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Meet the Neighbors
One restaurant offers comfort in its decor; the other, comfort in its food.

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 8, 2009

1905 Restaurant
1905 Ninth St. NW
202-332-1905
www.1905dc.com

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

Spider Kelly's
3181 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
703-312-8888
www.spiderkellys.com

** (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.

* * *

Burger and a beer? At Spider Kelly's, the young watering hole in Clarendon, I tend to amend the alliterative bar request and ask for soup instead of a sandwich with my suds. Although the menu plays up its burgers, bulking up one choice with pork fat and selling all of them for half-price ($4) on Tuesdays, the chicken soup merits serious attention. It's a bowl your mom might dish up if your mom had whipped up her own stock, using the bones from roast chicken, thrown in plenty of carrots and seasoned the soup with fresh thyme and parsley. The strapping starter is priced for Everyman: $5.

The restaurant is the brainchild of Nick Freshman, 32, and Nick Langman, 33, chums from their days attending Edmund Burke, a private high school in Northwest Washington. Langman co-owns Clarendon Ballroom. Freshman has lots of restaurant experience, including stints at the Ballroom, Five Guys, Poste and Olives.

They aimed high when they launched their small restaurant last summer. As Freshman puts it, the business partners wanted "a bar with exceptional food." To that end, they, along with chef Dennis Camacho, late of the nearby Clarendon Grill, go a step or two further than other pubs. The bun on those burgers is good enough to eat on its own, the french fries are tasty with rosemary and fried garlic, and house-pickled vegetables add color and zest to the plates. The portion sizes suggest linebackers are eating the food; the quality of some of it encourages overconsumption.

You can't go wrong with poultry here, whether it's the aforementioned soup, a plate of meaty wings or a main course. In one entree, fresh chicken is fried to a shattering crisp a la Popeyes; in another, it's spiked with garlic and cumin and able to pass for the kind of bird available at your favorite Latino rotisserie. Both are first brined, both are juicy and both are extremely satisfying.

I never warmed up to the burgers here. (The addition of pork fat in one gives the ground beef a funky taste. Another time, my request for "medium-rare" translated as raw.) But the shrimp po' boy, dressed up with a tangy tangle of slaw, and the grilled steak, glossy with shallot butter, sustained my interest from visit to visit.

The vegetarian at my table didn't go away hungry, but he didn't sample the kitchen's best efforts, either. Curly pasta with spinach, red peppers and a splash of cream tasted like one of those meals you whip up from a little of this and a little of that in the refrigerator. "Cardiac" macaroni and cheese is listed as a side dish but is big enough to qualify as a meal, although it's so underseasoned, I don't think anyone would want more than a few bites. I like the kitchen's green salads, though, which include a hill of chopped romaine tossed with crisp green beans and red pepper strips and moistened with a creamy buttermilk-based dressing.

The service runs casual and efficient ("Seat yourself," a server suggests), and the Nicks put some thought into the look of their lounge-y space. It's dark and seductive, with arty photographs shot by Freshman's brother (and the general manager) Ben on the walls and a small black-granite bar near the front window that dispenses half-price wine, beer and rail drinks on Sundays and Mondays between 5 and 8 p.m.

Chocolate chip cookies are baked to order, and they show up with a glass of milk. Banana cream pudding, embellished with vanilla wafers and whipped cream, went around and around my table until there was not a lick left. It was a comfort, much like Spider Kelly's.

1905: Open: dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Street parking. Metro: U Street. Prices: appetizers $7 to $9, entrees $10 to $22.

Spider Kelly's: Open: dinner daily 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Street parking. Metro: Clarendon. Prices: appetizers $5 to $12, entrees $6 to $14.

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