MOST OF THE TIME, restaurant critiques -- and their headlines, which tend to predispose the readers' minds to judge the place by the food -- focus on the cooking. Or they pick up an angle: the continued upscaling of restaurants in the Palisades, for example. But that, as all but the most extravagant food-trend victim will admit, is not all there is to establishing favorite hangouts. Natural hospitality, genuine good cheer, comfortable seating and a sense of humor may sound easy to come by, but in a prefab, high-concept world, those underrated virtues suddenly make a big impression.
Which is the first thing you notice about the DC Boat House: how relaxed everybody is. Just looking through the window, you get the feeling that the people inside all know and like each other. Once inside, seeing the mixed-age clientele, the at-ease children (hands deep in their obligingly unsauced spaghetti) and the more grown-up "living room" at the back, with its expansive wall mirror, sink-yourself sofas, coffeepots and end tables for cocktails, you can see how it might become a home away from home for locals. It's populated by athletic-looking twenty-somethings, mid-level celebrities trying to look anonymous and a host of those seniors -- deeply tanned, silver-haired, understatedly elegant and invariably pleasant -- who somehow seem to spell "boating." Even the food is almost exaggeratedly homey.
"We're Greek," says the owners' daughter Nicole (as Patty and Bill Economides certainly are). "The chef [Damon Mylonas] is Greek. Everybody here is like family." That also helps explain the decor: Once the name was chosen (to salute the nearby C&O Canal) and the first bit of crew paraphernalia hoisted -- in place of a chandelier, a lovely single scull hangs upended from the ceiling, complete with a pair of sneakers glued to the footboard -- patrons started donating college and high school crew T-shirts to the collection. It's the real-life version of those fake stained-glass tin-sign pubs.
The flip side of a neighborhood hangout is that the fare is more fair than fine, but the Boat House doesn't pretend to white-linen status. (Actually, there are white tablecloths, but they're wisely covered with butcher paper.) Sometimes orders get confused and the waiters look disgruntled (or maybe just hot; the AC is often overwhelmed). Some days the french fries are undercooked and greasy, the obvious victim of too-cool oil, but other days they're fine. Ketchup and mustard come in carryout plastic tubs. The butter would probably come in foil if there were a bread basket. It's the nature of an informal kitchen.
Among appetizers, the best bets include the spinach and artichoke dip, which is as much artichoke as spinach and not too cheese-diluted. Fried calamari is nice, tender despite the large diameter of the rings, and in a light, tempura-style batter. The coconut shrimp, while rather on the sweet side (apparently dipped in sweetened rather than unsweetened flakes), shows the kitchen's frying technique to good example, arriving hot, extremely crisp and nearly grease-free. When spanakopita is available, it's very nice: unusually airy, more like a spinach souffle than most of those weighty pies, and the phyllo isn't thick (or dull) as a brick. A frequent special is crab-stuffed mushrooms (backfin, not lump), which were nice and juicy.
Salads are a big draw here and a big portion as well: Greek (more greens and less cutesy filling than most), Caesar or simple house salads can all be ordered with a substantial helping of pounded-thin and grilled chicken breast, tuna salad or steak. Barbecued ribs could be meatier, and the sauce is a trifle sweet. The chili is so-so.
The hot sandwiches and subs are not earthshaking, but good, and most are served on crusted rolls, rather like small loaves of French bread, rather than soft ones, which gives them more interest. The traditional Italian cold cut sub was a little overcautious with its peppers and with its vinegar, which is important to offset the combined slicks of olive oil, capicola fat, salami grease and cheese; the hot Sicilian sausage is a little rowdier. The Reubens, both a traditional corned beef and a turkey version, are nice, and the grilled rye bread tasty; but like most Reubens these days, they're oddly scant on sauerkraut, which is sort of a defining flavor. The tuna melt (Swiss cheese here) is a really homey indulgence.
When it comes to the entrees, the kitchen is a little erratic. A special of grouper, stuffed with crabcake mix, was very good, if a trifle overcooked. On the other hand, one night's grilled tuna steak, though of the thin-cut variety, was cooked medium-rare as requested; unhappily, the fish itself was slightly off, as was a thickish and raw-in-the-middle corvino. Yet another order of corvino was first-rate -- sort of the Goldilocks effect.
Neighborhood is the key word here: Think "bacon cheeseburger."
One thing the Boat House does consistently well is vegetables, which are carefully cooked, crisp and straightforward, a small but real pleasure, and one that makes their primavera a better bet than at many places. Nothing seems salty, and since many dishes come with a wedge of lemon, it isn't necessary. Another virtue is the bar, which is a generous one; no skimpy cocktails or wine pours.
The Boat House may not show up on the hot list, but it's genuinely warm. There's the headline.