Scott Auslander knew the secret to a successful sports bar long before his competitors realized that even a roving gang of football addicts, outfitted in their colors, wanted more than a chicken patty dropped into a deep fryer and slapped between buns with a thick layer of Miracle Whip and a mealy winter tomato.
Back in 2005, when Auslander opened Ventnor Sports Cafe in Adams Morgan, you would have been hard-pressed to find a similar mantuary in which the kitchen sliced, breaded and fried its own tenders. Or whipped up its own hummus or prepared its own dipping sauces for the chicken wings. I mean, back then, sports bars were content to call Sysco and wait for the happy beep-beep-beep of an 18-wheeler to back up to the kitchen door with a truck full of frozen goods.
But Auslander had a different model in mind. Ventnor was patterned after the neighborhood Italian American joints that his family frequented when he was a boy in Philadelphia. These were places with a bar on one side, where regulars and boozehounds could grandstand nightly, and a family restaurant on the other. The kitchen took pride in preparing food from scratch, perhaps drawing on recipes passed from one generation to another.
“These are the kind of places where you went to dinner a couple times a week,” Auslander remembers.
Ventnor feels as if it has inherited the DNA of those Philly institutions. The staffers at the two-story establishment radiate a playful grace. It might manifest itself as a bartender quick to joke about the Miller Lite on tap, or a bar-back quick to refill your water glass because he knows you may need an emergency swallow when the mango-habanero sauce kicks in. Ventnor is the kind of place where strangers become neighbors — even if those strangers want to see your team pulverized into stadium fertilizer.
There are numerous reasons, of course, to avoid cacophonous sports bars on Super Bowl Sunday, particularly if you have a rooting interest in a team or a passing interest in the high-concept commercials or the star-powered halftime show. But this Sunday, as a future Hall of Fame quarterback tries to piece his aging body back together for one last Super Bowl gasp, I suggest you give Ventnor a shot. If the game is as much a social outing as an athletic contest, then this is your place.
I even have a recommendation: Show up well before the 6:30 p.m. kickoff. Many fans, Auslander tells me, arrive just minutes before the game, which may be fine at sports bars where the kitchen deals in volume over freshness. But at Ventnor, where much of the food is made to order, you’re best served by making an early appearance. That way, you won’t be forced to play the part of Beltway Brat Packer, whining about delays as the kitchen slams through a backlog of ticket orders.
Take your cues from the space: Be chill. Order a cocktail, maybe the bourbon negroni, which you’ll need to knock back fast before the soft-drink ice dilutes the beautiful balance of the drink. The beer list covers all the micro, macro, local and gluten-free bases, providing a number of thrills along the way. As you’re sucking down, say, a silver tall boy of 3 Stars Ghost White IPA, with its pleasant grapefruit pinch, you might ponder how far Ventnor (and the beer industry) has come in little more than a decade.
“We started out with seven beers,” Auslander says, rattling off former pub darlings like Corona and Blue Moon. “Now we have 40.”
Ventnor doesn’t have an official chef on staff to monkey around with the menu. This may explain such conceptual enigmas as the romaine wedge salad, a blowzy, hot mess of bacon and blue cheese that you can’t stop ogling — or eating. (The thing’s also vertically challenged for a salad that conjures images of lettuce pyramids.) The chef-less situation may also explain why Ventnor’s menu doesn’t rise above its station, like at those thumping, fist-pumping clubs-cum-pubs where the kitchen pretends to have the chops to prepare puff pastry, tuna tartare spring rolls or a Margherita pizza.
The misbegotten wedge notwithstanding, Ventnor tends to rely on pub classics, sometimes with delightful twists, such as the breakfast burger with a poached egg perched atop the half-pound patty, awaiting to enrobe the beef in its silken yolk. The grilled cheese sandwich features tomatoes and a generous layer of sharp cheddar, hot and gooey, between hearty slices of sourdough bread from Lyon Bakery. The crunch of the bread will echo in your ears. The Buffalo chicken dip is served in a cast-iron skillet, with blue cheese crumbles sprinkled on top and square slices of warmed rustic bread stacked next to it like a Soviet-era apartment building. The dip smacks of cheese and hot sauce, not cornstarch or some other thickener. Fingers will be employed to mop up the last streaks.
The kitchen clearly has the hots for Buffalo sauce: The piquant, tongue-torturing flavors appear in several dishes. The best of the bunch is the moist, crunchy house-made chicken tenders, whose come-hither Buffalo gloss will entice you to break off the relationship with your current sports bar. As spicy as the sauce is, it can’t compare to the mango habanero dip for the chicken wings; that stuff will melt the skin off your skull.
Ventnor saves its ambition and/or mad science for the “house specialty” category, where you’ll find the pub’s titular sandwich, a late-night refrigerator raid stacked with shaved rib-eye, salami, tomatoes, provolone cheese, fried onions and the savage snickering of the genius who created this delicious mashup. The most highfalutin dish has to be the short rib-gruyere mac and cheese, a plate of spiral pasta that punishes you with richness. You’ll want more punishment.
To me, the beauty of that macaroni and cheese dish is that it’s just a bombastic version of Hamburger Helper. The preparation fits right in with Auslander’s ethos for Ventnor: Give the people what they want, just make sure it’s better than they ever expected from a neighborhood sports bar.
2411 18th St. NW. 202-234-3070. www.ventnorsportscafe.com
Hours: Monday-Friday 4 p.m. to close; Saturday-Sunday 10:30 a.m. to close.
Nearest Metro: Woodley Park, with a 0.7-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Appetizers and entrees, $7.49-$13.99.