First Bite

Still a Contender, but Still Not on Top

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How long is too long to stand in line for a burger and fries? Would you wait 20 minutes outside in 90-degree heat? Then 27 minutes more once the crowd-controlling doorman lets you in? What if "Top Chef" contestant Spike Mendelsohn was jamming behind the counter? Then would it be worth it?

"It'd better be a pretty darn good burger," we grumbled as we waited our turn with throngs of congressional staffers and the Bugaboo stroller crowd that had arrived to sample Capitol Hill's Good Stuff Eatery (303 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-543-8222), which opened in early July. It's a Mendelsohn family venture: Mother Catherine worked on the menu, father Harvey works the floor and sister Micheline does the marketing.

As far as waiting goes, it's actually pretty pleasant. That door greeter, who ensures customers enter the joint in an orderly fashion, was friendly and had plenty of menu advice: The bacon is "awesome"; the toasted marshmallow shake is already a "signature." Inside, the streamlined farmhouse decor, with whitewashed wood plank floors and a giant cowbell hanging from the ceiling, seamlessly blends with oversize photos of the fedora-wearing Spike and the blasting rock music. We were pleased to see 12 cooks working behind the counter to keep the lines moving.

We were starving by the time we got our food, but not so desperate that we failed to notice a few flaws. The burgers were well seasoned, sized and packaged but were cooked to a tough medium-well. The Village Fries, elegantly spiced with fresh thyme and rosemary, weren't crispy despite having been fried twice, and the homegrown Vidalia onion rings were lumps of mushed-together fried onions that resembled a run-over baby octopus.

That said, the Blazin' Barn burger, with pickled daikon, carrots, mint and Thai basil and cilantro, was about as refreshing as a burger can be. ("Thai McDonald's," my companion said, meaning it as a compliment.) The strawberry milkshake (we got the perfectly sized 16-ounce "Mini Moo") was summer in a plastic cup. That bacon on our Farmhouse Bacon Cheese burger was indeed awesome.

Style was always Mendelsohn's strong point, and there's plenty on display at Good Stuff. More locations are in the works, but with Five Guys just a few miles away, this not-quite-top chef will need to increase consistency to keep the lines long.

Burgers $5.49 to $7.69.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company