Six years ago, Bar Charley was born out of need — the owners’. Jackie Greenbaum and Gordon Banks say they opened the watering hole on 18th Street NW for lack of a smart place to eat and drink well that didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Half of their plan was a smash. Drinkers welcomed the likes of an $8 Sazerac and daiquiris kept cool with a sphere of frozen coconut water.
The early dishes, though, were all over the map, and inconsistent to boot. Chinese-style dumplings on “hay broth” and charred chicken on stolid dirty rice begot an underpopulated dining room. Even Greenbaum says, “We struggled to find a food identity.”
Bar Charley isn’t doing battle with itself anymore. For the past few years at least, customers have encountered food every bit as satisfying as the pours from the bar, thanks partly to executive chef Adam Harvey, the restaurant’s longest-serving kitchen conductor. While he oversees the owners’ other brands, including El Chucho, Little Coco’s and Quarry House Tavern, Harvey has a soft spot for a place he says he always envisioned as “a dark little steakhouse.” Hence the beefed-up menu featuring six cuts of meat, most priced to allow for regular slicing.
Blame a seemingly endless stream of headline-grabbing newcomers for my silence on Bar Charley until recently.
Appealing from the start, the below-ground interior, lit as for date night, was refreshed a year and a half ago. The original peacock wallpaper has been replaced with a floral motif, and the new arty green-and-gold banquette running the length of the dining room is as much about comfort as style. Now insulated from the elements, the back patio is fenced in with a forest of bamboo and can even be tented for private functions. Bar Charley’s sense of humor sneaks into the restrooms, one of which is decorated in what appears to be Delft baroque wallpaper but upon closer inspection has Star Trek characters in the pattern.
The appetizers still hopscotch around the world, but they’re improvements on what came before. Europe is well represented by crisp arancini arranged on romesco, and Belgium meets Thailand in steamed mussels gathered in a pot of coconut milk, basil and jalapeño. Tuna tartare, fried Brussels sprouts: Pleasing as they are, there’s not much here you can’t find in a lot of other places, with the possible exception of cheese curds. The kitchen, under the day-to-day care of chef de cuisine Ilya Agarunov, breads and fries the bites of Wisconsin cheddar, piles them in a wire basket and sends them out with a bright green goddess dip. Couch eating, elevated.
There are a flock of wonderful wings out there — Bar Charley’s not included. The menu sets us up for finger licking by detailing crushed peanuts and sriracha aioli as enhancers, but the reality is a frequently dry and not very meaty mess. The better shareable dishes are the aforementioned tender mussels, served with rafts of toast to sponge the sweet heat, and pimento cheese accompanied by bacon jam, its seasoning reminiscent of baked beans.
Big, buttery scallops with a hint of orange are a nice segue from appetizer to entree. The season dictates their support system: a field of sweet corn in summer followed by creamy butternut squash, fleshy mushrooms and smoky broccoli florets as the leaves started to turn color. Branzino gets fancied up with a ring of mussels, lobster sauce and melting fennel, while gnocchi with roasted mushrooms and tendrils of arugula proves a more straightforward pleasure. Entrees come with a choice of green salad or warm, pillowy, salt-sprinkled Parker House rolls. Guess which door I tend to pick.
Bar Charley’s hamburger swells with thoughtfulness. The patty is shaped from prime beef, seasoned liberally with salt and pepper and cooked on a griddle, which gives the patty its fine crust. Adding to the pleasure are more of that bacon jam, garlic aioli, tomato confit (so much better than out-of-season tomatoes) and a lightly crisped bun. The deliciousness comes with a caveat: a torrent of juice in every bite. A bib would make a nice accessory. The alternative is a visit to the dry cleaners. Neater than the hamburger is seared rare tuna tucked into a shiny bun from Lyon Bakery. Either sandwich is best eaten with a thatch of double-fried french fries.
Perhaps you’ve come for steak. Good for you. Bar Charley should comfort fans of the late Ray’s the Steaks, popular for its value. A glance at the range finds eight ounces of wagyu flatiron glossed with a trend du jour (miso butter) for $32 and “double dog dare ya’ ” — 2 ½ pounds of dry-aged porterhouse with trimmings for $85. I’m drawn to the $24 balsamic-marinated hanger steak, sliced into thick, juicy pieces that get more mouthwatering as a knob of herbed butter melts into the beef. Bargain hunters should pay their respects on Sunday, when “Just the Cuts” — the meat alone — is half price when you buy a bottle of wine or a scorpion bowl. I wish there were more green vegetables among the side dishes, but if you don’t get those great fries, go for the rosti because, hello, potatoes and bacon swirled together.
New to the watering hole: “3 for $30” every Tuesday, a chance to try some of the menu highlights, including drinks and dessert. My ideal would embrace the lush tuna tartare, the steak frites and Kit Katty hazelnut pavé. Then again, the rice fritters, mussels and a martini could be fun, too. Bar Charley offers plenty of ways to mix and match.
The bar program, curated by Brendan Mullin, encourages taste tests, too. A full page is devoted to cocktails that can be made with “everyday” liquors, local spirits or something lofty. Read: A sidecar can be had for as little as $11 or as much as $42.
A dash more care would make for a better place to dine. The powdery croutons in the lobster salad are also oddly sweet, and a kicky side of baby bok choy reveals grit in the heat. Servers are plenty helpful, but not as attentive as they could be. One night, I faced a little debris field of my own making until just before the check came.
Even so, Bar Charley has matured over time from a nice pub to a select eating place. Everyone I’ve introduced to the venue is eager to return and take advantage of the general quality and multiple bargains. As Greenbaum puts it, “We’ve settled into what we dreamed about but couldn’t quite get for a while.” Cheers to that.
Bar Charley (Good) 1825 18th St. NW. 202-627-2183. barcharley.com. Open: Dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $17, sandwiches and entrees $16 to $85 (for a 40-ounce porterhouse meal).
Sound check: 82 decibels / Extremely loud. Accessibility: A narrow entrance and multiple stairs make entry and navigation in the dining room difficult.