Laura Hayes

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Mike Bramson knew he wanted to open a Spanish restaurant in Clarendon so he bought a plane ticket and headed to Pamplona with wife Christal Bramson, business partner Naeem Mohd, and bar manager Ana Barrerato to watch the running of the bulls. The annual, weeklong event is one giant wine-soaked celebration not unlike the buzzy atmosphere Social Restaurant Group is trying to create on Highland Street when Pamplona restaurant opens Jan. 12.

The dining room and two bars are sexy, but it took a lot of work to update the space because Pamplona replaces SoBe Bar & Bistro—in all its divey, carpet-topped bar glory.

Photo courtesy Mike Bramson

“When we re-do a restaurant, we want to make sure people who walk in there don’t even think of the old space,” says Bramson, whose restaurant group also transformed Diego on 14th Street NW into Provision No. 14.

Most design elements at Pamplona are a nod to his three-day experience at the running of the bulls. One day he and his wife were perched in a balcony, so check the walls for photos they took looking down at the bulls. Another day, they stood behind wooden barricades just feet from the racing animals. The scene has been re-created leading to the bathrooms. “It was called the corner of death,” Bramson says.

You’ll need several meals to finish counting how many bulls adorn the restaurant. There are 350 bull head figurines and bulls in the women’s restroom (points to the first gal who hangs her purse from a horn).

Photo courtesy Mike Bramson

In addition to the bull theme, there are also Ernest Hemingway quotes scattered on the walls and pops of color like lush blue velvet and floral upholstery spread throughout restaurant, which can seat 131 people. Come warmer months, Pamplona will debut its 60-seat patio. It’s all the work of designer David Anthony Chenault. (More space photos below.)

Chef James Martin, who joins Pamplona from Restaurant Nora, has developed a menu of creative tapas such as Serrano ham with olive oil ice cream, pluslarger plates like paella and a selection of one-bite pintxos for the bar crowd. Everything is meant to be shared.

The beverage menu will be created by bar consultants Chad Spangler and Glendon Hartley of the Menehune Group. They have developed eight sangrias, including two that are frozen, plus a host of house-made tonics for gin and tonics. The restaurant could also end up being the biggest pourer of Spanish Mahou beer in the region. 

Perhaps the best time to try Pamplona will be July 5-15 during the 2017 running of the bulls because Bramson says they’re going to try to re-create the festive atmosphere.

“We’re going to have staff dressed up in traditional running-of-the-bulls garments, and we brought back videos that we’ll broadcast on the TVs that week,” he explains. 

The experience of building out a restaurant based on travel is something that will stick with Bramson and his partners going forward. “If we can, for every concept that we do moving forward, we want to travel to that place,” he says. 

While the official Pamplona opening date is Jan. 12, they’ll be in soft-open mode Jan. 10 and 11, when all food will be 20 percent off. 

Pamplona will serve dinner Sunday through Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (bar open until midnight) and Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. (bar open until 1:30 a.m.). Brunch will launch in February. 

Pamplona, 3100 N Highland St., Arlington, VA; (703) 685-9950; pamplonabar.com

Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes