Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. BA, MC. Reservations.
GRITS HAVE NOT yet replaced the French fry in Washington, but tastes of the South are beginning to season local dining. Whoever is selling hickory logs must be cleaning up. Within less than a year at least three new barbecue pits have been fired up in the Washington area, one in the city and two in Virginia positioned as gateways to the South, your last chance to get ribs before you hit rib country.
"We have the best barbecue this side of heaven, maybe the other side, too, but I haven't tried that yet," said the manager when I called for reservations. It is worth calling Hickory Dock just to hear the friendliest sales pitch you are ever likely to get from a restaurant. Once you are there, the Southern hospitality continues, both gregarious and efficient.
It is an affable meal you get at Hickory Dock, starting with the drinks -- the Dockwalloper, a sort of plantation punch served in a half-liter wine decanter; a smoky mary, faintly barbecue-flavored. From then on it is a parade of tidbits, from an insidiously sweet-tangy green tomato and onion relish to tiny, crunchy hush puppies shaped like logs. Fluffy square biscuits keep you from starving until along come the coleslaw -- creamy, with a fresh bite -- and the smoke-scented beans or steak fries, neither of which can compete with the other side dishes. As for the main attractions, enough attention is paid to proper hickory smoking that you should order accordingly. The sliced beef and pork and the minced pork all remain moist through the process, and the barbecued chicken is particularly juicy. Spareribs are small and meaty, ours apparently the bones from a loin rather than the usual rack of ribs. Each is a good version of the barbecue art, and you can taste a fair assortment by ordering combination platters. The sauce, of course, is crucial in barbecue, and Hickory Dock's is sweet enough for mass appeal, hot enough to keep the barbecue fanatics happy. There is a smug choice of "authentic" or "mild" sauce; I would prefer a choice of "authentic" or "sweet," because there is no escaping the slightly cloying character, but sugar excess is, after all, a Southern tradition that seems to be creeping even into barbecue these days.
Also part of the Southern tradition is fried chicken, and Colonel Sanders could justify some anxiety about Hickory Dock, where the "broasted" chicken is shattering-crisp with succulent meat.
That takes care of the left side of the menu, where you should concentrate your hunger. On the right is catfish, these steaks and fillets imported frozen from Brazil, where they apparently don't know half as much about catfish as they do in Indiana. The fish is bland and dry, though crisply battered.
Given the size of the platters and the array of side dishes, dessert isn't likely to seem vital. The pecan and sweet potato pies are good if you scoop the fillings from their soggy underpinnings, and the rum cake is a homey affair, a sort of nutted bundt cake soaked in rum syrup. The menu raises hopes of sassafras tea -- not available when I asked -- and that would be a proper ending.
Platters at Hickory Dock average, $5, with ribs up to $6.95 and fried chicken down to $3.50, so it is not hard to get out for under $10. The setting is a purely American blend of laminated plastic and painted barn siding with country touches of copper pots on the walls and city slicker semi-surrealist paintings. It oozes spare cleanliness and Southern comfort, with the look of a first in a nationwide chain of hickory-scented offspring.