2004 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 17, 2004
This barn-size restaurant is part of a chain (the Fairfax-based Great American Restaurants), yet it goes out of its way to make you feel special. Curious about the beer made on site? A bartender is happy to provide a free taste in a frosted mini-mug. There is country music to tap your toes to, and there are cowboys and Indians depicted in a handsome mural. The room all but shouts "Howdy!" So it seems appropriate to start with a Southwestern-style bean-cheese-avocado dip (eight layers, count 'em) and move on to a smoky pork chop, served with light brown gravy and brightened with corn salsa. Equally hearty is prime rib -- thick and succulent -- partnered with a big baked potato. Barbecued ribs? They're meaty if a tad too sweet, flanked by creamy coleslaw and fine, skin-on fries. Specials show the kitchen's range; halibut baked in banana leaf and presented with polenta is a dish I'd expect to find at an expense-account venue in the city. Sweetwater's fresh-faced servers in striped shirts navigate the space with smiles and good cheer. Plus, they know the menu as well as the cooks do. More than once I've left here wondering, Why can't every restaurant be so hospitable?
A product of the Arlington-based Great American Restaurants group, Sweetwater Tavern is a bright and dynamic attraction on the brewpub landscape. It's an enormous space done in a Western theme. Indian rugs hang from the rafters, murals of cattle drives and Indian raids line the walls, the huge hanging lamps are ringed with wrought iron and topped with little teepees. The sound system carries the likes of Chris Isaak and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
There's a long bar in the sunken center of the room, with red booths all around. The food is Southwestern with touches of Deep South. The salsa is made with tomatoes that are smoked in-house and the chili comes with house-smoked chicken. The fries and cole slaw are simply great. It's hard not to be impressed with the food.
The beer holds its own quite well. Head brewer Nick Funnell was previously with Dock Street Brewing. "Nick Funnell is one of the most accomplished brewers in the country," states George Rivers, editor and publisher of BarleyCorn, a Frederick-based monthly that admirably covers the brewing industry. "I'm glad he stayed in the area after Dock Street's unfortunate end."
On a recent visit to Sweetwater, five beers were sampled; all were excellent -- even the Sweetwater Light, designed for folks who think that Coors Light is beer, was refreshing. The day's offerings are listed on a giant chalkboard overlooking the bar, a board that also includes each beer's date-of-brew, "original density" and "apparent extract," numbers that beer geeks (a term of affection in the brew culture) seem to find useful.
-- Eric Brace