1522 14th St. NW


Hours: 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. Friday; 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (brunch) and 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. (dinner) Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers, $1.75 to $4.50; sandwiches and entrees at lunch and dinner, $4.75 to $8.50; Sunday brunch entrees, $3.75 to $9.

Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

No separate nonsmoking area.

A new cafe bar in Washington's Little Theater district shows a flair for the dramatic. About a block from the Studio Theatre in an old building at 14th and Church streets NW, Dante's has grand high ceilings, deep teal-colored walls, menus that look as though they're colored by hand and a reproduction of a Wurlitzer jukebox.

The servers here, in their offbeat fashions and high-style hairdos, really ought to be on stage. And the entrees and munchies are priced so reasonably that you'd have to be a New York critic to withhold applause.

Still, we suspect Dante's will make its mark not so much as a culinary landmark as a much-needed watering hole for the alternative-theater crowd.

The drink selection alone is worth a visit. There's everything from freshly pressed carrot juice ($2.75) to ginger beer ($1 straight; $4 with a shot of Myer's dark rum).

Dante's has California wine and bottled beer, Guinness stout on draft (by the glass or by the pitcher), mineral water, fruity nonalcoholic drinks called "smoothies," and specialty drinks with names such as The Inferno and Fallen Angel. Regular coffee, cappuccino and espresso, Jolt Cola, and herbal tea are also available.

If the entrees appear reminiscent of the menu items at the Food for Thought eatery on Connecticut Avenue NW, it's not entirely coincidental: Dante Ferrando is the son of Food for Thought owner Bobby Ferrando.

Food for Thought's fruit and nut salad, with its creamy, sweet yogurt dressing, is available at Dante's for $4.75. Also on the menu are such Food for Thought classics as the Veggie Chef Salad ($5.50) and Greek Salad ($5).

And as long as you're pondering salad selections, don't overlook the deservedly noteworthy lemon-tahini house dressing.

Sandwiches range from avocado on pita bread ($4.75) to the so-called Viking Death Ship ($6.50), described as "organically raised beef (without added hormones or antibodies) served hot and sliced razor thin, with brie cheese, spring onions, lettuce and tomatoes on a crisp roll."

The two sandwich selections we tried were both wanting. The Vegetable-Tofu Thing ($5), which deserves high marks for its sense of humor, tasted like fried phone book. A salmon sandwich called End of the Stream ($5.75) was an uninspired mound of canned fish on a hamburger bun.

We liked the entrees far better. Manicotti with pesto sauce ($7.50) was the perfect choice for a vegetarian without waistline worries: three crepe-like pasta shells filled with rich ricotta cheese, glazed with a fresh-tasting basil and oil dressing and sprinkled with pine nuts.

We also liked a seafood special featuring "salmon trout," a pinkish fish we'd never heard of, topped with crab meat and a kind of stove-top dressing of bread crumbs, celery, almond slivers and seasonings ($8.50).

The real attractions on the seafood special, however, were the "garlic bliss" potatoes -- thick slices of new potato roasted in oil and garlic.

A house salad came, curiously, with the manicotti but not with the salmon trout. It consisted of some soft-leafed lettuce, onion, cucumber and a tasteless tomato chunk overwhelmed by Italian dressing.

Service is spotty with friendly but occasionally inattentive servers.

The Sunday brunch menu is shorter than the lunch-dinner menu and includes bagels with smoked salmon and prosciutto ($7.75) and a fruit and cheese platter that serves two or more ($9).

Eggs Mediterranean, a variation of eggs Benedict, brought together two expertly poached eggs, sliced tomato, some delicious, fresh steamed spinach and an English muffin, all set adrift in a sea of cream sauce. Our recommendation: Order the sauce on the side.

A spice nut waffle ($3) was tasty and came with tiny pitchers of pureed, port-spiked fruit, maple syrup and clarified butter. Italian prosciutto and melon ($3.75) was a large serving of thinly sliced Italian ham with cantaloupe and honeydew melon.

A plate of fresh fruit was perfection: slices of ripe honeydew and cantaloupe, kiwi, strawberries and oranges, artfully arranged on red-tipped lettuce. The accompanying croissant was tasteless. But, come to think of it, when was the last time you had a really good croissant?