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Comfortable Spots on Barracks Row

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page WE05

OVER THE past few years, the historic shopping district on Eighth Street SE known as Barracks Row has transformed itself into one of the bright spots on Capitol Hill, attracting a lively mix of shops, restaurants and bars. After dark, crowds buzz at new hot spots Finn Mac Cool's and Belga Cafe as well as longtime nightlife landmarks Ellington's on Eighth and Phase One.

But this is far from the next Adams Morgan or Georgetown.

Jordan Cappolla owns Capitol Hill's Tapatinis, where a colorful cocktail menu matches the decor. (Photo by Grant L. Gursky for The Washington Post)

Establishments on Barracks Row primarily attract a fairly diverse neighborhood crowd -- residents, office workers, Marines, straight, gay, white, black -- and remain resolutely low-key.

What's interesting is the range of choices available -- additions in the last 18 months include a sports bar, a martini lounge and a nonsmoking saloon, each filling a particular void. If you're looking to do some urban exploring, or you want to put together a short, Metro-accessible bar crawl, Barracks Row is worth the trip.

Opened just before New Year's Eve, the Ugly Mug fancies itself to be an upscale sports bar. It's not quite there yet, but the Mug has a few things going for it: television screens, beers and miniburgers.

This is clearly a place to come watch the game with your friends. Five large flat-screen televisions hang behind the long bar.

Four smaller monitors hang on the support columns that separate the bar from the large round booths and wide tables in the dining area, making sure that almost everyone has a view. There's a 10th flat-screen TV in the tiny billiards room in the rear, along with a pool table and PGA Tour video game.

If you turn your eyes away from the televisions, though, the main room seems more unfinished than upscale -- the spartan decor is limited to mirrors with beer logos, a few posters and an Internet jukebox.

With 24 drafts, the Ugly Mug is the king of the beers on the Hill, and while the lineup is pretty pedestrian, it gets the job done.

I haven't yet been able to decode why some beers arrive in frosty mugs and others are served in pint glasses -- it all seems to depend on the whim of the bartender and the time of your visit.

Chef Graig Glufling helped kick-start the miniburger trend at Matchbox a few summers ago, and the juicy bite-size burgers served here are even better, delivered on a toasted brioche bun with American cheese and a slab of pickle. Glufling also cooks some interesting pizzas, which can be hit-or-miss (white pizza with prosciutto and garlic falls into the former category).

Service, though, has been a sticking point at the Mug since my first visit. The dining area seems chronically understaffed, and some servers are a bit clueless. There's a solution, but it's not the best: Grab a seat at the counter.

I don't enjoy telling people they need to sit at the bar if they want good service -- it seems like a cop-out, and it's harder to hold a conversation there than in a booth. Then again, it's harder for your server to disappear, leaving you craning your neck looking for him for the next 10 minutes when you need a drink refill, or to continually duck your accusing glance when you're still waiting for your miniburgers.

The Ugly Mug clearly has potential, and while there are kinks to work out, the promise of beer, better-than-average bar food and well-placed televisions has me thinking this could be an excellent pre-Nationals pit stop this summer.

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