Looks are deceiving at the 3-month-old Second State downtown, where the decor is agreeable but the service and food quality are not. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The scene: Second State downtown, a self-described promoter of Pennsylvania food.

The time: Lunch on a recent weekday.

Me: “Does the squash soup have cream in it?”

Server: “Yeah, there’s some.” (Pause.) “Well, let me check with the chef.” (He disappears into the kitchen and returns a minute later.) “No dairy. Would you like that in a cup or a bowl?”

Me: “A cup, please.”

Server: “Actually, it only comes in a bowl.”

Me: “Of the sandwiches, do you have a favorite?”

Server: “The banh mi is AWESOME!”

The bahn mi is AWFUL. Indeed, it might be the sorriest version of the classic Vietnamese sandwich I’ve ever had: a soft roll packed with what tastes like stewed chicken and sour vegetables. To make matters worse, the plate comes with a mountain of french fries that have no discernible potato flavor, only a hailstorm of minced garlic that no amount of breath mints afterward can mask.

Because this is not my first meal at Second State, which followed the Mighty Pint in this space in October, I’m not surprised. The young restaurant should be declared a disaster area by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, so great are its culinary misfires. Salads are overdressed, cheese pierogis drown in butter, pheasant gets roasted to dryness, venison is so undercooked it practically snorts, and baked beans have the misfortune of being cooked with root beer.


Spoon-worthy: butternut squash soup, with a hint of vanilla. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

As far as this diner can tell, the only reason to pick up a utensil here is the aforementioned squash soup, a steamy antidote to winter that’s laced with a suggestion of vanilla.

Second State’s servers are genial enough, but they appear to have had zero training. At an earlier dinner, nothing was cleared between courses, which meant patrons had to exchange dirty appetizer plates for
entrees that showed up unexpectedly fast.

The newcomer has one detail in its favor: good looks. A below-ground door opens into a cozy bar and dining room dressed with a marble counter and trim booths set against whitewashed brick walls.

A news release explains the establishment’s name and theme: In 1787, Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the Constitution. It’s also where owner Reese Gardner, who operates multiple watering holes in Arlington and the District, was born.

Huh.

“Enjoy your food, not your phone,” reads a sign near the bar. Just about anywhere else, I’d nod in agreement. At Second State, frankly, scrolling trumps chewing.

1831 M St. NW. 202-466-3010. seconstatedc.com. Dinner entrees, $19 to $36.