Food critic

The bar at Hen Quarter in Penn Quarter features bright lights, but the drinks and service dim the experience. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Looks can be deceiving.

Take a glance around the fledgling Hen Quarter in Penn Quarter, part of a local chainlette of Southern eateries with branches in Alexandria and Silver Spring. The new chicken-themed dining room adds something fresh to the neighborhood, furnished as it is with fans the size of tractor tires, a barrel doubling as a host stand, enough wood to erect a barn and a bar above which BOURBON is spelled out in white lights.

The setting (formerly Austin Grill) whets an appetite for comfort food.

The service makes you want to run as fast as you can somewhere else.


Fried chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes and biscuit with watermelon lemonade. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

At lunch, when I place my order, my waiter looks at the words on the menu as though he’s reading them for the first time. Appetizer and entree show up together. I have to ask for water.

At dinner, there are lots of people doing their jobs poorly, from the bartender who can’t make a friend’s martini (four fails in a row, and since when are martinis amber?) to the server who interrupts every few bites to ask if we need anything else. (Uh, more space, please?) A request for cabernet sauvignon yields sauvignon blanc. Ten long minutes later, a manager emerges with the correct bottle, but by then we’re almost done with dinner.

Yes, I say something. But the manager’s response to my litany of issues with tonight’s lack of attention is met with a blank stare. Almost as curious, he fills our wine glasses nearly to the brim without letting me approve the bottle first. Before he retreats — and as if I’ve imagined the bumpy ride — he says, “Let us know if we can do anything.”

How about a complete do-over, sir?


Watermelon salad, with mozzarella, tomatoes, English cucumbers, fennel, torn basil, glass noodles and citrus vinaigrette. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Graceland pudding. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Give or take a biscuit or roast chicken, the food is not worth the Southern inhospitality. Oh, the fried chicken and mashed potatoes are fine when you get them hot, and the collard greens come with welcome sting, but much of the rest of the list calls for maintenance. Torn waffles do not make a good substitute for croutons in a Caesar salad rising from what looks like last week’s romaine. Deviled eggs appear to be filled with mustard-flavored grout. Steer clear, too, of the shrimp and grits beneath what smacks of canned corn salsa. (I half expect to look into the kitchen and see a can opener wearing a chef’s toque.)

For the sake of comparison, I trek to the attractive Silver Spring location, where the drinks are made just the way they’re meant to be, the food arrives in actual courses and the menu includes a strapping chicken-fried pork chop dropped off by an able waiter. Live music turns a Thursday fuel stop into a festive celebration.

Hen Quarter, in other words, shows promise — just not in Penn Quarter.

750 E St. NW. 202-248-7036. henquarter.com. Dinner entrees, $19 to $29.