Washington eateries have been branching out, opening satellite establishments all across Northern Virginia.
The exodus has seen Georgetown's original fern bar, Clyde's, replicate itself in Tysons Corner, and Bamiyan's Afghan establishment secure a second roost in the heart of Old Town, along with Terrazza, the suburban offshoot of Washington's stellarly priced Tiberio. And recently, the Adams-Morgan branch of Mr. Henry's announced that it plans to open an Alexandria auxiliary -- the largest yet -- by Christmas.
Joining the march to the suburbs is downtown Washington's Sign of the Whale, which less than two months ago spawned an eatery bearing the same name in Loehmann's Plaza mall near Falls Church.
Its menu is identical to that of the urban original, and it offers the same salads and sandwiches, a selection of decent hamburgers and a host of seafood and steak dishes, plus a variety of daily specials.
But the coziness and rhythm one associates with the venerable M Street watering hole is as of yet missing from the suburban Sign of the Whale. Of course, one can hardly expect the same sort of neighborliness that the capital locale has had years to establish; like anything new, the Falls Church spot needs some time to break in.
Meanwhile, its dining rooms, partitioned from the bar by an etched glass and wood divider, have less personality (no fireplace, no stuffed animal heads) and appear generally more subdued than those of its predecessor, except on weekends when the noise level and bustle approach that of the original.
Yet the fare is a reminder that good food can travel well. Sign of the Whale does an exceptionally nice job with soup, be it a special of broccoli and cheese, a commendably homey vegetable beef, or a terrific, filling seafood chowder, so full of scallops and such that it's more fork food than spoon food.
Salads suffer from ordinariness -- there's nothing particularly enticing about any of them, save for a few very good parmesan croutons on the spinach salad. And among starters, the onion rings are as flat and bready as those served in Washington, and the potato skins are pretty ordinary.
As for the entrees, anything featuring crab has been good, from the crab stuffed mushroom caps (a bit underseasoned, but nonetheless enjoyable) to the plump, moist crab cakes and an interesting crab reuben sandwich, stuffed with crab and ham instead of corned beef.
Fresh fish specials -- including an admirable rendition of the much imitated blackened redfish -- might include grilled salmon or barbecued swordfish, baked flounder or fresh trout. In fact, the only disappointment among the fish and seafood offerings was one of the most expensive entrees, "seafood straw and hay," which was two kinds of pasta and a variety of somewhat chewy seafood in a dull-flavored cream sauce.
Burgers are enormous and juicy, served on a toasted bun with a generous order of fresh-cut french fries and some of the best coleslaw I've sampled recently -- it was pleasantly sweet/tart, with lots of zip, and wonderfully moist without being runny.
Service has improved with each visit. Indeed, everyone from the manager to the bus boy has proved eager to please and quick to correct any missteps. So now, instead of waiting 20 minutes for food -- only to have the entrees precede the appetizers -- we have a waitress who cheerfully informs us that our clams casino might require a bit more time.
Time has made Washington's Sign of the Whale a congenial and reliable neighborhood establishment. And with a bit more time, we hope the same can be said of its sister in the suburbs.