Dave's American Bistro

$$$$ ($15-$24)
Dave's American Bistro photo
Andrea Bruce/The Post

Editorial Review

Dave's: Bigger Isn't Always Better

By Eve Zibart
Friday, July 13, 2007

Only a year or so old, and already Dave's American Bistro has a bad case of growing pains.

Dave's, which replaced the old Griff's Place in Olney, has come a long way since last spring. The squat, brick roadhouse -- which, although grungy, smoky and generally tangy with diesel, was one of the dwindling band of blue-collar bars and R&B/rockabilly venues in the Washington area and thus to be mourned, at least for a moment -- has gradually been renovated into a sort of French-farmhouse-cum-extravagant-rec-room within, with a fireplace, a large, round country table and various squares, wood paneling, a formal bar and a wall of wine bottles (more on that later). Without, a serpentine patio holds a stone fireplace, umbrella tables and a horseshoe bar. Beyond that is a rather witty urban beach area with assorted flamingos, illuminated plastic palm trees, a "Baywatch" chair, hand-painted mileage pointers (some to Austria, some to a local tattoo joint or garage) and the sort of kitsch familiar to commuters along the Delmarva byways. It all seems to say, "To hell with the drive to Dewey, you can drink right here." The staff says it's considering a horseshoe pit, a volleyball net, occasional live music and more patio seating.

And that's the problem: What Dave's needs now is more kitchen.

As the weeks have worn on, what started as a pleasant evening destination with a manageable noise level and dependable food (and good wine) has struggled to keep up with the increasing crowds. Dave's crabs-by-the-dozen dinner special, originally Tuesdays and Wednesdays and now available most of the week, is certainly a draw, but it seems to be draining the cooks' time and energy, if not space. The 20- or 25-minute wait for appetizers widened first to 40 minutes and then, a couple of weeks later, to more than an hour -- for those hors d'oeuvres that actually made it. (When the waitress said of the still-missing shrimp cocktail, "We're thawing some more right now," it rather took the desire away.) The backup was not her fault, of course, and, to her credit, she immediately offered a second round of drinks on the house, including a bottle of wine, but she also forgot to remove the shrimp from the bill.

Similar delays and apparent scrambling in the kitchen have produced quesadillas with only a smattering of filling, cool and lethargic french fries, a shamefully scant house salad and a dry lamb shank that suggested its braising had been hurried. I've never been served bread, although I have seen it pass by. More annoyingly, the noise levels get direly high, not only out back, where the crowd at the bar winds up yelling over the diners and the children understandably compete, but also indoors, which surely could be alleviated.

All this fumbling is a shame, because the shopping-center-wracked neighborhood could use a nice gathering place (a pre-theater hookup with the Olney Theatre Center sounds like a natural), and Dave's shows a lot of promise. It has two menus, one the more upscale tavern food (the shank, grilled salmon, shrimp diablo, strip steak) and the other beach-style seafood shack (fish and chips, fried shrimp and scallops). The fish and chips is a pleasant surprise, with a thin sheet of batter crisp and dry-fried -- almost shake 'n' baked -- and with no used-oil drag. One night's oysters on the half shell were so tasteless they might have been gelatin, but the batter-fried innards of a po' boy several days later were quite good.

Crab cakes are one of the best choices, so all-meaty they just hold together. Two make up an entree, but they also star in a dish that revives nostalgia for adventures into Adkins -- a surf and turf of petite filet and crab cake over salad (and at $16, a better deal). The Caesar salad dressing is pretty good, and the salad makes a generous bed for the salmon. The St. James chicken has a quite attractive fig-stout sauce that lolls happily in sync with an old-vine zin, though the breast could have been more tenderly managed. The burgers are popular, and the wraps, a chicken-avocado BLT and a roasted vegetable with olive tapenade, are good and hearty. The sides for entrees include nicely sauteed asparagus and spinach, not-too-garlicky green beans and sweet potato fries, and one of the house dressings, honey-lime-pistachio, is ingratiating in the heat.

Less successful are the lumpia, Filipino-style spring rolls with pork that were well fried but too bland without the dipping sauce; a stodgy crab and scallion gratin of the sort that threatens to set like cement when it begins to cool; and a pasta primavera whose cream sauce had no better character and few vegetables. The crack-your-own crabs have been somewhat on the expensive side (upward of $60 a dozen), but that's partly a market issue.

Now, to the wine: Dave's owners, Kevin and Judy Sheehan, also operate the beer and wine store adjoining the restaurant and consequently have a nice list of options, including Truth Lindsey's Cuvee and the Cline Bridgehead Zinfandel. You can either buy the wine and carry the bottle to the table and pay a $10 corkage fee or order (or just grab) the wine -- hence the shelving, which doubles as a wine list -- and the $10 is added to the retail price. This being Montgomery County, it means the ultimate markup can be substantial, but a fine wine might make the meal, or any wait, more pleasant, too.

A lot of people are rooting for Dave's; it just needs to be careful not to outgrow its welcome.