The fern bar is alive and well on M Street, flourishing as J. Paul's saloon in the heart of Georgetown. Like its rivals, this restaurant's menu features a predictable parade of seafood appetizers, salads and sandwiches. But J. Paul's also offers a dash of the unexpected -- ethnic entrees and some of the best crab cakes around.
The setting for this popular eatery is a handsome barn of a place with dark wood, molded ceilings, brick walls and lots of greenery. The ornate bar -- hauled from a vintage saloon at the Chicago stockyards, notes the menu -- gives J. Paul's a look of sophistication and maturity. And in fact, J. Paul's looks as though it's been in one location for at least a hundred years. As much an advertisement as a fixture, the raw bar is positioned near the expansive front windows, enticing passers-by with its display of shrimp, oysters and clams on ice.
But it's the people who make this place come alive. Everyone from the host to the waiter to the busboy knows his job and makes a serious effort to please. As for people-watching, the cluster of high tables in the saloon is arranged so that patrons can easily observe the comings and goings of their fellow diners. You want peace and quiet? Go elsewhere. J. Paul's is as friendly and frenetic a "meet market" as you're likely to find.
A basket of good, crusty sourdough rolls, a welcome change of pace from the ubiquitous French bread, starts dinner off on the right note. And if you opt for a heaping plate of J. Paul's addictive, thinly cut onion rings or an appetizer of sweet potato fries, faintly sweet and thoroughly delicious, you can't go wrong.
I'd add a few caveats, however. Late night noshing is best avoided if what I encountered one recent Sunday was any indication: A starter of "chick-n-skins" -- a plate of deep-fried chicken bits and potato skins presented with a side of bernaise sauce -- tasted as though it had been lying around for hours. The chicken morsels were decent enough, although the potato shells were tasteless, hard and crackery. The bernaise was a gluey mess of a sauce, its richness serving only to intensify the greasiness of the hors d'oeuvre. Oversweetening is another problem at J. Paul's. An otherwise filling and peppery chili was marred by an overdose of sugar; a barbecue pork sandwich, full of crusty, juicy, zesty pieces of meat, suffered a similar fate.
Still, there's plenty of good eating among the main courses. In particular, the broiled crab cakes -- snowy chunks of flavorful crab tightly packed with diced vegetables -- are among the best I've sampled in Washington. Of course, you pay for top-notch quality: a sandwich sells for $8.50, a platter for $14.95. Seafood, in general, is well handled; this restaurant knows enough not to let any heavy mayonnaise interfere with the taste of fresh, firm shrimp in its outstanding shrimp salad.
Georgetown is tough competition for a sandwich, but J. Paul's does a generally commendable job with its selections, which include a good Getty Burger: a flavorful beef patty in an onion roll, cooked as requested and piled with Canadian bacon and Swiss cheese. A springtime salad sampler includes generous dollops of chicken salad, shrimp salad and a decent pasta salad, laden with baby corn, artichoke hearts, diced tomatoes and freshly grated Parmesan.
From the grill that looks onto the saloon, there come steaks, poultry and barbecued ribs. A combination plate of hickory-tinged chicken and ribs was stingy with everything but the chicken: a teasing dab of crunchy cole slaw, a paltry portion of baked beans, and the sweet potato fries, a tasty addition to the plate.
J. Paul's fried rice is good and well seasoned, full of crunchy snow peas, water chestnuts, shrimp and lean strips of beef. The house pasta, by contrast, is a gloppy plate of spinach fettucine with ham in a mundane cream sauce.
You don't expect serious food here, although the menu reflects the higher standard to which pub food is put nowadays. More of a social than a culinary destination, J. Paul's does as well by dinner as it does by drinks.