EVERYONE'S AN EXPERT on where to find the best chicken wings. Whether you prefer traditional breaded wings or fiery, heavily sauced Buffalo wings -- so named because the famous version was invented at Buffalo's Anchor Bar Restaurant -- wings can help elevate a good local bar into something special.
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of establishments that claim to specialize in wings, but few can match the Flying Buffalo (7305 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-876-9671), an unassuming restaurant and bar tucked into the Loehmann's Plaza shopping center.
Come in during happy hour or early in the evening and this one-room establishment looks like most other suburban watering holes -- younger guys in shorts and flip-flops gather around the four pool tables, play Golden Tee and watch sports on a widescreen TV; older couples catch up at the bar or sit around high tables. Families and groups occupy the dining room, near a children's area stocked with toys and construction paper.
My eyes are drawn to taps pouring Spaten Lager, the golden flagship beer of one of Munich's oldest breweries. Owner Sven Gierlinger, a native of Bavaria, insists that Spaten be poured into traditional German half-liter glasses and heavy, Oktoberfest-friendly liter mugs -- order the latter and you get about 34 ounces of beer.
But beyond a neighborhood gathering place with billiards and brews, the Flying Buffalo promises one of the more unusual bar menus in the area. Drawing on a love of ethnic food and years of service-industry experience, including working as a chef in Germany, Gierlinger and his wife have developed a menu that features 15 exotic varieties of wings, including zesty lemongrass, barbecue sauce with the sweet touch of Coca-Cola, a tangy combination of garlic and pineapple rolled in toasted coconut, and a spicy concoction with hot Bavarian mustard. "We thought it would be fun to offer all these well-liked flavors on wings instead of your usual hot, medium and mild, and teriyaki, or something," explains Mary Beth Palmer-Gierlinger.
It's worth pointing out, however, that most of these won't please the guys -- you know who you are -- who order "nuclear" or "911" wings to impress their friends. On our first visit, we tried the "hot" wings and were mildly disappointed with the level of spiciness, although a friend and I agreed they were pretty tasty. On a subsequent visit, I found the Cajun wings kicked it up a notch, but they still didn't make me grasp for my water -- and that's fine with the Flying Buffalo.
"Sometimes we hear it's not hot enough. . . . People might compare us to some wings places that have crazy-hot sauces that are like chemicals on your tongue," Sven Gierlinger says. Here, the extra-hot variety is called the Code Red, and while it's piquant enough to make your eyes water, you can actually taste the habanero peppers (with seeds), hot cayenne peppers and black peppers in the sauce.
When the Gierlingers decided to open the Flying Buffalo two years ago, "I knew nothing about chicken wings," laughs Sven, who grew up in his family's restaurant in southern Germany and eventually became a food and beverage manager for Ritz-Carlton hotels. "A business partner of Mary Beth's knew someone who was doing a chicken wing concept, and it was a good business."
Says Mary Beth: "I was out doing market research, and I was eating at all these wing places, and what I discovered is that they all taste the same, because they all use these bottled sauces. I knew that with Sven's background, we could do so much more, more interesting food and better sauces."
Beyond wings, the menu includes pupusas made by a local Salvadoran cook, yucca fries that are fluffier and more flavorful than their French cousins, and, in yet another nod to Germany, Wiener schnitzel.
But wings gave the restaurant its name, and a quick look around the room reveals them to be the most popular menu item, sold in orders of 10 and served with plentiful napkins and a metal pail for disposing of bones. To get a better handle on all the varieties, bring friends on Monday for the "buy 10, get 10 free" happy hour, grab a table and explore the menu.
Actually, bringing friends is a good idea whenever you go -- if you're looking for a scene, this is pretty low-key. That may change over the next few months, as the Gierlingers hope to offer regular live music -- two bands performed in June -- as well as karaoke, but the wings are what will keep the crowds coming back.
HAPPY DAYS, HERE AGAIN
People always ask about the "best" end-of-the-week happy hours, but there's really no right answer to such a subjective question. Are they looking for food specials? Discounted martinis? Incredible people-watching?
For value alone, though, it's hard to beat the legendary Republic Gardens (1355 U St. NW; 202-232-2710), which has recently reinstated its open-bar happy hours as House Party Thursday, which runs from 6 to 8, and the Old School Happy Hour (Friday), which runs from 5:30 to 7:30 starting Friday; and Wednesday's Wet event has two happy hours, from 6 to 7 and 10 to 11.
What makes this such a deal? Put your name on an Internet mailing list and you get free admission and all the top-shelf liquor and beer you care to drink, plus a small buffet of snacks.
From the mid-'90s to the turn of the millennium, the Gardens' weekly happy hours were one of the busiest social scenes in town. Dozens of African American professionals regularly lined up after work to take advantage of the specials and stayed to party well into the night.
Republic Gardens closed "temporarily" in 2001, and when it reopened with new owners last year, the once-popular happy hours were banished or toned down. Big mistake.
Because of Republic Gardens' popular specials -- the brainchild of former owner Marc Barnes -- nightspots that wanted to lure a similar upscale demographic dutifully copied the format, from the chic Flirt party at MCCXXIII to the waterfront restaurant and club H2O and Barnes's own multilevel superclub, Dream. These days, customers who frequent hip-hop and R&B spots expect a little more at happy hour, and if one club doesn't have it, well, there's probably another that does.
Nostalgic for Republic Gardens' heyday, a friend and I went to revisit the U Street happy hour last Friday. The format's generally the same -- but now there's a charge of $10 or more without a printout from a participating e-mail list (try Republicgardens.com, Eviplist.com or Madpowerunit.com). Once inside the stylish lounge, bartenders meet every request with ease. Tanqueray and tonic? No problem. Maker's Mark and ginger ale? Sure thing. Bottle of Heineken? Done. A snifter of Courvoisier? Ditto. (Just be sure to order drinks by brand name, or the bartender may assume you don't care and pour a glass full of no-name spirits.) Also, remember to tip a buck or two per drink. Even though you're not paying, the bartenders are still working.
Happy hour is an intimate affair -- only the ground-floor lounge and dining room is open early on, and a small crowd of fashionably dressed twenty-to-thirty-something African Americans filled the long leather couches and the seats around the bar. Forgettable mainstream hip-hop comes from the sound system. It's a far cry from the old days, if a bit more relaxed.
I regret to report, however, that the once-lavish dinner buffet has fallen off. A few years ago, I remember walking down a long buffet line and being served chicken over rice, green beans -- a full meal. Now, a few chafing dishes in the rear dining room held chicken wings, French fries and, a little later, quesadillas.
Some of my white friends don't think they'd be comfortable at Republic Gardens. However, I've never felt awkward being in the minority there. If they'd rather stay in Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill, missing out on some of the city's best happy hour deals, they've only themselves to blame.