Open Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Next month The Brasserie will be open later hours and will be open Saturdays and Sundays from noon. AE, D, MC. No reservations. Prices: Main courses at lunch and dinner $2.75 to $10.95, most under $5. The market may be flooded with Washington novels and Washington cafes, but there is always room for another with a new twist. And Kramerbooks & afterwords, on its third try, has come up with what promises to be a best seller. The setting is attractive; the quality is maintained at a high level, although the pace slackens on occasion; and the plot is filled with interesting new twists.
Wine bars, for example, are this year's Washington beverage theme. But Kramerbooks presents Scotch tastings at the bar daily from 5 to 9 p.m. From a list of 10 single-malt and 22 blended Scotches you can choose four different 3/4-ounce shots for $4.25 (two, Usquaebach and Chivas Royal Salute, count as two shots each). Or you can order single shots for an average of $2.50 each. In addition to this intesting twist, Kramerbooks fleshes out the bar choices with a small selection of well-chosen wines at remarkably low prices. Corvo Salaparuta, for instance, is as high as $14 on some current wine lists, but $7.25 here.
Seven imported beers and ales, four vodkas stored in the freezer, thick, boozy ice cream drinks made with Haagen-Dazs, plus good espresso and cappuccino with or without liqueurs populate the beverage section of the menu, as well as hot or cold cider, fat white pots of four kinds of tea, and lemonade, iced cappuccino and iced coffee promised for warm weather. It is everything a thirsty reader could want while beginning a new novel bought in the book section of the cafe (everything except Coca-Cola products, the menu declares).
Thus, Kramerbooks is true to its cafe theme, with a strong and imaginative emphasis on beverages.
The second new twist is that most restaurants decline in quality when they expand to branch operations. But Kramerbooks, growing from its Connecticut Avenue cafe to another Connecticut Avenue confiserie -- which has subsequently closed -- and this new brasserie, has expanded its size, its menu and its complexity, improving the food with each new step.
But, to start back at the beginning, you are introduced to Kramerbooks with a great rush of a scene: To your right is a bar bathed in a golden glow of blond wood and hanging glassware. Straight ahead is the book section, as tempting to a reader as any bakery display case. And nearly surrounding you are tiny marble tables set with bottles holding daisies and readers absorbed in books and salads, surrounded by a haze of chatter. In the evenings, canned jazz is playing, with live guitar Thursdays and Fridays. In warm weather the tables will spill over to an outdoor cafe, but even in winter the umbrellas over indoor tables and the window walls overlooking I Street turn Kramerbooks into what seems an outdoor cafe. Besides, indoors is as lively a "street" scene as any downtown.
Traffic, unfortunately, is heavy. But the lunch crowd moves quickly, and the host or hostess, when you can find one, assigns tables democratically. You can use the waiting time to choose your dinner reading if you are alone.
Food, as you have probably guessed, is not central to the Kramerbooks story. It is, however, one of those minor details that is handled well and thus plays an important role in the success. Somehow it seems odd to be eating a steak or a lamb chop in a bookstore, but you can here, along with pork chops, hamburgers, grilled sausage sandwiches and some of the best french fries ever published -- I mean produced. The grilled meats are pretty good. Although the lamb chops could be better trimmed and the steak more carefully timed, they are thick and juicy and served with a delicious salad of apples, walnuts and watercress. The salad and the meat would both be substantially improved, however, if they were served on separate plates. Steaks and chops cost $5.25 (for single chops) to $10.95 (for the largest steak, 10 ounces). Most of the menu, though, is lighter fare, in the $3 to $4 price range. Hamburgers are fat and juicy, highly seasoned and served on garlic-buttered French bread with lettuce, tomato and onion. At $3.50 they are a good choice. Salads are large and colorful. Quiches are well-seasoned and creamy, though one day their crust was slightly sweet, presumably a temporary aberration. The menu offers a changing variety of cheeses, four at a time served with bread and butter for $2.75. And at least four pates are offered each day, most $3.25 to $3.50. Often a stolid, bland duck pate is on the special for $4.50, but otherwise, the pates are good, though served too cold, as are the patries, which are even more distinguished than the pates. Except for the salmon mousse, which I can only assume remains on the menu as a reminder how indifferent the food was in the old days. Kramerbooks served fresh and appealing uncomplicated fare.
More than the sum, it is the parts that are worth celebrating at Kramerbooks. You can go in the morning for a croissant and good espresso, freshly squeezed orange juice or Swiss familia cereal. You can have a plate of cheese and a glass of wine, a full steak dinner or just a salad. You can finish your last chapter over a bowl of fine homemade soup or one of the elaborate pastries -- carrot cake, hazelnut torte and sour cream apple pie are delicious, or at least would be if given time to warm to room temperature. At lunchtime a $3 per person minimum is enforced at tables, but Kramerbooks brasserie is an all-day place, a kind of Readers Digest Condensed Books version of the Champs Elysees.