Over the four decades that Bob Beaulieu has owned the Post Pub, bar food has, generally speaking, put on serious airs. It has ditched its Sysco-grade ingredients for custom hamburger blends built with short rib and brisket; BLTs prepared with heirloom tomatoes and thick, house-smoked bacon; and pizzas topped with figs and imported prosciutto.
Bar food’s raspy, cigarette-smoking friends don’t even recognize it anymore. Between coughing fits, they talk among themselves: “Bar food thinks it’s too good for us.” They sigh, remember the good times together and take a long swig of their Miller High Life to forget the pain.
The elevation of traditional American fare — call it pub grub, bar food, whatever you like — was perhaps inevitable. As was its soaring price tag. As was the resentment and alienation of the working-class regulars who had faithfully sat on wobbly bar stools and choked down the greasy, short-order fare with barely a complaint. They even accepted their first bypass with relative cheer.
No one in his right mind could argue the Diplomat burger at the Post Pub is superior to, for instance, the deep reservoir of deliciousness that defines the triple stack burger at the Partisan in Penn Quarter. Such an argument could never hold up to scrutiny, even factoring in a palate grown dead from inhaling filterless Camels. Which is not to say old barflies don’t genuinely love their burgers pulled together with Select-grade beef and factory-made buns, but I’d argue their enjoyment rests not solely with the food on their plate, but with the atmosphere around it, too.
No matter how much ground its food loses to the fare at chef-driven gastropubs, the Post Pub has one element that cannot be purchased from a local farm, cannot be learned from the Culinary Institute of America and cannot be created from the finest restaurant designers in town. The Post Pub has soul, which, I should note, has nothing to do with the nearby newspaper that has been the pub’s benefactor, parasite and (soon-to-be) departing neighbor.
Now, the word “soul” gets thrown around as if everyone agrees on the definition. This is clearly not the case when the same term can be applied to both Michael Bolton and Otis Redding. My definition involves time and experience. Some rare individuals, like Redding, seem to be born with soul, as if 1,000 years of human joy and suffering can be heard every time they open their mouths. The rest of us slugs must try to acquire it over the course of a lifetime, struggling to remain compassionate and altruistic despite profound loss and disappointment. Soul is the ability to spread good cheer while aware of your own misery.
I can’t think of a better definition for the Post Pub. Even as the dining scene continues to lap the place, the Post Pub surpasses most with its warmth, history and hospitality, none of which can be faked or manufactured. The history of the place has been earned. You see it on the wall, where customers beam from black-and-white photos from another era. You sense it when you sink into the worn, comfy booths, whose naugahyde has been broken in after years of self-medication with a bottle. You read it on the signs, whose humor doesn’t cater to the PC police: “We do not serve women. You must bring your own.”
Mostly, you experience the pub through its employees, those bartenders and servers who seem to have absorbed the joint’s DNA when they walked into the place. Or maybe Beaulieu just knows how to weed out applicants who don’t fit the profile. Either way, the place has a big, hospitable heart, and it’s been beating strong for decades. Beaulieu told me a story about how the bar used to prepare for the rush of Washington Post mailers, the workers who sorted and bundled the paper daily, during their union break between 11:15 and 11:30 p.m. Bartenders could pull beers and pour shots with Olympian speed.
They had to. The mailers would “have two or three drinks apiece,” Beaulieu remembers. “They’d do it pretty good.”
Work breaks are no longer so liquid, but the staff at Post Pub still knows how to take care of its customers. One Saturday night, as a friend and I held down a couple of stools in the mostly barren establishment, the bartender entertained us with his music playlist and a bottle of Jameson, from which he poured us a couple of shots without warning. The whiskey was silk and spice on the palate, and it paired with our steak sandwich (good grill flavor, succulent, fine bar fare) and grilled chicken sandwich (plump breast meat on a soft kaiser bun, nothing special) like a juicy California cab with a medium-rare porterhouse.
I’ve sampled widely from the Post Pub menu options, none of which will likely convince you to abandon your preferred gastropub, deli or diner. The onion rings are the exception. A prep cook spends the morning slicing, separating and soaking the rings; they’re then battered and fried: irregular, crispy and yellow-onion sweet. The marinated grilled salmon also defied my admittedly low expectations, delivering a solid, sweet and slightly spicy bite.
The pub’s beloved line of burgers proved a bust, no matter the size of the patty. The mini lamb burgers were more like miniature logs, juiceless and underseasoned, crying out for tzatziki sauce to save them. The Diplomat, ordered medium rare, turned out to be tall, dark and not so handsome. The best thing between two buns happens to be the barbecue sandwich, a generous pile of pork that needs every lick of the accompanying sauce to transform it into something smoky.
If I’m going to spend my calories at the Post Pub, I’m inclined to stick with draft beers and appetizers, even the gooey dish of Buffalo chicken dip, which looks like electrified Cheez Whiz and lights up a tortilla chip with its triple currents of sweetness, sourness and spice. Truth be told, I’m sad that I’ve neglected this shopworn dive for so many years while searching for shinier objects. At the same time, I’m relieved to know The Washington Post’s move this month to new offices will add only a few blocks to a trip to the Post Pub. It’d be wrong to abandon such a faithful companion.
1422 L St. NW. 202-628-2111. www.postpubdc.com.
Hours: Monday-Thursday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Friday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Nearest Metro: McPherson Square, with a 0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.