NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT GROUP co-owner Michael Babin believed that Washingtonians needed more places to sample the ever-growing array of craft beers, without any more ubiquitous flat-screen TVs, dingy lighting, chicken fingers or frites. So he and his partners dreamed up such a place — a pair of them, actually.

This new, two-part endeavor opened last week in the former Dakota Cowgirl space in Logan Circle. The ground floor houses the fine-dining Birch & Barley (exposed brick, bamboo floors, earthy hues), while the upstairs offers a hip bar and lounge, ChurchKey (D.C.’s longest bar, decadent accents). Both floors will feature executive chef Kyle Bailey’s contemporary American cuisine and beer director Greg Engert’s formidable beer list: 500 bottled brews, 50 drafts and five cask-conditioned ales.

The project is novel in several ways. It is NRG‘s first foray into the District, after its many successes in Northern Virginia with eateries like Tallula, Evening Star and Rustico. It also marks the first time that foie gras-stuffed tater tots, the rare Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout and chandelier sconces have come together under one roof in the city.

“We’re excited about it,” says Babin. “I think that people who care about and love beer have largely felt, and justly so, that they are treated as second-class citizens in the food world, and, really, that’s one way to summarize what this place is all about; it’s really just to level the playing field. We’ve seen at [the brew-centric] Rustico that beer is not just for frat parties. It’s a serious beverage, and people that both drink and produce it take it very seriously.”

That Babin and Engert treat the hoppy beverage with the utmost respect becomes apparent very quickly at Birch & Barley/ChurchKey. Gorgeous copper pipes gleam above the taps on the main level — the veins through which the building pumps its sudsy substance. The bars are stocked with the numerous types of glassware necessary to appropriately showcase various beer styles, and the second floor’s multiple “temperature zones” for brew storage help ensure that customers get the best flavor experience.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, chef Bailey is doing his part to highlight the lupulin-heavy liquids. He says he’s “cooking with beer in mind” as he plates up dishes that emphasize local, seasonal and homemade ingredients — things like mac and cheese sticks, and crispy wild striped bass with fennel and artichoke ragu.

He and his wife, pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, were thrilled to take their prior food-and-beverage-pairing experience (New York’s Allen & Delancey, Cru) into the beer world; they make their own home brew and have a great appreciation for the stuff. “People have been making beer since before Jesus,” says Bailey. “They’ve had a lot of time to make it great. We have all this delicious beer to pair with food.”

And, of course, since Babin knows all too well what it feels like to be shut out of a restaurant’s offerings, Birch & Barley/ChurchKey also boasts a wine list and a classic cocktail program.

» Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, 1337 14th St. NW; 202-567-2576. (McPherson Square)

Written by Express Contributor Jenny Mayo
Photos courtesy Pfau Commnications