** Urban Burger Company5566 Norbeck Rd, Rockville
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Free parking. All major credit cards. Smoking at outdoor tables only. Prices: appetizers $4 to $8, entrees $5.50 to $7. Full meal with soda, tax and tip about $15 per person.
1433 P St. NW
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Street parking. Metro: Dupont Circle. V, MC, AE, D. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $5.50 to $8.50, entrees $5 to $19.95. Full meal with beer, tax and tip about $20 per person.
DAVID CALKINS AND LEE HOWARD have done it again. The 30-somethings behind the popular Urban Bar-B-Que Company in Rockville have opened a restaurant celebrating another American standard -- hamburgers -- and infused the place with the kind of charm that you'd love to find at the Golden Arches (or even at Five Guys) but seldom do.
If there's a friendlier fast-food joint than the Urban Burger Company, it's not on my radar. The virtual pats on the back start as soon as you walk through the doors and stroll to the self-service counter, where a bright-eyed cashier (likely a student from Rockville High School) takes your requests. A sign on the counter explains that cops, firefighters, postal workers, teachers, senior citizens -- why, just about everybody but restaurant critics -- get a 10 percent discount on their meals.
"We owe the community a lot" for the success of three-year-old Urban Bar-B-Que, says Calkins, who also put up two bulletin boards for his customers to communicate with one another. Young families are embraced with a playroom for kids, which is enclosed in glass and wood so as not to disrupt other diners, and offers two TVs, one tuned to the Cartoon Network. Ever-present at their new work site, which opened late last year, Calkins and Howard are a two-man Chamber of Commerce.
The choices here will be familiar to fans of Urban Bar-B-Que -- picture chicken wings, "soul" rolls and sides that suggest a church picnic -- and so will their execution. Those wings are meaty as breasts, their teasing heat offset by a dip in buttermilk dressing. The soul rolls pack ground beef, onions and cheese in a fried egg-roll wrapper, a snack made more decadent with a dunk in melted cheese. My affections are torn among the fresh and crunchy chopped cabbage, the smoky baked beans and the sweet onion rings dipped in beer batter. My ardor cools, though, when it comes to the potato and corn chowder, which tastes as if it came from a can.
Hamburgers, lean and lightly seasoned, are the main attraction, and they require a bit more patience than at the competition. "We cook your burger fresh to order," the menu says, explaining the usual eight-to-10-minute wait. If you don't ask, the patty is cooked medium-well; if you ask for something rosier, however, that's what you get. Either way, the burger is slipped into a glossy, griddle-kissed brioche bun, at which time it can be personalized with a trip to Urban's free toppings bar or by paying a little more than a buck extra for one of six enhancements. "Blazin' Saddle" piles on chili, cheese and scallions; "So-Cal, USA" makes its point with creamy avocado, a cap of provolone and a swirl of honey-lime sauce.
Not interested in a burger? The kitchen also serves a snappy, spicy bratwurst from Baltimore; a decent (by fast-food standards) crab cake; and salads for lighter appetites, including a "tree hugger" with chopped green apple, blue cheese, pecans and bell peppers -- a forest of food for $7. The owners are big on the details: Urban's dressings taste freshly made because they are, and the choices go beyond the usual to include orange-ginger and basil vinaigrette. A help-yourself soda bar includes a draft handle for root beer, my beverage of choice if I can't have something stronger.
Desserts are inspired by county fair staples. Caramel apple on a stick? Yes, and it comes with a roll in candy if you want. Deep-fried Twinkie with ice cream? You'll find that curiosity, as well. A slice of pecan pie is based on shortbread and dipped in chocolate; a single bite is likely to send you into sugar shock.
Flashier (and bigger) than its sibling, Urban Burger Company inherited the shiny, dark-blue tile from what used to be the Chicken Out in the Rock Creek Village Shopping Center, and the owners have taken advantage of that fact to pay tribute to Calkins's father, who served in the U.S. Navy for more than three decades. Pictures and medals from that long career dress up the walls and underscore Urban's family appeal.
"Go, Navy!" the design shouts. Go check out the burgers and hospitality, this chowhound would add.
TONY HARRIS SAYS he doesn't miss the watering hole he opened back in 1968 and nurtured into one of Washington's best-loved dives: the smoky, scrappy Stoney's, which he was forced to close last summer. Its demise was met with dismay by everyone who appreciated a decent burger, a cool beer and characters straight out of -- well, "Cheers" would be putting too kind a spin on the congregation of scribes, Secret Service agents, tourists, hookers and retirees. "I drive by sometimes. I look at it," he says of the now-vacant space on L Street NW. "We had some good times there." But he's not looking back. "I move on," says the restaurateur, 67.
Maybe he doesn't miss the original because he transferred its sign, its menu and a few of its signature props to a heavily trafficked stretch of P Street NW in Logan Circle, where "business has doubled," he'll tell you. "We've been pleasantly surprised."
I wish I shared his sentiment. I want to like the reprise, I really do, and it was a hallelujah day when I walked in early after the joint reopened to see its staff wearing T-shirts that announced "We're Back." But the reborn Stoney's is such a cleaned-up version of its old self, I scarcely recognize the place. The police and firefighter badges that used to color the back of the bar? At the new joint, they're displayed under glass, as if auditioning for the Smithsonian. Steve, the affable manager, didn't make the transition, and neither did no-nonsense Sue ("she retired") or somewhat more genial Sandy ("We need her at Tunnicliff's," the Hill hangout Harris also owns). The rec room paneling infused with decades of smoke (if those strips could talk!) has given way to walls of forest green and fresh air -- not such a bad thing unless you miss, as I do, Stoney's unshaven, nonconformist appeal.
Like hot dogs that taste better when you're eating them at the ball park, the cooking at Stoney's needs to be evaluated in the context of its setting. Some of it, such as the meaty chicken wings and zesty chili and cornbread, are better than you'd expect; other dishes, such as the vapid, gray meatloaf and "wet" packaged fries with gravy that tastes canned, or the achingly sweet barbecue, wouldn't be much fun no matter where you found them. If you're the kind of diner who judges food by how much of it you get, Stoney's is hog heaven. A mountain of fried calamari threatens to put squid on an endangered species list, and the spinach salad yields a barge of (underdressed) greens. The gloppy spinach-artichoke dip is framed with enough triangles of bread to fuel a frat party.
Stoney's pizza -- blond of crust and sturdy of texture -- is better than Domino's but miles from, say, Pizzeria Paradiso's. After a buddy and I asked for a pie with "the works," we were twice asked if we really wanted anchovies in the usual topping of mushrooms, pepperoni, green pepper, onions and more. "Bring them on!" we twice replied. Alas, the little fish failed to make an appearance.
There are a few consolations. The old place never had more than four beers on tap; the new one offers about a dozen. And the best-selling item on the menu, the hamburger that can be presented at least nine different ways, remains a nice option if the kitchen grills it the way you ask (my request for medium-rare came out medium the last time). Right behind those burgers on the mass-appeal index is the revered "super" grilled cheese; the thick sandwich lives up to its superlative with its cushion of buttery grilled bread, melted American, tomato slices, sweet chopped onion and crisp bacon. Each bite conjures the good old days -- and reminds me that all was not lost in the move.
Ask Tom will return next week.