801 Pennsylvania Ave. SE 546-0060 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. Prices: Lunch appetizers $1.95 to $3.95; soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees $1.75 to $6.95; dinner appetizers $1.95 to $4.95, dinner entrees $5.95 to $8.95. Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
Interesting facades seem to be a Julio's trademark. The handsome original replaced what used to be a brewery, while the latest spinoff, on Capitol Hill, assumes space that once served as a furniture warehouse.
You can't miss the new place. The sign out front screams JULIO'S in outsized blue neon letters. And the interior is simultaneously high-tech and industrial looking, a cavernous, multilevel space minimalistically decorated with sconces and painted triangles on the walls, plus a small gallery's worth of black-and-white prints that help soften the place. Overhead, the ceiling is a web of metal grating. In all, it has a fun and funky look that is perhaps best appreciated at night.
Front or rear, upstairs or down, just about every table seems to have an interesting vantage point -- unless, of course, your party is sequestered in the single side room near the rear, as mine was one busy weekend. Enclosed on three sides by walls that stretched skyward, the only decoration being a low-hanging light fixture, the room had all the appeal of an interrogation chamber (and the service that evening, a departure from the cheerful norm, befitted the table's seclusion -- it was an hour and several rounds of drinks before any food arrived).
Some restaurants you visit in anticipation of the food that is served. Others you frequent for conviviality or atmosphere. Julio's clearly falls into the latter category.
But while you're soaking up the music (which tends to be loud) and sizing up the crowd (which also tends to be loud), you have to have something to nibble on. Make your choice pizza, which has been consistently satisfying, if not to everyone's taste (the dough and tomato sauce are on the sweet side). It is decent stuff, with a thick, sometimes fried-tasting crust and always a generous insulation of cheese. The choice of toppings ranges from the standard (pepperoni, sausage) to the more unusual (eggplant, spinach, artichoke hearts and even tuna).
There are also several reliable appetizers that prove welcome changes from the predictable standbys of nachos, chicken wings and onion rings. One is the "trendy artichoke dip," which you might want to forsake just because of its moniker. Nevertheless, it is a pretty satisfying nosh of artichoke hearts blended with garlic and parmesan cheese, eaten with triangles of warm pita bread. Another safe bet is the crisp-fried rounds of eggplant, accompanied by a refreshing yogurt dip accented with the crunch of diced cucumber. A bit greasy, perhaps, but otherwise tempting. The homemade soups -- chicken noodle, tomato and zucchini on my visits -- also make appropriate openings.
Except for the pizza, dinner entrees have been disasters. Chicken dishes in particular take a beating: One night, our waiter suggested the chicken romano -- a recently revised version of the kitchen's recipe. From the taste of it, though, I couldn't imagine how bad this dish was to begin with. Mine resembled a large chicken nugget (a breast, actually), slathered with a piquant tomato sauce and a cross-hatch of cheese, with a crust so hard and thick I almost got blisters trying to saw through it (all of which gives you some idea of how difficult it was simply to chew). A side of buttery, parmesan-dusted pasta redeemed the dish, but only marginally. The equally tough chicken florentine, with its insipid nutmeg-tinged cream sauce, was actually worse than anything I've tasted above 30,000 feet.
Then there was a pasta dish described as "ravioli stuffed with ricotta and dill." I couldn't taste either ingredient for the shower of pepper, and if there was any dill, its presence was completely masked by the heavy-handed seasoning. The highlight of that dish was the wedges of soft, cheesy garlic bread. And certainly no Italian would recognize Julio's linguine carbonara, a bowl of dehydrated noodles vaguely accented with bits of bacon and a few mushrooms.
The best of the lot was a slab of the homey lasagna, simple and meaty and filling.
Lunch is a scaled-down version of dinner, with a handful of entrees rounded out by salads (avoid the overdressed Greek selection and the underdressed Caesar salad) and hot and cold subs and sandwiches. Of the latter, one of the better choices is the generously stuffed Italian sausage sub, spiked with peppers and onions, and served on a crusty, toasted roll. The $3.95 buffet -- which includes a trip to one of the dreariest looking salad bars I've come across -- is a deal for the pizza alone.
Brunch offers the kind of filling fare that might see a Russian through a long, cold winter in Siberia: chunks of roast potatoes, bowls of pasta salad, sausages aswim in grease and gray-blue egg casserole. Bready foods -- pizza, bagels, puffy made-to-order waffles -- predominate. Fresh fruit breaks up some of the heaviness of the routine, but a more balanced selection would be appreciated.
Obviously, it takes a lot of weeding to sort the good from the bad here. "Funky" and "fun" might describe the setting, but the best I can say of most of the food is that it's, well, "filling."Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.