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Folks have it all back-asswards. Politics isn’t a sport. Sports are our politics. I bet that, on a daily basis, the average American male will spend far more time debating the relative merits of this year’s NFL teams—in painful, leg-numbing, Lincoln-Douglas-debate-like detail—than the merits of this fall’s presidential candidates. Sports teams not only vie for our vote with every new stadium and free-agent signing, they’ve developed elaborate PR machinery to manipulate public opinion and squash dissent.
The sophistication of sports and sports talk in our country has become so mind-boggling that I can’t help but think that it’s finally filtered down to that lowly little institution known as the sports bar. Politicians have their steakhouses. Sports nuts now have Thirsty Bernie Sports Bar & Grill.
This Arlington newbie is the brainchild of chef Jamie Stachowski and owner Steven Sadeghian, who used to be a regular at the toque’s former establishment, Restaurant Kolumbia on K Street. Sadeghian’s a real estate developer with a love for German and Austrian cuisine; Stachowski’s a no-bullshit Pole who was raised on a farm outside Buffalo where butchering animals and nose-to-tail cooking were a way of life, not a cookbook concept.
Their collaboration is as unlikely as their concept. Sadeghian is a restaurant rookie, and Stachowski, after Kolumbia closed last year, had originally teamed up with Michael Landrum to produce charcuterie for a stand-alone butcher shop near Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington. When the butcher concept didn’t take off—Landrum’s “hands were way too full” to focus on it, the chef says—Stachowski decided to take up Sadeghian’s offer to develop the Bavarian sports bar concept at Thirsty Bernie. It’s turned into a full-time gig, with talk about making Stachowski a full partner. “I told him, ‘Before we get married, let’s sleep together a little bit,’” the chef says, laughing at his own quip.
Bernie looks like almost every other sports bar in America, save perhaps for those high-tech Barca-lounges known as the ESPN Zone. The forest-green walls here feature the requisite wood wainscoting, and sports posters and memorabilia hang from those vertical surfaces not already smothered by one of 15 TVs, which surround you on all sides, creating that weird insular world of unadulterated jockism. Every inch of this pub feels like a neighborhood haunt except for one important detail—Stachowski’s menu, which is outfitted with a butcher board, pierogi, wiener schnitzel, four-cheese lasagna, kielbasa, and bratwurst. “This is just home for me,” the chef says of the menu, rattling off the dishes he grew up with in Buffalo.
And like back on the family farm, Stachowski and his staff make virtually everything from scratch. The pasta for the lasagna? Scratch. The mayonnaise for the mustard aioli? Scratch. The pumpernickel, the kummelweck roll, and the brioche buns? Scratch, scratch, and scratch. Stachowski even smokes his own pastrami and produces his own version of the half-smoke, that D.C. staple, along with his usual assortment of charcuterie favorites, from country pâté to bresaola. You get the feeling he’d create his own sea salt if he lived by the ocean, instead of around the corner from Thirsty Bernie.
The interesting thing about dragging a sports bar into the heart of the Black Forest is that some Neanderthals just won’t follow you there. “The bar is over-priced, but does have a very good bud light bottle special,” wrote one dude on Yelp.com about Bernie. The bro actually has a point: If a couple orders a stein or two of $10 Franziskaner, and maybe a $9 app and a $21 entrée each, they’re starting to push the Benjamin barrier. This is sports-pub grub at FedExField prices.
But after years of sitting in rinky-dink sports bars, dropping $8 in Houston for a Sysco-brand chicken breast or $10 for a scrap-meat burger in New York, I am only too happy to shell out nearly $20 for Stachowski’s wiener schnitzel. The entrée features two breaded, milky-soft veal cutlets pressing down on a tangled mess of braised red cabbage, whose subtle tartness balances out the unctuous creaminess of the brandied mushroom sauce. This is not just fine-dining-level schnitzel, this is Faustian-deal schnitzel.
By comparison to the schnitzel, the pierogi, filled with farmer’s cheese and paired with a Riesling-raisin sauce, are a one-note wonder. But it’s one of those hypnotic, Philip Glass notes that’ll have you stuffing these decidedly soft (not crisp, as advertised) dumplings into your mouth, zombielike, one after another, until you realize the whole plate is gone. The towering pastrami has the same effect: The two halves of the precut sandwich are stacked so high, and stuffed so generously with fatty brisket and pickled red onions and a gooey layer of Swiss cheese, that you think you’ll never be able to finish this pumpernickel gut bomb. Don’t kid yourself; you’ll finish it; you’ll want to finish it. It’s as if Stachowski has taken the classic pastrami flavors—smoke and spice and lots of rendered fat—and put them on a steroid regimen.
There are lighter bites on the menu—a wan Caesar, for example—but if I’m in a sports bar I want to eat like a linebacker. I want a ridiculous, stupor-inducing amount of calories; I want to become a semi-breathing doorstop. Stachowski can help, whether with his juicy, all-beef half-smoke (served on a comically large, house-made potato roll) or his pulled brisket sliders (heavily smoked and mildly sauced) or with his butcher’s board of hand-crafted charcuterie, which features, among other delights, these bloated nubbins of kielbasa, at once garlicky and oh-so fatty.
The whiffs are few at Thirsty Bernie, which is saying something for a neighborhood joint run mostly by inexperienced staff. My dining companion’s burger, a fairly juiceless 10-ounce mass of twice-ground chuck, could have used less time on the grill and a few more shakes of salt. The Buffalo, N.Y.-area staple known as “beef on weck” (complete with a caraway-flecked kummelweck roll that gives the sandwich its name) had similar problems; the slices of slow-roasted beef were so overcooked that the fat had turned into hard, chewy deposits. And I’d really like to see management drop the draft lines dedicated to Sierra Nevada and Bud Light (the bro on Yelp seems to prefer bottles anyway) and add, say, a good German bock and a killer kolsch.
That said, here’s what I love about Thirsty Bernie: It’s not some mid-grade Penn Quarter restaurant that sticks a couple of TVs over a marble-countered bar to snare office drones who want to catch the hometown team after work. No, it’s a legit sports bar with a slate of pro and amateur jock channels as long as computer code. You can watch your hometown team here—whether you’re from New York or Los Angeles or Milwaukee—and you can watch the game with a meal that has both pedigree and technique behind it. In that way, Thirsty Bernie is the quintessential D.C. sports bar—a place catering to transients with a taste for refinement.
Thirsty Bernie Sports Bar & Grill, 2163 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington, (703) 248-9300.
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