SOUNDTRACK OF Matthew Sweet-ish post-pop melancholy, low evening lighting and action: Youngish unreconciled cable wonk whose auburn ponytail and wire-rims reveal his Saturday night moonlightings as Zevon cover artist stumbles down the middle of Wilson Boulevard, tie askew and shirttail disheveled, shrieking, "There is not one iota of wit or imagination in these Clarendon hinterlands!"
Well, wits, languish no more. Iota, like young Lochinvar, has come out of the west, and stoutly, to soothe what ales thee, palely loitering. (Try the Dominion summer wheat beer -- very bracing.)
Iota is admittedly small -- hence, presumably, the name -- but it's an intellectually karmic oasis in what is still a gray limbo between the Court House and Clarendon Metro stations.
One of those shoeboxy storefronts that had been left to decay, it has been exhaustively scrubbed down, sand-blasted and re-strutted by a resolute team of hands-on management, and now looks like the quintessential, stripped-down studio: exposed brick, wedgewoody blue walls, recycled red-leatherette booths, overhead "beams" that shore up the infrastructure while affording subtle shelving for stereo equipment, and a compact mini-kitchen that recalls not only the word "galley" but the phrase "galley slaves."
Lochinvar? Palely loitering? Limbo-not-the-dance? Look 'em up. As a matter of fact, look them up, and most of the other (as you may think) obscure references contained herein, at the bar. The Iota quota of new words is relatively high, since the staff is crossword-crazy and the major bar lagniappe is photocopied Sunday puzzles from the New York Times and Washington Post. (Actually, it had occurred to us to wonder whether the name Iota was doubly attractive because four-letter words containing three vowels are so rare and Scrabble-y desirable.) Behind the bar are a dictionary and assorted other reference miscellany -- including, rumor has it, a Boy Scout Handbook, perhaps in case one is faced with a really knotty problem.
The decor is minimal, consisting primarily of bits of shaped concrete imbedded in the exposed brick that suggest, in no particular order and all admittedly vaguely, early Christian fish-symbol mysticism, the word "iota" itself and antique garden-path flagstones. Both the restraint and the ambiguity are welcome in a time when it seems habitual for bars to go whole hog into a surfeit of explicit visual puns; and it also suggests that Iota is a place to relax, not react. You wear Iota, it doesn't wear, or wear on, you. And the people whom Iota suits are just as likely to be suits as shorts; it's a mix of music fans, fellow bartender/waiter/courier types and 20-40s-ish singles with salaries who aren't in denial about them.
Smartly, considering its rationed storage space, Iota is also restrained in its microbrew beer list, sticking to about a dozen and only a couple on tap, plus a mere handful of mass brews and a full bar. Only house wines, but not ridiculous ones.
From that tiny kitchen come (typically) intriguingly skewed standards: "Irish nachos" on french fries instead of taco rinds; spinach-cheese and corn-cheese balls, "mango jack" quesadillas with optional "margarita chicken," a broiled salmon with raspberry butter and ratatouille and during the Sunday brunch, an "eggs Iota" of poached eggs, muffin, tilapia and bacon with hollandaise.
Iota offers live music several nights a week on a tiny front-corner stage that has the virtue of being both visible and audible; and makes a specialty of the more interesting up-and-comers. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights, it's a mix of alternative, blues, roots rock, covers and jazz, ranging from young-turk blues guitarist Bobby Thompson to sax master Paul Carr, the slightly twisted-cover band Tastes Like Chicken and the preternaturally surrealist post-popper Kowtow Popof. On Mondays, Kevin Johnson hosts unplugged songwriters' showcases from both the local and regional circuit (this week featuring Bill Parsons and Nashville's Dana Cooper), and on Wednesdays Laughing Man frontman Steve Hagedorn goes solo.
Iota took a while to get going, and is still patiently forging ahead at its own pace. The small patio out back, also hand-wrassled into place, is awaiting official approval (and might well double the seating capacity). Plastic is not yet an acceptable substitute for currency, but should be shortly.
Iota is open every day from 11:30 to 2 at 2831 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington; call 703/522-8340.
TRAY CHIC: Speaking of small packages, Washingtonians who know Yacht Club yenta Tom Curtis may be surprised that in his new TV ads for Clausthaler beer, the diminutive ex-DJ looks almost as tall as the restaurateurs he's interviewing. It's because out of camera view, he's standing on bus trays. Hey, it worked for Alan Ladd.