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No Vacancy

Not just for tourists, these hotel dining rooms attract plenty of locals, too

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page W26

* (1 star) Beacon Bar & Grill

in the Beacon Hotel, 1615 Rhode Island Ave. NW

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(at 17th Street). 202-872-1126 www.beaconbarandgrill.com

Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 6:30 to 10:30 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 7:30 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner daily 5 to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Smoking at bar only during the day; separate smoking area at dinner. Metro: Farragut North. Valet parking depending on availability. Prices: appetizers $6 to $9; lunch entrees $9 to $25; dinner entrees $15 to $32. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.

** (2 stars) Circle Bistro

in the One Washington Circle Hotel, 1 Washington Circle NW (at 23rd and L streets). 202-293-5390 www.circlebistro.comOpen: for breakfast 7:30 to 10 a.m. daily; for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Smoking in bar area only. Metro: Foggy Bottom. Valet parking. Prices: lunch appetizers $8 to $10, entrees $12 to $17; dinner appetizers $9 to $17, entrees $24 to $29. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $80 per person.

Booths with portholes! Lobster for $20 on Mondays! A communal table with its own flat-screen TV!

The owners of Beacon Bar & Grill really, really want you to like their hotel restaurant. To that end, they hired a designer, Walter Gagliano, to create an underground dining room that is both hip and intimate, and a chef, Ron Reda, to come up with a menu that calls to everybody but also feels personal. Gagliano made Cafe Atlantico and Ten Penh, among other Washington hot spots, more inviting places to dine; Reda previously worked at Dish in Foggy Bottom, where he specialized in serving American comfort food with a twist.

Good looks and appealing food go a long way toward making Beacon a welcome new neighbor in Dupont Circle. But the $3 million or so sunk into remaking the former 17th Street Bar & Grill seems not to have funded an important detail: training the staff. Brunch menus get passed out mistakenly at dinner; bread baskets fail to make timely appearances; and waiting for a bottle of something red from California seems to take as long as flying there to retrieve it would. Managers appear to be everywhere, but most of them are blind to anyone who isn't standing up and flagging for help. One night, pals and I waited and waited at a host stand in the bar for someone to show us to a table; after 10 minutes, we wandered through throngs of after-work revelers to the dining room, standing first on one side, then the other, looking for someone to direct us.

Some of what followed rewarded our patience. Calamari gets a nice boost from a dusting of crisp fried cilantro, and a cool wedge of iceberg lettuce comes draped with a velvety green goddess dressing and crunchy bits of bacon. But cream of asparagus soup is too restrained -- pureed vegetable served with no garnish whatsoever to break up the verdant picture -- and a pretty salad of tomatoes alternating with goat cheese is mostly tang (and a reminder that tomatoes aren't at their best this time of year). Cured salmon wrapped like a cornucopia around sprouts and poised on a soft potato cake looks odd but tastes just fine.

You might not think to order shepherd's pie in a restaurant, but you should consider doing so here, where ground beef is mixed with corn and topped with a cover of mashed potatoes that has been slightly crisped in the oven. A generous main course, it sticks to your ribs as it conjures thoughts of good home leftovers. Reda also resurrects a few hits from his previous employer, including fried chicken that gets a zesty punch from hot pepper sauce. The bird is flanked by very good coleslaw and corn polenta that is so oversweet it could pass for hot breakfast cereal. A fat pork chop, rounded out with peppery spinach, is plenty succulent.

The chef's rockfish is simple and sophisticated -- a moist slab brightened with Mediterranean accents such as olives, artichokes and tomatoes. A lobster risotto, on the other hand, comes off like a damp rice casserole -- more Betty Crocker than Roberto Donna.

A buddy from New Jersey nods with approval as he bites into Beacon's crisp cannoli. I'm content with a slice of warm apple pie. We savor each bite, knowing it might be a while before we can get the waiter's attention to ask for the check.

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