By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2004
Dining at Hunter's Head Tavern is like stepping into a time warp -- and we're not talking about the Tardis in the parking lot. (The Tardis, for those not conversant with BBC sci-fi, is Dr. Who's time-travel vessel, which from the outside looks just like a typical red London phone booth.)
Hunter's Head is a fine, stout English-style pub that contains some striking remnants (mantels, plank and mortar walls) of the 1750s log cabin, known as the Old Carr House, it began as. The iron gate into the walled garden is said to have come from the old Upperville, Va., jail, a precaution many a pub would applaud. It has its fair supply of ghosts, including a middle-aged man dressed in Colonial-era brown. The various rooms range from hail-fellow post-house fireside to planter's private dining nook. The menu is almost tourist-agency tavern: shepherd's pie, ploughman's platter, bangers and mash, fish and chips. Ordering is "ordinary" style, in the pub sense of the word: You take your table number to the bar window, and the food comes out from the back. And the staff is dressed in the sort of blousy-sleeved tunics and knee britches that Colonial Williamsburg runs off by the score.
But what's really old-fashioned about Hunter's Head is the portions. They're laboring-class heavy, farm family-size. The bar menu items may look like appetizers, especially to those accustomed to Washington restaurant prices -- three-cheese fondue for $9, bangers with mustard for $7.50 -- but the $9 chicken liver pyty and cheese is a near half-inch slab, three almost equally hearty slices of cheese (only one of them Stilton, but all good), and a fairly sizable field greens salad. The semolina-dusted calamari (nicely dry, if a little bland) is a mountain. A slice of chocolate cake is the whole birthday party. Even the side dishes of mashed potatoes or macaroni would make Boston Market habituees blink, and $7 worth of steamed asparagus -- precisely timed -- is a caterer's dream.
Perhaps it would be more politic to say Hunter's Head is a British-style tavern, as the original cabin was built by a Scotsman, bought by a second-generation Irishman (the Carr of the name), and serves organic Scottish Highland cattle and Gloucestershire Old Spot hogs from nearby Ayrshire Farm. It stews its beef in Guinness, makes its Welsh rarebit with English Cheddars, and lays out tea midweek and seasonal custard year-round.
And though not all the food is great, a lot of it is good. The artichoke dip is a rebuke to many franchise versions, a lot of green and not too much cream. White bean soup, one night's special, was a Senate-worthy version (lacking only a little pepper) served in a miniature iron caldron. The grilled steak, in texture somewhere between a rib-eye and a sirloin, had far more flavor than most big-chain beef and had been seasoned judiciously. The beef stew is not only a panful, it was a stew to reclaim your trust, the meat tender but not boiled out, the vegetables chunky but distinct.
The bangers are unusually delicate, but show well with mustard. (That's on the dream list behind real salt and pepper mills -- good mustard.) Chips, meaning french fries, are a bit bland but generous, and the lighter-than-batter semolina dusting is a thoughtful detail in such abundance. The only oversalted dish has been the fried chicken, and the meat itself was a little dried out. The only real disappointment was the bubble and squeak, which instead of being a true mix of cabbage and mashed potatoes was virtually all mash with the odd addition of corn and peas. (Perhaps the kitchen was low on cabbage that night.) However, like the side servings of potatoes that come with the bangers or, heaven help you, the beef stew, it's a quart container even as leftovers.
It should be pointed out that despite the name, Hunter's Head is not only carnivore country. Lighter and vegetarian options include salmon and tuna, a variety of salads and seafood Caesars, vegetarian versions of either the pot or shepherd's pies, veggie lasagne and Boca burgers. Hunter's Head also has a pretty nice wine list, ranging up to moderately expensive.
This is deservedly a popular neighborhood spot, and one of the only authentically Brit-pub details that could be honed is its occasional insider attitude. First-timers unfamiliar with the ordering system, or the rather loose "table in the corner in the next room" directions, can be the object of undue exasperation or clanging fire irons. That's an attitude that should be history.