Chez Billy

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

2012 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012

Of all the watering holes opened by brothers Eric and Ian Hilton over the years, Chez Billy is the one I find myself grazing in most often. Unlike its siblings, clustered around the U Street corridor, Chez Billy graces restaurant-barren Petworth, and unlike the rest of its tribe, the youthful bistro cooks with a convincing French accent. Here's the place to go when you've got an omelet, beef daube, roast chicken or pot de creme on your mind. Each dish sounds simple, but each also exhibits attention to detail; those beef cheeks are sparked with star anise and orange zest, and that chicken is framed with a wedge of potatoes Anna. I prefer to sup in the dark and cozy dining room off the bar and climb the stairs for a drink and prime people-watching. The bonus on Friday and Saturday: a live jazz trio.

Bar review

Chez Billy bar review
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, June 1, 2012

In many ways, the new Chez Billy is a fish out of water.

Its prices don’t fit in with the other popular restaurants and bars in Petworth, which tend to be down-to-earth places with affordable food and deal-laden happy hours: Chez Billy serves steak frites for $27 and cocktails that usually cost at least $12.

The space, too, is unlike anything else nearby. Before the bar’s opening in mid-April, the building was lavishly and lovingly restored, for it sits on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to its ties to African American history. In the days of segregation, Billy Simpson’s House of Seafood and Steaks, as it was then known, welcomed such luminaries as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and Dick Gregory. It’s designed to wow visitors from around the corner and across the region.

And it’s owned by Eric and Ian Hilton, whose other bars, including Marvin, the Gibson, American Ice Co. and BlackByrd Warehouse, are mostly clustered along a few blocks of the U Street corridor.

Because of its menu, history and pedigree, Chez Billy arrived with a blaze of attention -- not all of it positive. Neighborhood message boards lit up with complaints about the “downtown” prices and the lack of happy hour.

My first few visits were marked by indifferent service, including a bartender who half-jokingly told a friend that she wasn’t sure if she knew how to make a cocktail on the menu. I found myself more charmed by the chandeliers or the old photos on bookcases behind the bar than the ho-hum Sazerac sitting on the counter in front of me. There also were wild inconsistencies in the crowd: It could be lively one evening and almost deserted at the same time on another night.

But it looks as if Chez Billy is finally catching up to its potential.

The star remains the gorgeous old building. The striking bar is open to two stories, and you can look down on the action from the mezzanine on the second level. The boothlike and high-walled alcoves are just large enough for two bar stools, a spot where I’d happily spend date night. There are many other intimate spaces: a small, cavelike room tucked at the back of the building and a narrow, secluded second-story rear deck. With old soul and funk music playing, it’s kind of the place where I don’t mind lingering.

In response to customers’ feedback about the high prices, the staff added a happy hour and cut some prices on the menu. The happy hour (5:30 to 8 weeknights) features $7 appetizers -- for example, a thick slice of the rich house pate or a personal-size bowl of decent mussels -- and $5 beer, glasses of red and white wine and the “cocktail du jour.” On a recent visit, it was a crisp mix of gin, grapefruit juice, thyme simple syrup and bitters.

The revamped drink list has cocktails that range from $8 to $12 including the Ouragan (the French word for “hurricane”), a sophisticated variation on the old New Orleans standby with apricot eau de vie and cognac replacing the rum. Although some cocktails went down in price (the Sazerac from $12 to $10), every drink with champagne in it increased from $12 to $16. C'est la vie, I suppose.

I still wish the draft beer list were more interesting -- Amstel Light, Kronenburg and Hofbrau hefeweizen are among the six taps, which average $7 -- but the wine list is decent. There are a half-dozen white wines for $7 to $9 per glass and some interesting French reds, for as much as $14.

The place has not suddenly become budget-friendly -- an utterly decadent bowl of beef cheeks will still set you back $25 -- but I’d drop in for that happy hour-priced bowl of mussels and then order the $12 plate of deliciously salty marrow bones, washed down with a seasonal beer.

The one thing I can’t figure out is the crowd, or lack thereof, and even my bartender admitted one night that he has given up trying to predict it.

Petworth doesn’t yet have the critical mass to lure the weekend crowds that pour into Marvin near 14th and U streets. And some people may have come in early on, didn’t enjoy the experience and, unlike me, have no reason to go back.

After a rocky start, Chez Billy is moving in the right direction. The question is whether its changes will lure the crowds it was designed to attract.