booths. "It's a little loud for conversation," Welch said, but they all raved about the "so good it's overwhelming" beer list and the knowledge and speed of their server.
They recommended arriving early: "We got here at 5:15, and by 6 the place was full," Briggs said. It's not uncommon to watch groups stalking tables and excitedly calling, "Bill-bill-bill-bill!" when they see someone at a booth receiving their check.
At the far end of the bar, Marion Smith, a 30-year-old nursing student, was standing with her father, cousin and brother-in-law, all beer fans. As soon as they heard about ChurchKey, she said, "we knew we had to try it."
"It's too crowded to [visit] often, but it's the only place with this kind of selection of beer," said Aidan Smith, 27, who works for the Census Bureau. "There are things on tap that I couldn't even hope to find in bottles."
"The beer selection gets an A-plus-plus, but the experience is like a C," said Chris Smith, a 57-year-old general contractor.
"They don't have enough barkeeps. If they had four more, they'd sell 10 times as much beer." He also noted the mostly suited happy hour crowd. "As my brother used to say, 'Smells like businessmen.'"
The setting is almost as attractive as the beer list. ChurchKey manages to blend the feel of a European beer hall with that of a comfortable lounge. Check out the softly padded stools that line the bar, the love-seat-style booths and the enormous banquettes with sparkling chandeliers above.
In your glass: Beyond beer, there's a good (if small) selection of wines by the glass and also a list of designer cocktails.
On your plate: ChurchKey has a relatively small selection of appetizers, charcuterie, sandwiches and salads, and there's a deli service area at the far end of the bar with sliced meats and cheeses. (I love the nugget-sized sweetbread poppers, which come with a spicy dipping sauce.) The flatbreads are good for sharing, as are the bowls of bar nuts, which are spiced in-house.
Price points: With such a wide-ranging selection of beers, you might expect over-the-top prices. But three of the five casks on a recent visit were under $7, and a great number of beers were $6 or less. Flatbreads run between $12 and $15, and paninis are $7 or $8.
Every beer on the list is available in a four-ounce glass for half to a third of the price you'd pay for a full 10-to-16-ounce serving. "I like the option of the four-ounce samples," says Josh Morrison, a 27-year-old physician who brought his father, Jim, to the bar. "There's a lot of unfamiliar beers." He and Jim, who was visiting from Texas, had three of the samples each before settling on full-size glasses of the Brooklyn Black and the Gouden Carlous Classic. "It'd be fun to come in here and try a new beer every night. It would take you a couple of years, wouldn't it?" said Jim.
Need to know: Because high volume means that a number of kegs change every day, ChurchKey has a sample -- not current -- beer menu on its Web site. For a better idea of what's on tap, follow the bar on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/churchkeydc.