I find it nearly impossible to wander into 16th Street Heights — or Brightwood or Brightwood Park, whichever the heck neighborhood claims the real estate around the intersection of 14th Street NW and Colorado Avenue — and not think about the late Colorado Kitchen, the most dictatorial restaurant I ever loved.
Gillian Clark was the Colorado’s chef and owner, and she ran the place as if every customer were a threat to her sovereignty. She scolded diners who tried to chat with her, or even compliment her, via a window looking into the kitchen. She positioned a Kleenex box near the entrance so you could help yourself to a tissue for your gum because she assumed you’d use the underside of a table instead. She even once created a display, something like a shadow box with an MRE packet tucked inside, with the admonition that your wait for a table was nothing compared to the suffering of our men and women in uniform.
Colorado Kitchen was a shame show — with terrific comfort food.
Tony Kowaleski, co-owner of Moreland’s Tavern, just across the street from the ghost of Colorado Kitchen, has heard the stories of Clark’s famous/infamous restaurant, which closed more than a decade ago. Colorado Kitchen still serves as a cautionary tale in the neighborhood, and Kowaleski is quick to note that he and his business partner, Matt Croke, are veterans of the restaurant business. Kowaleski is a partner in DC Reynolds in Park View, while Croke, co-owner of Boundary Stone Public House in Bloomingdale, is the son of a man who managed hotels for his entire career.
“Our family is hospitality, and hospitality is first in our restaurants,” says Croke. “It’s something that gets lost” in the mad rush to open yet another restaurant in Washington.
It doesn’t get lost at Moreland’s. The tavern occupies two floors and a patio, and there’s not a square inch of the place where someone doesn’t dote over you like an adoring aunt. The first time I set foot in Moreland’s, the ground floor was jammed tighter than a New York subway. My wife and I were directed upstairs to what I expected to be a server-starved purgatory. What we found instead was a bartender attuned to our every need. We also spotted a friend at a nearby table, surrounded by his neighbors, who were all apparently regulars.
It quickly became clear that Moreland’s Tavern is a rare beast: a neighborhood restaurant that understands the needs of its neighborhood, including the need for locals to feel spoiled, not like spoiled kids in need of discipline.
Like Boundary Stone, Moreland’s Tavern is built for comfort. The menu is a single page, specializing in the familiar, vaguely cross-cultural fare that has been absorbed into the DNA of every restaurant that caters to mainstream American tastes. Tacos, sliders, pasta, fried fish, maybe a roast chicken to show off the kitchen’s facility with the dish. Nothing on chef and partner Emily Baran’s menu is designed to intimidate, though one or three may impress with their modest ambitions.
The dish described as “steak frites” didn’t feature a tender, more American-friendly cut of beef. No, this plate came with two charred lengths of hanger steak, the ropy, slightly kidney-tasting cut beloved by butchers and Francophiles alike. The hanger oozed dark-red juices, its center as raw as tartare and its exterior dark and crusty. This was textbook grill work, and it didn’t need a lick of the herbed compound butter, with its pronounced garlic nose. The skin-on fries were thicker than classic frites, but I devoured them all the same. (Note: The hanger now comes with fingerling potatoes for the winter season, but you can still sub them out for fries.)
If everything else I sampled had matched the simple pleasures of that steak and fries, I would have taken to the streets, bullhorn strapped to my car a la “The Blues Brothers,” and sung Moreland Tavern’s praises to anyone who’d listen. But several dishes fell flat during my visits, often on days when you’d expect the B-team to be running the kitchen. One early weekday evening, I sat at the bar, watching the hapless New York Giants on Monday Night Football and thinking that my tough, overcooked chicken sandwich was just as lifeless. A couple of weeks later, on a quiet Sunday night, I was served a fried catfish that looked blackened and seemed to have absorbed half a fryer’s worth of oil.
Moreland’s strikes me as a place whose aspirations exceed ever so much its available talent, a common problem in a city with unprecedented restaurant growth and without the experienced help necessary to keep it humming. Some dishes were on the verge of greatness, like the succulent roast chicken, whose skin was more taut than crisp. The yogurt and Brussels sprouts combo might have worked better if the former hadn’t curdled from the heat of the tiny charred cabbages. Sometimes substitutions were made but not announced, like a standard burger bun subbed for the advertised challah.
The bread switcheroo wasn’t the double-meat burger’s only fault, either. It was missing its pimento cheese, too. Normally, in my rules of the reviewing game, these two strikes would have constituted an out, but the burger still had enough in reserve to knock a solid double. Credit the quality beef, nice and juicy, supplemented with a tomato relish for a sweet kick of acid. The pretzel bread appetizer performed much the same: Its saltless hide was not ideal but proved its worth once slathered with the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t pimento cheese.
Given my little snipes, you might be wondering why I like Moreland’s as much as I do. I like it because the place is modern and cozy — with brick walls and enough Edison bulbs to keep a hardware store alive for years — without being too full of itself. I like it because the kitchen serves up a trio of colorful vegetarian tacos that will test your spice tolerance. I like it because the tavern takes its name from a historic Brightwood landmark that once housed Union officers who helped defend Fort Stevens.
But mostly I like it because, every time I visited, I had the sense every employee cared that I was occupying a seat. If I lived in the ’hood, I’d be a regular.
5501 14th St. NW,
Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Takoma and Fort Totten, with less than 2 miles to the restaurant.
Prices: $5 to $11 for appetizers and salads; $12 to $19 for sandwiches and entrees.