Unrated during the pandemic

“Welcome to the apocalypse” isn’t the hello I anticipated upon my September return to Reveler’s Hour, my first visit to the handsome pasta-and-wine house in Adams Morgan since the Before Times. But the mordant humor seems fitting at a moment when restaurants are fighting for their lives and some businesses, including this one, have turned outdoor spaces into dining “lots” as a way to offer seating to people who aren’t yet ready to cross restaurant thresholds.

So here we are, several storefronts removed from the actual Reveler’s Hour, on the asphalt division between a couple of condo buildings. The pattern will be familiar to those who continue to dine away from home. Tables are spaced for social distancing and affixed with QR codes to call up menus. Servers ask diners to keep masks on when interacting with staff, and unlike inside the restaurant, much of the food is ferried in brown paper bags and eaten with single-use utensils. The experience is little like what the trio of owners envisioned when they opened in January, around the corner from their beloved Tail Up Goat. Yet beverage director Bill Jensen, executive chef Jon Sybert and service director Jill Tyler are doing their best to make sure their brand of hospitality endures. Tyler says she has a new mantra: “Whatever happens is not a failure. This is outside our control.”

For those who have yet to give it a taste test, let me catch you up on Reveler’s Hour. The restaurant closed mid-March because so much was unknown and the owners’ first priority was the safety of its employees. In May, the space reopened as a market, and July marked its return as a dine-in restaurant. August saw the addition of the parking lot for alfresco service.

Salads comprise most of the first courses, with the season dictating what you’ll find in your bowl (I’ll miss you, summer beans!) and little details, like the precise croutons coaxed from housemade sourdough, making big impressions. The kitchen smokes its own scallops, good ones from Cape May, then arranges thick slices of them in a box with a drift of squash lightened with mascarpone and fresh mint. The food might be presented in plastic or cardboard, but by golly, its handlers still want to make a good impression. “I feel like I’m at a picnic,” a companion says as we pluck containers from bags and spread the dishes on the table.

Pasta was a major draw from opening day and remains a highlight. Typically, there are four choices forcing tough decisions. Anchovies, my desert island condiment, lend umami to bucatini and roasted sungold tomatoes, strewn with toasted bread crumbs for contrast. The more unusual pasta involves tender crown shapes plumped with a whip of smoked eggplant and ricotta and dressed with fried red pepper, pulled roasted lamb and torn mint to brighten the assembly.

The moon is visible now, and so are the solar-powered lanterns set against the perimeter of the outdoor space, acquired after its owner, Michael Postal of Tenacity Group, dropped by Reveler’s Hour for a sandwich and offered up the real estate.

Like many of his peers, Sybert never thought he would be flipping burgers and frying chicken at this stage of his career, but if comfort is what people want, comfort is what they can find on his current menu. Now may be a golden age for fried chicken, as chefs around the country vie to come up with a bird of a different feather. One distinctive feature here is the packaging. The main event comes in brown butcher paper held together with twine. It’s a simple and attractive gesture. Beneath the wrapping is more to cheer, brined fried chicken that sounds like feet on gravel when you bite down and spurts hot juices. Have a napkin ready. And an appetite, since the chicken is just part of the fun. Along for the ride are boxes with big, crisp-bottomed biscuits; sweet and hot pickles; a starch (chunky potato salad with plentiful fresh dill most recently); and condiments. Too bad Sybert can’t see diners’ faces light up when they tuck into the feast.

Outdoor dining rooms are at the mercy of the elements. So I appreciate the text message I got several hours before my return date with Reveler’s Hour. “Please bundle up!” it read. “It is chilly and we don’t have heaters.” I could practically hear Tyler typing her concern and assuring me she would understand if I opted out. “Happy to cancel and waive the fee if it’s too chilly for you,” the text continued. “Please just let us know by 5 p.m.” (The restaurant charges $25 for cancellations made after then, which is fair, as is the 22 percent service fee that replaces tipping. This and other information is shared on the restaurant’s website.)

The burgers are a lot for the mouth, but I prefer the lunch-only sandwiches. The BLT is a noble union of thick, smoky bacon, espelette aioli and toasty house-baked bread, and what I admire about the meatball sammy is its reluctance to play the heavy. Ahead of eating the construction, I mapped out nap time, then surprised myself by staying alert for the rest of the afternoon. That’s how light the combination of fluffy meatballs and tender brioche comes across. Bridging beef and bread is mozzarella that the kitchen makes fresh each day and that, once warmed, completes the sandwich. Lunch orders can be retrieved from the basically idle bar, which has been transformed into a wine market. Bottles beckon from the counter, the walls and the alcoves that morph into window tables at night.

Jensen is one of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable wine sellers I know. Even with a mask on, diners can tell he’s smiling as he rhapsodizes about Maryland wines, grape juice made by Black producers, and a bottle that’s half cabernet franc, half merlot and presents like a light red or a rich rose. (Meet the 2019 Chateau La Bourree from Bordeaux.)

One of the better ideas to emerge from the pandemic is Jensen’s pivot to hosting Sunday wine classes online. With advance notice, Reveler’s Hour can curate a case for you, based on three adjectives that describe your taste — or even a poem you submit. (Reveler’s Hour borrows from a line from an ancient Greek drinking song, translated by Irish bard Thomas Moore.)

The restaurant acquired a new pastry chef this spring. Her name is Annie Coleman, she last worked at the Dabney, and she makes things lots of people like: flourless chocolate cake with toasted hazelnuts, caramelized apple-fennel tart with roasted fennel dulce de leche ice cream, and ice cream sandwiches. The last seals minty ice cream between two thick chocolate rounds; gourmands, here’s your peppermint patty. Like the savory sandwiches, the sweet ones are wrapped in butcher paper and too easy to eat. Which is why I attribute to this beacon of hope at least three of my “Quarantine 15” (going on 16).

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Unrated during the pandemic Reveler’s Hour 1775 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-588-1616. revelershour.com. Open: Lunch (takeout or delivery only) 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; dinner (inside and outside) 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Prices: Lunch sandwiches $13; dinner appetizers $11 to $16; burgers, pastas and fried chicken $16 to $35. Dinner takeout available 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Delivery via Caviar. Accessibility: The entrance has an automatic door and restroom is ADA-compliant.

Dining with Tom Sietsema
with Tom Sietsema Dining