Open daily for breakfast 7 to 10:30 a.m., for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday champagne brunch 11:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations recommended. AE, C, MC, V. Prices: Appetizers $3 to $5; main dishes $7 to $16; desserts 75 cents to $3.50. Full meal with three courses, wine, tax and tip averages $20 to $30 a person.
The Georgetown Bar & Grill has done a remarkable job of looking as if it's been there forever. You'd never know it was recently a French restaurant laden with chandeliers. The ceiling is crisscrossed with dark wood beams that seem to glow from decades of polishing. The wooden floor looks burnished by wear and care. The tables and banquettes, the low dividers of curved wood and green-tinged marble seem the work of tradition, not decoration. And the large circular bar looks like it has been a gathering place for generations. This is a restaurant to remind one of Georgetown before the street vendors. And if it sounds noisy, it is not just that the acoustics need work but that one expects such a solidly distinguished pub to sound hushed.
One goes to a restaurant, though, not just to gape but to dine. And that is the less settled aspect of the Georgetown Bar & Grill. There is some handsomely prepared food; the kitchen can be distinguished. But the calm of age has yet to wear smooth its harsh edges.
After several visits I found the menu had changed, and while that wiped out the value of some of the data I had been consuming, it did seem a promising sign. Most of the dishes removed deserved to be, though a few may have been discarded for efficiency rather than esthetics. What's left is a single menu with a range of dishes that would satisfy for lunch or dinner, snack or supper. There are casual meals called barroom fare (scrod with lemon and herbs, chicken caesar salad, chicken club sandwich or cuban sandwich, liver with bacon and onion marmalade, linguine with green clam sauce and a couple of cold seafood dishes, all ranging from $7 to $9). More serious -- and more expensive -- main courses are called principal dishes: grilled duck with green peppercorns, saut,eed veal, ginger crab cakes, steak fillet with sun-dried tomato compote, stuffed pastas with broccoli and parmesan cream, spareribs and parchment-baked fish, ranging from $8 to $16. And there are combination plates of seafoods, fish or meat with pasta and grilled shrimp made with no oil or salt, those from about $10 to $15. Of course there are plentiful appetizers and desserts and a four-course champagne brunch on Sundays.
This is the new American cooking, bearing an obvious family resemblance to 2091/2, Mrs. Simpson's and Foggy Bottom Cafe. The food is fresh, pretty, colorful and imaginative. Familiar dishes are prepared with a twist that enhances their character: the crab cakes are fluffed to a cloud of lightness and are sparked with ginger and scallions; the cuban sandwich adds Pommery mustard to its roast pork, ham and swiss cheese; the liver is made with bacon and onions, but the onions are in the form of an onion marmalade.
Some of the twists are just a matter of doing something fresher and better than is typically done. The club sandwich is made with chicken breast grilled to order; the duck with green peppercorns is grilled to order rather than cooked ahead and reheated; the chili is made with tiny, freshly cooked white beans and comes with a bowl of finely diced and crunchily aromatic vegetables to sprinkle on; the fried squid comes with fresh horseradish or a chunky and fresh-tasting raw tomato sauce; crab cakes are served with a superlative tartar sauce and a cocktail sauce much improved by fresh horseradish.
Those are elements of style that raise this grill beyond the ordinary Georgetown pub. How about the execution? By and large, it is good. Take note, though, that it is good cooking rather than great cuisine. It suits its price level, for these are also moderate prices -- and in some cases remarkable bargains. Six belon oysters with an aromatic pink sauce of shallots and raspberry vinegar is not only delightful but also a bargain at $5. A big pile of tender and crisp calamari in a tempura-light batter is even more excellent for costing only $4. And a combination of oysters, crab cakes and fried calamari for two at $7 is clearly a good value, as are the scrod, the liver and an amusingly thoughtful bit of dessert, "a mouthful of chocolate mousse served with a butter cookie" for 75 cents.
The cooking that requires the most sensitive attention is the cooking that is most likely to miss here, and sometimes the ingredients falter. Swordfish one day was impeccable -- juicy but crusty, as tender and full flavored as one could hope. Another day it bordered on dry and had left its flavor somewhere along the way. Liver should have been more mellow and sweet; spareribs tasted too sweet and soggy from reheating. On several visits there were oversalted soups and sauces. And the cute, crunchy, little fried potato cubes can be very good, but suffer from the least bit of cooling. And though the restaurant tosses pasta with abandon -- as appetizers, in vegetables, under grilled foods and in salads -- I haven't had a pasta there that I would order again. Not that it's badly done -- it just lacks zip and dilutes whatever it is accompanying.
The details enhance this bar and grill. The bread has always been crisp and fresh; the wine list is well chosen and not expensive, with good possibilities among the wines by the glass. Service is full of youthful energy but tempered by dignity; the waiters seem to be experienced -- or at least advanced students -- and so proud of the restaurant that they are eager to please. As for desserts, they tend to sound more wonderful than they taste -- a walnut torte was oversweet and gummy; chocolate ganache torte, for all its richness, was made memorable only by its rum custard sauce. There are also bourbon pecan pie, lime mousse, stilton and fruit and a lemon curd galette that sounds just like Le Pavillon's version.
The best of Georgetown Bar & Grill are the old standards here raised above the ordinary: a fine fat hamburger, those excellent calamari and belon oysters, the light crab cakes, a solid and zesty chili, and enormous hot sandwiches with varied textures and flavors. Grilled fish can be fine, grilled duck is succulent, and veal is nicely done. In other words, the Georgetown Bar & Grill is a restaurant to serve many moods and purposes, though it could probably get by on good looks alone.