WITH ALL THE money some restaurateurs squander on decor, the Luna Park Grille in Arlington is proof that what's important is not the "in" look, but the outlook.
A long, narrow shoebox of a tavern, its ornamentation limited to a handful of vintage photos and a couple of plaster elephant plaques (of which more later), Luna Park Grille has made a virtue of what trendier types would consider necessity: its lack of pretension. The food is straightforward, the staff friendly and at ease and the pickup pressure nil. Plain food, real people -- it may sound like a beer ad, but it ought to be bedrock for any good bar. Toss in high-quality entertainment and a no-cover policy, and you've struck karma gold.
As far as the menu goes, Luna Park is a short-order grill for the semi-enlightened '90s: hefty, hearty slabs and sandwiches (more hearty than heart-conscious, probably, but truly comforting), burgers, tuna melts, smoked turkey and cheese subs, hot dogs and chili, steaks and cheese, barbecued ribs and chicken and even a you-can-go-home-again chopped steak with veggies and "potato of the day" (only french fries until after 5) and Waldorf salad! Plus nachos, fried mozzarella strips, wings, ribettes -- this place is not for the fastidious finger-fooder. In fact, it's the first menu we've ever seen that actually admitted to serving french fries with melted cheese.
Add to that the daily specials (teriyaki steak, spiced shrimp) and a cheese and fruit platter, and you have an eerily appropriate portrait of a taproom catering to the new Northern Virginia's new middle-aged (25 to 40) in a matched-storefront shopping strip halfway between Ballston and Falls Church. (Just for fun, as an example of a tavern succoring the old middle-aged of the old NoVa neighborhood, try the Forest Tavern, a tolerant, generous-pouring cash-only establishment directly across the street.)
Musically, Luna Park has a high cult intelligence. Booked two nights a week, the acts are vaguely divided into the acoustic types on Thursdays, when workaday folks may be in a conversational mode and prefer to tap in and out of the background music (Tom Lofgren, Side by Side, Kevin James & Larry Coneen) and the louder, livelier set-'em-up types on Saturdays (the neo-rockabilly Redeemers, quicksilver pop messenger Jon Carroll and this weekend's high-octane attraction, Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun). The performers are niched into a platform by the front window, which makes bar space tight on a hot night, but the sound runs clear back to the cheap seats.
Now, as to the elephants: Just after the turn of the century, misguided reformers shut down the St. Asaph racetrack, thus causing a severe cashflow shortage at the Washington, Alexandria and Mt. Vernon Railway. Railroad directors thereupon struck on the idea of constructing an amusement park, accessible by rail (the "Luna Park Special" spur) on a 40-acre site on the banks of Four Mile Run. It contained ballrooms, exhibition halls, restaurants, roller coasters and rides, and specialty acts and circus performers were booked from Coney Island.
One of these was a quartet of trained elephants who gave a single, widely admired performance on the afternoon of their arrival; that night, however, spooked by a tremendous thunderstorm, they tore loose the columns that supported the pavilion and bolted into the storm. Although one was recaptured in Bailey's Crossroads a few days later, the other three roamed at large for several weeks, causing no end of trouble, rubble and excitement, before being captured in Fairfax County and shipped back to New York. The park complex burned a few years later and was abandoned.
We recount this abbreviated version of the park's history primarily to point out the Grille's admirable sense of restraint: No sandwich, drink or dessert on the menu is named Jumbo, Dumbo, Babar or Baby. There are no stupid trunk jokes (the logo is lunar, which draws us). They don't even serve Elephant Beer. And they do not discriminate by political party.
Luna Park Grille is in the Westover Shopping Center on Washington Boulevard at McKinley Street in Arlington; 703/237-5862.
BREWPUB ALERT: The Capitol City Brewing Co. -- which is to say partners John Keniley, formerly of the estimable Dock Street brewery of Philadelphia, and chef Dewey Dematatis, formerly of the Fishery, Morton's and Occidental Grill, among others -- has signed a lease to build a 6,600-square foot brewpub in the deco office complex on the site of the old Greyhound building on New York Avenue near the Convention Center. With the expectation that the John Ray-sponsored brewpub license bill will pass in the D.C. Council shortly, opening is tentatively scheduled for fall.
Designs for the Cap City microbrewery include seating for 200, a full view of the brewing operation and a range of six home brews: a lager, a stout, a bitter, a pilsener, an ale and Washington's first English-style "burton" beer. Plans also include a wood-burning grill and rotisserie, a raw bar and a coffee bar featuring specialty grinds.
Incidentally, the Institute for Brewing Studies now estimates that a new brewpub opens every week somewhere in North America; with a trend like that, can Washington be far behind?