RAISING THE BAR, A BITE AT A TIME: Who says pub grub has to be grubby? One of the nicest sights for sore eyes -- and taste buds -- is the menu at the fledgling Bar Pilar (1833 14th St. NW; 202-265-1751), which is just a few storefronts away from its sister restaurant, the 21/2-year-old Cafe Saint-Ex (1847 14th St. NW; 202-265-7839).
Both restaurants fall under the supervision of executive chef Barton Seaver, who came to the projects in April from Jaleo (480 Seventh St. NW; 202-628-7949), where he worked as a sous-chef. At Bar Pilar, the short list of possibilities includes hamburgers and chips and salsa, but they're joined by respectable vegetable fajitas, chicken-fried steak and even lomo saltado. The last -- juicy strips of marinated beef in a tangle of onions, tomatoes, jalapeno and potatoes -- is the idea of Pilar's chef, Clarysa Aguilar, a native of Guatemala and an alumna of Cafe Saint-Ex. The American twist: tater tots instead of the more traditional french fries.
There's more to explore: Campbell's has nothing on Aguilar's rich, roasted tomato soup, flanked with crisped cheese sandwiches, and while the meatloaf is underseasoned, its bed of mashed potatoes, punched up with garlic oil, helps divert your attention. If you like to sup late, this kitchen's for you: dinner is served daily until 1 a.m.
Like its sibling, Bar Pilar embraces a literary theme. Pilar was the name of Ernest Hemingway's famed boat, which explains why you see pictures of him (and pictures of him fishing) on the walls of this narrow watering hole. Despite having fewer than 40 seats, Bar Pilar packs in plenty of fun. Above the bar hangs a plasma-screen TV, which plays current flicks; in the rear is a photo booth, where $5 gets you a strip of four black and white photos.
Already, the booth is plastered with dozens of smiling faces. Customers, maybe? "The staff got a $5 allowance" to have their pictures taken, Seaver says, setting the record straight.
Appetizers $3-$5; entrees $8-$14.