Everyone I’ve taken to the freshly minted Bar Charley lights up when we step inside. It helps that the host acts as if arrivals are guests coming into his home for dinner. The space is a mood-enhancer as well. To the left of the door is a cozy bar with 15 seats; to the right is a low-ceiling dining room with brick walls, a comfy white banquette and tables set at different heights to create little pools of intimacy. And who doesn’t love a patio with strings of white lights?
Veteran restaurateurs Jackie Greenbaum and Gordon Banks — she owns Jackie’s in Silver Spring, and they each have a stake in El Chucho in Columbia Heights — say they opened the watering hole because they couldn’t find a smart place to eat and drink well that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Sure enough, their menu lists roast lamb crostini for $8 and an Old Fashioned for the same low price.
The drinks, nifty pick-me-ups created by Banks, are sure to pull you back. Two stand-outs are the daiquiri, kept cool with a sphere of frozen coconut water — as the ice melts, the drink mellows — and Hi Lo, a flute of gin, white port and orange bitters that would look at home at the Four Seasons in Georgetown but costs $10 in a dimly lighted neighborhood tavern near the base of Adams Morgan. Banks and company also offer several drinks on tap, including a Mai Tai bold with designer rums and better than any tropical quaff I’ve knocked back in recent memory.
The liquids call for solids to sponge up their potency. To the rescue: black-eyed pea fritters, which are brought to the table on a base of julienned celery root, apple and onion invigorated with jalapeño dressing, a jazzy combination that keeps the bronzed rounds from rolling away. Fried oysters hitching a ride on deviled eggs make a nice, hot-cold munch, too.
While focused on popular American dishes, the menu, executed by former Redwood chef LaMont Mitchell, 32, also crosses borders — oceans even — for inspiration. Papri chat, the North Indian fast food, is a fine idea, inexpertly executed. The wafer-thin scoops (papri) taste stale, and the chickpeas swim in a slick of Greek yogurt too sweet with sauces of saffron and raisins and tamarind and date. Shrimp and pork belly dumplings on a puddle of “hay broth” are presented on a bamboo steamer tray. Their unpleasantly funky flavors do not bring to mind the models at Bob’s Shanghai 66 in Rockville. Similarly, charred chicken on stolid “dirty rice” would be cause for house arrest by the food police in New Orleans.
Gentle prices are admirable. But can we get a side of finesse, please?
A better strategy would be another round of fritters or fried oysters or a salad. Make mine spinach, frisee and ribbons of carrot with a scattering of lentils.
There’s a hamburger, because of course a bar has to offer one, and a fish version that finds a patty of lightly ground ahi tuna reinforced with a seaweed slaw and serrano oil instead of lettuce and tomato. Both sandwiches are served in a basket with golden potato chips that are warm from being fried here. The sloppy Joe is not unlike the loose and messy filling I remember from school cafeteria days, although Bar Charley’s version gets snappier pickles, fab onion rings and a better bun. (Doesn’t toasting improve everything?)
There are a couple main courses built for two, both worth your attention. One is a whole grilled fish (sweet-fleshed branzino when I caught it) set on buttery whipped potatoes alongside roasted fennel. The other is a thick slab of rib-eye, crusty from the grill and blushing pink. The potato wedges stacked near the steak are half-hearted french fries (and undercooked to boot), although their flavor is improved by a dunk in the zesty kimchi catsup.
Bar Charley recently began offering a single dessert — pie — in two flavors: lemon meringue and rosemary-laced gala apple, both baked by sibling restaurant Jackie’s and sent down to the watering hole for slicing.
If you know how to order at Bar Charley, you’re apt to leave with a smile on your face and a vow to return. Even if you pick randomly, and encounter flaws, they’re easier to swallow when the small-plate average is a furlough-friendly $8. And keep in mind: Mitchell routinely tweaks his menu. By the time you read this, he’ll have added poutine and chicken liver “schmear” to the mix.
For the moment, however, the pleasures at Bar Charley rest more in the glass than on the plate.
Next week: Forlano’s Market in The Plains, Va.
* 1/2 (One and a half stars)
1825 18th St. NW. 202-627-2183.
OPEN: Dinner 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
METRO: Dupont Circle.
PRICES: Bar plates and sandwiches $5 to $18; main courses for two, $32 to $48.
SOUND CHECK: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
Charley taps the middle name of the restaurant’s co-owner, Gordon Banks.