Places like the Ice House Cafe are few and far between. Of course most things out near Dulles Airport are few and far between.
While we may indeed be talking Herndon here, we are also talking jazz three nights a week; a raw bar; a serene back-porch dining area; and a Wednesday night Maine lobster special for $9.95, among other things.
Whether you spend it eating, drinking, conversing or some combination thereof (other than all three at once), a night at the Ice House Cafe turns out to be generally worth clearing some early hurdles.
Among the hurdles are the out-of-the-way trip itself; the lack of parking; and the initally off-putting discovery that the Ice House Cafe crouches, however cheerfully, between an Oldsmobile dealership and a no- name self-service gas station.
Get past the hurdles, though -- plus one actual roadblock, currently detouring traffic off Elden Avenue in downtown Herndon -- and you will find yourself in a friendly, marginally funky place. And one that draws decidedly more customers from the nearby centers of high-tech industry and planned- community living (yes, Reston) than from the even-nearer cement plant.
Drink prices -- $1.75 for bottled Bud, $2.35 for rail drinks -- reflect the Ice House's high necktie-to-overalls ratio, but the food prices are surely reasonable, considering the food. And for the surely edible food you can credit chef Steve Jaeger, a creatively consistent type who eschews anything frozen and bakes the French bread every day.
For the jazz (9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday), you might credit owner Dan Chamblin, who regularly brings in the likes of the Hot Jazz Club, the Bill Parks Quartet and guitarist Tom Principato. Some nights aren't as good as others -- a recent Saturday night sounded suspiciously like a wedding reception -- but some are serendipitous.
Just the other Monday night, for instance, the house was full of older British airplane company types nursing draft Bass ($1.95, 16 ounces) and younger preaseason football viewers (back in the new oyster bar, which has its own TV and audio tape deck, and adjoins the three-month-old "back porch" dining deck). A diner at one of the two tables set up on the main-room stage when the stage isn't in use asked if he might play the piano, and manager Guy Lupton promptly turned off the taped music (unobtrusive big-band swing). The customer -- a stocky, 60-ish cigar smoker in a business suit -- launched into a simple, soulful blues, followed by an improvised "Green Dolphin Street," and was off. He played for an hour, to frequent applause. Said he used to do that for a living; now it's just for fun.
A lot of places aren't open to this type of thing; happily, the Ice House Cafe isn't one of them. This is an offhanded, open-to- chance place. Lupton himself, for example, got hired after he and his wife had dinner there and he found the help didn't know how to shuck an oyster properly; he called them up the next day to offer advice. And the lobsters for the Wednesday night special (always mobbed; reservations suggested) arrive sometime after 5 p.m. on a plane from Maine to Dulles, and have to be in the pot by 6. "If that flight's ever delayed," says Lupton, "I don't know what we're going to do."
Show me a place that knows exactly what it's going to do if the lobsters are late, and I'll show you a really boring place. ICE HOUSE CAFE -- 760 Elden Street, Herndon. Open 11:30 to 1:30, Monday-Saturday, 11:30 to 11 Sunday. Reservations at 471-4256.