Let’s talk about the “neighborhood restaurant,” a term that gets tossed around as if we all agree on its definition. But clearly we don’t. I conducted some informal, highly unscientific surveys on social media and found that opinions vary more than a small dog’s mood during an afternoon thunderstorm.
A neighborhood restaurant, these diners told me, must be locally owned, and the owners must be on site. It must be cheap enough so they can dine there frequently. It must have history with the ’hood, at least 10 years. It must be casual. It must be walking distance from their home. It must not take reservations. It must support the community, maybe even the local farmers market. It must have regulars and know their preferences (maybe even their secrets). It must have a bar where locals engage with one another. It must stay open late. It must not be a chain. It must not cater to tourists.
The restaurant is accessible to everyone in town. Tucked into a Mayberry R.F.D.-esque strip mall, where pallets of mulch and compost from a nearby garden center occupy a section of the parking lot, Dish and Dram doesn’t require a long drive to reach. Kensington itself takes up less than a half-square mile of real estate, which means that essentially every resident can walk to the restaurant and, just as important, stagger back home should they find themselves in such a need.
The restaurant is the only one in Kensington with a full liquor license. Before owners Zena Polin and Jerry Hollinger (they also run the Daily Dish in Silver Spring) signed a lease for the space, they wanted to make sure they could secure a license to operate a full bar, which is now the only one within Kensington’s city limits. (This factoid was confirmed by the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control, just in case you were wondering.)
Polin and general manager Davis Green have pulled together a decent wine, craft beer and cocktail list, careful to create both original and familiar drinks with high-quality spirits. They’ve even crafted a brunch Bellini with cantaloupe that I’d order again without hesitation or embarrassment. For its drinks program alone, I’d argue that the Dish and Dram is providing a serious community service.
The restaurant is affordable relative to the community. The menu at the Dish and Dram basically tops out at $28 for an entree, which is not exactly cheap, but it’s economical in a town where the median household income is $132,750. (Compare that with $75,506 for the District.) At $28, the rack of lamb special is the wallet buster, but those four bones were succulent morsels, even when a friend ordered them medium-well, a crime that I won’t hold against him.
Yet about half of the entrees are priced at $20 or less, including what has to be one of the best cheeseburgers in the DMV for under $15. Hollinger, who doubles as executive chef, uses a blend of Angus brisket and chuck to form his patty, which he tucks into a brioche bun with a few simple garnishes, making for a generous two-fisted bite that drips with juice and desire. No neighborhood restaurant can survive without a decent burger, and Hollinger has cleared that bar with plenty of room to spare.
The restaurant is adventurous enough to cater to sophisticated diners in Kensington. Hollinger and his chef de cuisine, Adam Wenger, have injected just enough creativity into their menus without alienating people who might otherwise reject dishes too far outside their comfort zone.
Take the duck confit nachos. The appetizer is sort of a French-American-Mexican mash-up, but it includes a sprinkling of pickled jalapeños, which are not calibrated for the suburban palate. They are genuinely, almost achingly south-of-the-border spicy. The summer risotto is even more daring: It incorporates a puree of roasted beets. The dish is almost cartoonishly pink, and I half-expected it to taste like an ant hill. But it was something else altogether, sweeter and more refined than I ever imagined, studded with slivers of garlic. The churros on the dessert menu also surprised me: They’re puffier than I expected and dusted with powdered sugar, like beignets, which they kind of resemble. I could have eaten a platter of them with that side of caramel sauce.
The restaurant has friendly, attentive staff. I was noisily slurping up the Dish and Dram’s intricate take on chicken tortilla soup, with smoked corn and poblano peppers, completely lost in conversation with a good friend. Our server sidled up to our table and dropped a bomb on me: She noticed the kitchen had given me the wrong soup. She immediately offered to take away my cup and replace it with the Maryland crab soup that I had actually ordered. At that moment, she was more attuned to my order than I was. I thanked her for her diligence — and promptly shooed her off, happy with the cup in front of me.
The restaurant is charming enough to make you forgive its shortcomings. The Dish and Dram is not perfect. A friend and I sat through what felt like the world’s longest delay between courses. Our patience was rewarded with a roasted half-chicken, its skin flaccid and jaundiced and the mashed potatoes under the bird drowning in melted butter. A few days later, during a Sunday morning brunch, I pricked the poached eggs atop my eggs Benedict and discovered barely a trickle of yolk, robbing me of the dish’s ancillary sauce.
But even here, I’d argue that the Dish and Dram makes a compelling case for being the Perfect Kensington Neighborhood Restaurant: It’s good. But it’s not too good. Otherwise, it would be a destination restaurant.
The Dish and Dram (Good) 10301 Kensington Pkwy., Kensington, Md. 301-962-4046. thedishanddram.com .
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers and small plates $6 to $15; dinner entrees and specials $14 to $28.
Sound check: 68 decibels / Conversation is easy.