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Tips for the Tournament

By Fritz Hahn
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005;

With the ACC Tournament on the horizon, thousands of college basketball fans will descend on the already crowded streets of Penn Quarter and Chinatown, looking for a place to grab something to eat before tipoff or a bar to celebrate -- or down their sorrows -- after the game. With that in mind, here is a selection of our favorite restaurants, watering holes and clubs near the MCI Center. (You can find longer lists of restaurants and bars in our Entertainment Guide.)

Restaurants

Austin Grill -- Don't be fooled by the blaring country music and the kitschy photos and longhorns on the walls. The Penn Quarter branch of this local chain serves up better-than-average Tex-Mex platters and margaritas.

Ella's Wood Fired Pizza -- A circular wood-fired oven is the focus at Ella's, turning out pies that are chewier and sport fluffier crusts than those down the street at Matchbox. The restaurant's popular happy hour offers $3 draft beers and glasses of sangria from 4 to 8 p.m., and free pizza from 5 to 7. The latter does have a catch: Every 15 minutes or so, servers bring a trio of pizzas out to the bar area, where the assembled masses pounce on them like sharks who've smelled blood. Don't expect to fill up here, but it's a nice snack.

Five Guys -- There are a number of places near the arena where you can grab a burger, but Five Guys is a perennial favorite. The fries are top-notch; the burgers are large and juicy and come with an assortment of toppings, from standard pickles and onion to A-1 Sauce, jalapeno peppers and relish.

Full Kee -- A Chinatown institution, Full Kee emerged from a months-long makeover last year and is back to its best, serving steaming bowls of shrimp dumpling soup and large noodle dishes.

Jaleo -- Responsible for driving the local craze for small plates known as tapas, Jaleo offers more than 50 options, including monkfish with tomato, garlic and parsley; olives stuffed with anchovies and roasted peppers; and grilled garlic shrimp. Order a few dishes and share with friends.

Kanlaya Thai Cuisine -- Yes, it's in Chinatown, but this small restaurant offers tasty, spicy Thai food at reasonable prices. Also, says Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, "if you need to be in your seat for a game … in less than an hour, Kanlaya is a good place to find a meal."

Matchbox -- A narrow three-story restaurant, Matchbox is known for its fresh, New York-inspired pizzas and plates of bite-size miniburgers. The thin-crusted pizzas come fresh out of a brick oven on the main floor and toppings range from grilled chicken, portabello mushrooms and roasted red peppers (the Q Special) to sweet onions, sautéed mushrooms and a zesty sauce (the Veggie). The downside: No reservations, so there can be long waits at prime times.

Zaytinya -- There's always a scene at Zaytinya. It's easy to see why: The space, with a fireplace and long communal table, is as attractive as the crowd that comes to dine on Greek, Turkish and Lebanese tapas. Prices are moderate, with most dishes in the $6 to $8 range, but it can be loud and busy. No reservations are accepted after 6:30 p.m.

Bars

Coyote Ugly -- Maybe you remember the movie "Coyote Ugly," which starred Piper Perabo and Tyra Banks as New York bartenders who danced on the bartops to classic rock songs, pouring shots straight into customers' mouths. There really is a Coyote Ugly saloon in New York, which served as the inspiration for the film. This is the bar-based-on-a-movie-based-on-a-bar, and it's got all the elements you'd expect: An all-female staff performing dance routines on the bar, freely dispenses drinks and invites all the women in the crowd to come up and join them. Coyote Ugly's creator likens the bar to "the ultimate fraternity party on steroids." Needless to say, it's regularly packed on weekends.

District ChopHouse -- This art-deco steakhouse and brewpub looks fancy, but it rewards intrepid bar-hoppers with two attractions rarely found in the neighborhood: pool tables and deeply discounted beers. The key is simply to skip the cramped bar on the first floor and head for the upstairs "Brewers Lounge," which has televisions, leather couches and the aforementioned billiards. Every day from 3 to 7, two of the house beers are just $2.50.

Fado Irish Pub -- Fado, which is partially owned by Guinness's parent company, Diageo, is one of the most popular Irish pubs in town. Sectioned into four themed areas -- including a Victorian-era shop and a country cottage complete with a wishing well -- every bit of the place was imported from Ireland. Contrived? Of course. But Fado delivers, with imperial pints of Guinness (25 percent larger than their American cousins), live Irish music and friendly bartenders.

IndeBleu -- For the basketball fan who wants to celebrate victory with a champagne cocktail instead of a bottle of Bud, there's the hot new lounge at IndeBleu restaurant. Getting a table on weekends requires spending a couple hundred dollars per group, most cocktails hover around $12 a piece, and this isn't the best option if you're wearing a "Fear the Turtle" T-shirt. Still, the excellent DJs and extra-large drink menu have definitely found a niche. The Blackberry Mojito (better than your run-of-the-mill version) and Holy Basil (champagne and a small sprig of the namesake herb) are highly recommended.

The Irish Channel -- For all its bars and restaurants, Penn Quarter isn't much of a late-night destination. In fact, some of the better bars, including Fado and R.F.D., are known for shutting up shop hours before last call. Not the Irish Channel, though, which has made a name for itself with easy-going Irish staff, good pints of Guinness and, crucially, hours that extend until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. During the ACC Tournament, there's a nightly drawing for a pair of tickets to an upcoming game.

R.F.D. -- Brought to you by the same folks that own Washington's legendary Brickskeller, R.F.D. (which stands for Regional Food and Drink) offers 30 draft beers and close to 300 more in bottles, as well as projection TVs. Service is still an issue -- more people complain about the waiters than the beer selection -- but owner Dave Alexander says he'll open the rear "party room" for the college basketball crowds, adding more seats, more television screens and 10 additional taps.


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