Solid dishes, near home plate
By Justin Rude
Friday, June 1, 2012
Catching an afternoon baseball game may be one of summer’s greatest pleasures, and the neighborhood around Nationals Park offers extra incentive to arrive early. The lunch and happy-hour scene at Justin’s Cafe, two blocks from the stadium, has quickly become a lively midday spot.
Perhaps the restaurant’s rising fortune can be traced to the Nats’ improvement.
“This year has been our best so far,” locally raised restaurateur Justin Ross said, “and I think the team has had something to do with it.” Indeed, the little cafe sporting street-side communal tables, bar seating and a handful of two-tops has seen players become regulars along with the suddenly hopeful Nats faithful.
The location also may have something to do with its popularity. Ross’s restaurant was one of the first spots to pop up after the ballpark opened, and it still doesn’t have much in the way of competition. As a crowded midday dining room on a recent non-game Friday proves, there are plenty of neighborhood workers willing to spend their lunch hour enjoying well-made sandwiches, salads and pizzas.
The relative lack of competition might have led some kitchens to slack off, but that hasn’t happened at Justin’s, which is entering its third year of operation.
Although the menu is not ambitious, its familiar flavors are well made and one or two steps ahead of most ballpark offerings, especially for those looking for lighter fare. Salads, such as the Kincaid, made with spinach, polenta, fresh mozzarella, caramelized onions and almonds, or the Harleston, with romaine, onion, cucumber, couscous, hearts of palm and grilled eggplant, are fresh, flavorful and meal-size.
Sandwiches manage to be hearty without being greasy or massive. In the Radcliffe, julienne Granny Smith apples add a tart zip to grilled chicken breast and melted mozzarella. The Bull’s Italian sausage and peppers does right by some of my favorite classic flavors, but it makes me pine for the rarity of a good Italian roll in the District. Prosciutto, sliced figs and arugula is a well-tread flavor combo that hits a triple on the Justin’s menu, appearing as a salad, sandwich and a pizza.
Justin’s pies land somewhere between the Neapolitan ideal and classic American pizzeria fare. The crust is thin in the middle and puffy on the edge with a nice char throughout, and it lacks the characteristically soggy center of the Naples model. The greater cheese-to-sauce ratio also reflects its North American heritage, but the toppings are high quality, and as tavern pie goes, Justin’s is a winner.
Because it was an early addition to the waterfront dining scene, Justin’s has had time to make itself a neighborhood establishment. Bartenders know many patrons by name, even during the lunch rush, and local police officers are among the midday diners,
giving a sense that the restaurant has embraced, and been embraced by, its community. A killer happy hour hasn’t hurt its standing either. The restaurant keeps it local in other ways, too -- DC Brau and Port City are standards on an otherwise frequently rotating beer list, and there are Dangerously Delicious Pies for dessert, including the Baltimore Bomb.
Decidedly not local are the names on the menu. Most dishes are named after streets in Charleston, S.C., where Ross attended college.