PORTER'S DINING Saloon (1207 19th St. NW; 202-775-3797) is something of a sleeper on the downtown scene. I'll admit I was underwhelmed the first few times I stopped by the bar, which occupies three stories of a rowhouse near the corner of 19th and M streets NW.
Everything is so simple: The main floor features exposed, weathered brick walls decorated with a few antique-style mirrors and lightened by panels of stained glass. A sturdy wooden bar runs down one wall, facing a long green banquette and a couple of tables. In the very front of the room, a bay window, outfitted with a couple of high stools and a rail for resting drinks, has become a favorite place to perch.
Lights are perpetually dim, barring the luminous row of six flat-screen televisions on the wall. An upstairs dining room sees most of its use on weekends, when a young crowd comes out to dance, as does a narrow, low-ceilinged rathskeller. Both floors are similarly decorated with a minimalist combination of brick and televisions -- 17 screens in all.
Porter's reminds me of taverns and old pubs I've visited in London, New York and Philadelphia, but honestly, nothing about the place jumps out. I was thinking about this the other night as I sat at the bar there, sipping a pint of Foggy Bottom Ale, munching on a very good blue-cheese burger and waiting for the Nationals game to come on on one of the televisions.
Sometimes, this is enough.
It makes me long for a hot new trend: bar and lounge owners spending less time and money trying to get their establishments into Interior Design Magazine or attempting to convince me that I've popped across the pond for a pint in a "traditional" pub, and spending more time just creating a comfortable space with thoughtful touches.
I like that Porters is a pub that reliably has sports on TV but doesn't try to hit me over the head with dozens of super-size screens or cover the walls with memorabilia and sepia-toned photos. Nationals, Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles seem to get priority right now (in that order), but come football season and March Madness, Porters attracts Terrapins, Nittany Lions, Boston College Eagles and other ACC and Big East fans.
I like that it's nondescript enough that it attracts twentysomethings in jeans and older guys in suits to the same happy hour. An internet jukebox cranks out a steady supply of rock (the Band and the Dave Matthews Band pop up repeatedly), the bartenders are usually quick to replace an empty glass and the food is better than you'd expect: above-average burgers (both full-size and mini, served on brioche), a good selection of sandwiches and crab dip that actually tastes of lump meat.
And, I have to say, I really like that Porter's is a bar for the budget minded. Not only are rail drinks and beers half-price from 4 to 7, but there's a nightly special from 7 to close, including $2 drafts on Mondays and Tuesdays, $2 Miller Lite on Thursdays and $3 Foggy Bottom, Pilsner Urquell and Sam Adams on Friday. There are additional discounts when the Nationals are on TV.
It's not surprising that a veteran bartender is the person behind Porter's. Scott Porter spent more than a decade working in College Park, Midtown and Cleveland Park, and says he always wanted to open a place on M Street. So when Porter got the opportunity to take over the space once known as Le Jardin, he jumped, and deliberately stuck to the basics. "It's about as rustic as you can get -- like an Irish bar in Manhattan," he says. "Putting $1,000 pictures on the wall isn't going to pay the bills."
It's an approach that serves him well, both here and at his other bar, the Ugly Mug on Capitol Hill's Barracks Row.
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at Porter's, tables on the upper level are cleared to make room for a dance party that's vaguely reminiscent of a college mixer. A fresh-out-of-school (or about to be) crowd grooves to Lil' Jon, 50 Cent and the occasional retro hit; women are dressed in their tight-and-glittery best, guys seem oblivious to the beer spilled down the front of their Oxford shirts. Giggling, gossiping groups congregate on the edges to talk over the music. (DJs change every week. Some are pretty good at mixing it up. Last weekend's selector, an older guy loaded down with binders of compilation CDs, was a bit too "wedding reception" for my taste, but he got the job done.) The outdoor patio, surrounded by a low stone wall, is a nice place to relax after work or late at night, but service can be astoundingly slipshod. Friends and I have sat, glasses empty while servers walk by, and I've seen couples -- obviously tourists -- wait 10 minutes, head inside and track a waiter down just to get menus. And, though I felt slightly guilty about it, I've given up waiting for someone to notice my empty glass, gone to the bar and ordered my own beers.
