By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 3, 2006
The early 20th century was a boom time for the "streetcar suburb" of Petworth, as the arrival of public transportation and an influx of housing led to increased population and a string of new shops and businesses along the Georgia Avenue corridor.
Almost 100 years later, this sounds familiar.
It seems only appropriate then, as Metro and the frenzied real estate market make for a new boom in the area, that Petworth's latest restaurant and tavern is a classy throwback to the Jazz Age, complete with sparkling French empire crystal chandeliers, a pressed-tin ceiling, gilt-edged mirrors and a sparkling collection of rye whiskeys. Torchieres throw light on flocked-velvet wallpaper and ancient-looking brick walls, and seltzer bottles line the back of the heavy wooden bar.
Scratch just below the surface of this retro-cool decor, though, and you'll realize that Temperance Hall, open since early January, is simply a neighborhood hangout with a bit of style and a clientele that reflects the community.
Stop in after work and you may find older men occupying the large banquette in the bay window, talking D.C. politics in Caribbean accents; guys with tattoos eating hearty bowls of four-meat chili and sipping microbrews at the bar; a couple nestled into one of the wraparound leather booths; and a group of friends -- black and white -- shooting pool in the rear of the split-level room, watching sports on a flat-screen television.
The Internet jukebox is as eclectic as its customers: One night it's a succession of slow-jam R&B tunes, another, it's blasting English punk and ska.
"I think it's important to make a place where everyone feels comfortable," manager Dan Searing says. "I see it as a responsibility in a neighborhood like Petworth, that's underserved in the kind of establishment we are." He's especially happy that many new customers introduce themselves "by telling me how far they live from the bar."
He could answer in kind. Searing, who bought a house in Petworth in October 2004, left his job managing Oyamel restaurant in Crystal City early last year to take a job closer to home. "I thought opening a new bar in my neighborhood would be pretty exciting," he says, adding that he thinks his address helped him get his foot in the door because "I'm someone who made a commitment to living in the community."
Neighborhood ties run deep, from part-owners Robb Lakritz and Josh Adler of the Lakritz-Adler real estate development company to several members of the staff, including the doorman and one bartender. (Joe Englert, the bar magnate who has made a habit of opening taverns in up-and-coming areas, is a partner in the venture and the man Searing credits with Temperance Hall's theme.) To complete the theme, Searing is assembling a large collection of rye whiskey -- bourbon's older, more bitter brother -- because it was especially popular with pre-Prohibition drinkers. (The Old Potrero, made in the 18th-century style, is especially worth a try.) Other drink options include Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and four draft beers, which should change frequently.
Because Temperance is trying to appeal to a broad crowd, the short menu sticks to clever twists on staple bar foods, including filling bowls of four-meat chili, large burgers and choritzitos, a trio of little sausages that lacked the expected bite. The sleeper is a plate of mini-sloppy joes -- a take-off on the current craze for small burgers -- well-seasoned and so overstuffed that you'll need your silverware to mop up. Don't overlook the bar's house-made cocktail nuts, which are addictively spicy. Problem is, they cost $1 a bowl after 8, when happy hour ends.
Now that the kitchen has settled in, Searing says, the menu is set to expand, including a weekend brunch later this spring.
Although there are high-backed booths and plenty of nooks in Temperance Hall's main room, I'm especially drawn to the speakeasy-like Whiskey Room, hidden down a flight of stairs and past the kitchen and bathroom. It's a smaller, more intimate space with a tiny bar and a few tables. It also has a better soundtrack, thanks to a CD jukebox stocked by Searing, a musician and DJ who has played in local indie-rock bands such as Glo-Worm and the Saturday People and has spun records at the Eighteenth Street Lounge and Pharmacy Bar. The self-described music obsessive wanted to create "a well-curated jukebox that would please the deeper listener," so he has filled it with vintage dub and R&B, '70s punk rock, a collection of 1920s and '30s gospel singles -- "We needed to have some period music," Searing says -- and a personal favorite, the Clientele. (The Saturday People released a split 7-inch single with that English group a few years ago.) The Whiskey Room also has a door that leads to a fenced, covered patio, which will come in handy once the District's smoking ban kicks in. "I don't want anyone to have to stand out on Georgia Avenue," Searing says.
Temperance Hall is on its way to becoming a fixture in the community, but some members of the staff still seem to be settling in -- pouring gigantic heads on beers, looking right past you when your glass is empty. They're friendly and service is getting better, though I still see people at tables having to get up, come to the bar and ask for a check.
Still, I won't let such small missteps dissuade me from visiting again, and I suspect I won't be the only one coming from outside Petworth. Searing maintains that the focus will remain on being a "neighborhood bar" rather than "a destination," but Temperance Hall shouldn't have any problems drawing either crowd.
Temperance Hall 3634 Georgia Ave. NW 202-722-7669 Scene: A friendly neighborhood tavern with a roaring '20s theme.