Let me make one thing clear: I don't make it a habit to haul my kids off to lunch at a pub. That said, circumstances conspired Sunday to put me, my wife and our three trick-or-treaters in The Ashburn Pub just in time for the 1 p.m. kickoff of the Redskins-Bears game. The dozen or so Skins fans at the bar greeted our arrival with startled looks, unaccustomed as they are to sharing their weekly ritual with a couple of Ninjas and a 3-year-old Teletubby named Laa-Laa. Still, the surprised looks quickly gave way to grins. It was, after all, Halloween, and if grown-ups can parade around in their Redskins jerseys, a small yellow being with outsized ears and an antenna can certainly be accommodated. And even entertained.
"Spiders!" shouted Laa-Laa, a k a Helen Horne. She pointed and sure enough, this serious sports fan hangout seemed bent on pleasing all of its customers, from the grizzliest veterans of FedEx Field (hmmm, just doesn't sound right) down to the hopscotch crowd. There's a nice bar, padded stools and plenty of TVs, but also highchairs, plastic cups with straws and tops, a kids menu and crayons. And right above our table was a big (yes, fake) spider web, while two-dimensional skeletons were taped to the walls and carved pumpkins perched on the counter. On holidays, the Pub dresses for the occasion, and you're invited. "We try to make it fun," explained Sylvia, a manager.
Of course, as with any sports bar, "fun" often correlates to how well the local team is doing. On this day, the Skins began romping over the Bears from the get-go. "Wheeew!" shouted a bar patron, high-fiving his buddy. A huge Skins defensive tackle named Wilkinson had just lumbered back 88 yards for a comical touchdown on an interception. 14 to zip, Washington. Definitely a fun day to be at The Ashburn Pub.
The four-year-old Pub is a hole in the wall sports bar in a small strip mall in the heart of Ashburn Village, the sprawling planned community several miles east of Leesburg off Route 7--and just a few minutes from Redskin Park, the Skins' practice field. Owner-managers Maggie and Mark Eckert have done a nice job of creating a comfy, publike atmosphere. There's lots of dark burnished wood, dim lighting and five beers on tap, including India Pale Ale and Ashburn Ale, brewed by local brewery Dominion Brewery just for the Pub.
It's not large, with a bar running along one side and a dozen tables along the other. Six TVs enable patrons to watch three different NFL games (or other sports, depending on the season). But expect the volume to be turned up only for the Redskins games. The Eckerts not only cater to Skins fans but are pals with a number of players, and in the past the likes of Frerotte, Green, Raymer and Asher have bellied up to the bar. That tie is reflected in a menu featuring Chicken Vanderbeek (named after, and often consumed by, former special teams player Matt, a friend of owner Mark) and Turk's Breakaway hot dogs (a business of Redskin Dan).
The menu is typical sports bar fare, beginning with a comprehensive list of 15 snacks, ranging from Cajun shrimp ($6.95) to chili ($5.25), buffalo wings ($4.95) to chips and salsa ($1.95). Soups and salads range in price from a chicken Caesar salad for $6.50 to a tossed salad at $2.25, with a soup and salad combo at $5.75. The Pub also peddles the usual pub food from the grill such as hamburgers ($5.50), hot dogs (two Turks, with cheese and chili for $4.95) and cheese steaks ($5.75). They serve a nice variety of deli sandwiches ($5.50, including chips and a pickle spear) and take a stab at such entrees as Chicken Vanderbeek, shrimp scampi ($9.95) and Jack Daniels Steak ($10.95). For children younger than 12, there are hot dogs, grilled cheese, chicken bites and nachos, each $2.95 and served in a basket with potato chips and a pickle.
I could not resist the occasion and ordered the Chicken Vanderbeek, which was chicken marsala with a side of fettucine alfredo, garlic bread and soup or salad for $8.95. I opted for the soup of the day, a homemade chicken noodle. Kathy tried the Pub Grill (turkey, ham, Swiss, bacon, tomatoes and Thousand Island Dressing on grilled rye, $5.50). The Ninjas tried a grilled cheese and hot dog off the kids menu, while Laa-Laa ordered the chicken bites. Service was swift and very friendly. Though we didn't know it at the time, we were served by the Pub's very own Maggie Eckert. This was a small thing, but when our Black Ninja decided he wanted a hot dog and chicken nuggets, she told us, sotto voce, that rather than placing another whole order for the boy, Laa-Laa's basket of chicken would more than suffice to cover the Ninja's excess appetite. Like any diner, I appreciate this kind of unselfish sincerity; it's enough in and of itself to make me return. The bar at the Pub appears to be an equally sociable scene, with the bartender greeting customers by name and the usual banter one associates with a typical neighborhood bar.
My soup arrived first and was a hearty chicken noodle with big chunks of chicken, firm noodles and thickish peppery broth I'd go back for, particularly on a cold day. (To put it in perspective, just last week Daniel, our cold-stricken 6-year-old Ninja, had complained bitterly when I tried to foist Campbell's chicken noodle on him. Tears, tantrum, timeout--the whole ball of wax. One taste of the Pub soup, and he wanted to finish it. "Because it has all kinds of stuff in it," he explained.)
The Chicken Vanderbeek was better than I expected, considering that it was prepared by a short-order cook at a sports bar in Ashburn and cost only $8.95. Don't get me wrong, this is not high-end fine Italian fare. The Marsala wine and mushroom sauce overwhelms the unexceptional pieces of mushy chicken, and the fettucine is a bit gloppy. But if you're watching a game, throwing back tall cold beers and want something other than a sandwich or burger--go for it.
The Pub Grill was fine if a bit overdone for my taste--too many flavors competing in this grilled sandwich. Laa-Laa's fried chicken won hands down against fast-food chicken nuggets, the grilled American cheese on white was just that and the Turk's dog was pretty good, a contender to my favorite store-bought brand, Hebrew National.
We got in and out in an hour without a single tear being shed, with the costumes intact and with a lunch tab for five around $25 before tax, tip and beer. Now if we can just figure out what to wear there for the Super Bowl. I'm thinking something to do with Native Americans . . .
William W. Horne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ashburn Pub
* Address: 44110 Ashburn Village Blvd. 703-724-0755.
* Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.
* Prices: Snacks, $1.95-$6.95; soups, salads and sides, $2.50-$6.50; burgers and sandwiches, $4.95-$6.25; entrees, $8.25-$12.95.
* Miscellaneous: Eat in or takeout; counter service; kids menu; no nonsmoking area; all major credit cards accepted.
CAPTION: There's a sociable atmosphere at The Ashburn Pub as bartender Regina Lindsay, above, keeps the beer flowing for customers Ed Baker, left, and Joe Fiala. The menu is typical sports bar fare, beginning with a comprehensive list of 15 snacks, including Cajun shrimp, left.