Art Gallery Grille
1712 I St. NW
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 7:30 a.m. to midnight Thursday; 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday; closed Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Breakfast $1.50 to $3.90; lunch appetizers $3.50 to $3.95, sandwiches and entrees $3.45 to $8.95; dinner appetizers $3.25 to $5.95, sandwiches and entrees $5.45 to $9.95.
Cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard.
No separate nonsmoking area.
Carryout lunches are all right, but some days it's fun to go to a place with booths where you can schmooze with co-workers and gossip about the boss without running up too high a tab.
The Art Gallery Grille, smack in the middle of Washington's lawyer-lobbyist quarter, offers pleasant service and good, quality sandwiches and platters. Prices are above carryout fare but still below those of many places in the same neighborhood that cater to people eating on expense accounts.
Incidentally, we never did figure out what the grill, that is, grille has to do with an art gallery. But what it may lack in fanciness the Grille makes up for in atmosphere. Its neon and pseudo-Art Deco furnishings are eye-catching. And its friendliness is unusual in a city where lunchtime is all too often an extension of the workday.
The Grille offers standard American breakfast fare -- eggs, pancakes, omelets, etc. -- each weekday beginning at 7:30 a.m. And if you're eating alone, the long old-fashioned lunch counter in the rear is the place to be.
At lunch and dinner, there are salads, sandwiches and platters. The lunch menu offers more variety, possibly because the lunchtime crowds are interested in food, while at night, folks seem to drop by more for camaraderie, drinks and snacks. In keeping with this, the service was brisk and efficient at noon and desultory after 6 p.m.
Our favorite selections were the Middle Eastern dishes. A falafel platter ($6.50 at lunch, $6.95 at dinner) was a delicious sandwich on pita of four round, deep-fried falafel "burgers," served with one bowl of lettuce and chopped tomato and a second of tangy sauce of what seemed to be tahini (ground sesame seeds), yogurt and lemon juice.
The kibi platter ($6.95 at lunch and dinner) also came with pita bread. Described on the menu as "ground sirloin, cracked wheat and special spices," the kibi were something like deep-fried meatballs. Their chopped onion centers were a nice surprise. More tangy sauce came on the side.
A hummus and pita appetizer ($3.50 at lunch and $4.50 at dinner) was a reasonable quantity of soupy chickpea spread, accompanied by pita bread. The pita was fresh and the hummus intense, albeit with a slight unrecognizable off-flavor.
Tabooleh salad ($6.25 at lunch, $6.50 at dinner) featured lots of chopped parsley mixed with cracked wheat, tomato chunks and chopped onion in a lemony sauce. The portion was ample and served with crunchy pita chips on the side.
A salad of grilled chicken on skewers with lettuce, tomato and grated carrots ($7.25) was listed on the menu as an appetizer. But its generous size -- not to mention price -- suggests a main course. The chicken was marinated, threaded on skewers between onion chunks and expertly grilled, leaving it tender and juicy on the inside and a bit crunchy on the outside.
We also liked a swordfish club sandwich, the most expensive item on the menu at $8.95, even though we felt cheated to be served it on an ordinary supermarket-style hamburger bun. The swordfish, slightly overcooked, was served with a lemon-mayonnaise sauce, super-crisp bacon, lettuce and tomato. The sandwich came with those thick oversized french fries that almost demand ketchup.
The hamburger ($5.95 at dinner) was a flattened patty on a pedestrian bun on the well-done side, although it was ordered medium rare. The beef had a nice charred flavor, but this was not your classic Washington power burger.
Iced tea and lemonade both tasted as if they came from instant packages, which is a pity. The desserts included a variety of pies, ice cream sundaes and frozen yogurt, which you can have delivered to your table piled into one of those flat-bottomed sugar cones and then plunked down on a plate.
The volcano pie ($2.95) was a brownie studded with chocolate chips and topped with a gob of thick fudge sauce. Though nothing fancy, it was certainly rich enough to satisfy the average chocoholic.