Correction to This Article
In a previous version of this article, the owners were misidentified in the second photograph. The caption has been corrected.

Tom Sietsema Reviews 1905 and Spider Kelly's

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 8, 2009

1905 Restaurant
1905 Ninth St. NW

* 1/2 (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 83 decibels (Extremely Loud)

Spider Kelly's
3181 Wilson Blvd., Arlington

** (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 81 decibels (Extremely Loud)

A big-name critic at a big-deal newspaper once told me his editor insisted that he "get to the food by the third paragraph" in his restaurant reviews. But as someone who spends his workweek in other people's dining rooms, eavesdropping on his neighbors and taking stock of everything from the comfort of the chairs to the brightness of the lighting, I can tell you: What's on the plate isn't necessarily the reason people go out to eat or choose one restaurant over another.

Your first few minutes at 1905 Restaurant, on the second floor of a narrow townhouse in the Shaw neighborhood, are likely to be spent admiring the decorating skills of Mick Mier. He's one of the restaurant's four owners and the artist responsible for creating a warm and rich environment, dipping into his own collections to make a fetching first impression. An antique chandelier casts a soft glow on a communal table made elegant with a raised centerpiece that suggests the Victorian era; vintage fabric hugs some of the benches. And the pressed-tin ceiling that looks as if it's been there forever is actually embossed paper washed with gold paint. Mier says he aimed to create "a speak-easy feel" at the fledgling restaurant, whose unassuming entrance on the street reinforces his vision.

The atmosphere is important. Most people probably won't remember 1905, which takes its name from its address, for its service. Then again, maybe they will, because it's not the best-timed or the most attentive. Servers tend to give you three seconds to order after you've been handed the menu, but they are nowhere to be found when you need another drink or the check. Food is auctioned off to diners. "Who gets the soup?" a waiter wants to know. "The panzanella? The polenta?"

The lucky patron gets the polenta. The starter is a soft comfort set off with slices of spicy merguez sausage. The tomato-and-bread salad, on the other hand, has no business even being on the menu, winter tomatoes being tasteless (and croutons accounting for much of the heft in the mix). The soup, creamy tomato with crawfish on one visit, would have been okay had it not been for seafood that tasted past its prime.

A small kitchen and a line cook hired from Good Stuff Eatery, the hamburger joint on the Hill, limit the number and range of offerings on the menu, though the owners see that most of their (customer) bases are covered. Little tweaks here and there would elevate some of the eating. Steak au poivre is shy on the promised pepper, for instance, but I like the cheesy potato gratin and the thin asparagus that serve as its escorts. Tender scallops come with a too-sweet parsnip puree and haricots verts beefed up with sauteed mushrooms. The dish that garnered the most praise after three visits paired crisp and juicy chicken with a shrimp-veined sort of paella. Author! Author!

Dessert is better drunk than chewed here. Which means the coffee shows up in a French press and the beignets are dull and doughy. Chocolate panna cotta could probably coax a smile from Bill Cosby but not from any self-respecting Italian pastry chef. It's just standard-issue chocolate pudding.

1905 caters to a young and urban clientele that seems not to mind the deafening noise when all the tables are full and probably appreciates the half-price bottles of wine served before 7 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays. I wonder if they, like me, would rather meet the guy who hung the wallpaper than the one who cooked their dinner.

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