I can forgive the occasional misstep, though, because for the most part, Porter's fulfills some basic needs: good food, beer at a fair price, a place to meet friends and watch a game. Sometimes, that's all I ask.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE BEER
The next week brings two noteworthy events for local beer lovers, novices and experts alike.
First, congratulations to brewer Mike McCarthy and the guys at the Capitol City Brewing Company in Shirlington (2700 S. Quincy St., Arlington; 703-578-3888), who are preparing to tap the brewpub's 1,000th batch of beer on Wednesday night.
"We were thinking, okay, for the 1,000th batch, we have to do something really special. We didn't want to do a light beer," explains McCarthy, who has worked at all three Washington area Cap City Brewpubs.
They eventually settled on a "double" version of the bar's popular Amber Waves Ale -- meaning double the hops and double the malt went into the already hoppy West Coast-style beer. Served from a cask, Double Amber Waves is unfiltered, and checks in around 8 percent alcohol -- a special beer for a special occasion.
"It was fitting, because it's one of our core beers, but we decided that we'd do it big," McCarthy says. "It's also one of my favorite beers that we brew, so it's a little self-serving. But this isn't a style you see too often."
It's probably not a style too many people have tried, either, but you don't need to feel any trepidation before heading over to the tapping party. From 6 to 8, McCarthy and his staff are pouring free samples of the Double Amber Waves and free samples of a year-old Wee Heavy Scotch Ale, a wonderfully rich, malty concoction that only gets better with age.
If you like what you taste, full pints will be available for $2.50 until 7 and $5 after that.
Also available at the bar: "about six gallons" of the Slobberknocker Barleywine, a huge, fruity monster that packs quite a wallop -- more than 11 percent alcohol by volume. (Those who'd rather just toast the brewers with a pint of the crisp, refreshing Kolsch or smoky, coffee-like Prohibition Porter can grab one for the usual happy hour price.) Open since early 1997, Shirlington is Cap City's newest and largest facility. It's also the only location with a pool table.
On Thursday, the best -- and most unlikely -- after-work destination for beer lovers is the National Zoo's Lion and Tiger Hill, where 10 Washington and Baltimore microbreweries join representatives from across America and Europe for the first Brew at the Zoo.
It's a charitable event that serves an excellent purpose: Sample all the beers you want, find a new favorite, munch on food from local restaurants and raise money for the Zoo's Asian Elephant Conservation Program.
Those who don't keep up with the region's bustling brewpub scene or are looking to expand their beer palette will find this outdoor festival to be a low-risk chance to explore unfamiliar styles such as double IPA or sample brands they've never heard of. If a beer is too heavy, too sweet, overly spicy, generally underwhelming -- just pour it out and move on to something else.
Locals participating include Barley and Hops Grill and Microbrewery, Capitol City Brewing Company, Clipper City, Fordham, Hops, Oliver's Breweries (better known as Baltimore's Wharf Rat), Rock Bottom, Shenandoah Brewing Company and Sweetwater Tavern.
He'Brew, a kosher beer from San Francisco, and Rehoboth's oddball Dogfish Head Brewery are also featured.
Jeff Wells, a local sales representative for the Global Brewers Guild, says he's "bringing out the cavalry" for Brew at the Zoo, including a pair of beers from Maine's Allagash Brewing Company; two from Denver's Flying Dog; and three from both Rogue (Portland, Ore.) and Victory (Downingtown, Pa.). European participants include Young's (London); Scotland's Belhaven Brewery, which is bringing its Scottish Ale and the "new" Twisted Thistle; and Belgium's legendary Chimay.
Allagash President-and-Brewmaster Rob Tod and Victory President-and-Brewmaster Bill Covaleski will be on hand to talk to visitors and take questions about their beers. Lebanese Taverna, Sequoia, Cafe Saint-Ex, Chef Geoff's and Chipotle are among the restaurants serving food, and Washington funk-rock band PaPaSHaKE provides the grooves.
Tickets are $35 ($25 for FONZ members) in advance and include food, drink and a commemorative glass. See natzoo.si.edu for more information or call 202-633-3067.