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Ruth Gresser figured the basement of her Pizzeria Paradiso in Georgetown could bring in a little more bank. During busy weekends, the small subterranean dining space would serve as an overflow area for customers unlucky enough not to get a table in the sunny main room upstairs. But otherwise, the basement stored wood and stood empty save for the occasional private party. As Gresser was fishing around for ideas, her floor manager, a certified beer geek named Thor Cheston, offered up a suggestion. “If it were up to me,” Cheston says he told Gresser, “I’d open a beer bar.”
Gresser green-lighted the project, and in early February, the owner and chef opened up her latest operation, Birreria Paradiso. Beer nerds immediately took a liking to the ambitious little basement bar, lighting up message boards with praise for Cheston’s approach of, as he puts it, “treating beer with the same respect that wine gets.”
As a launching pad for Cheston’s concept, Pizzeria Paradiso would seem a natural fit, not only because Gresser has shown an affinity for craft brews at her upstairs bar but also because beer and pizza go together like—well, like beer and pizza. What Cheston wants to do is give pie-eaters a better sense of the suds that they unthinkingly guzzle to chase down their food. To accomplish this, he borrows the oft-parodied and ever-precious language of wine magazines and composes meticulous tasting notes for every beer on his Belgian-heavy menu, which offers 16 draft brews and about 80 bottles.
Check out his description of J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale 2002: “Buttery toffee, raw honey and floral hops float above a thick malt palate rich with caramel, molasses, coffee, chocolate milk and raisins.”
As a concept, Birreria Paradiso is the mirror opposite of Dave and Diane Alexander’s Brickskeller and the couple’s Chinatown brew-food offshoot R.F.D., which offer hundreds of beers by the bottle or on draft. The Alexanders might have spent decades working to counter the mind-numbing marketing of the major American breweries, whether with forums or with beer tastings, but their bars remain defiantly preInformation Age. Their primary approach to beer education has been to deal in sheer, stupid volume—peddling a dizzying selection of brews from which we’re supposed to make an informed choice, sometimes with little guidance. The problem with volume, of course, is that unless you’ve studied the writings of Michael Jackson—the Beer Hunter, not the boy hunter— you can quickly find yourself lost among the rarified language of Belgian tripel whites, English oatmeal stouts, and German dark lagers.
The 27-year-old Cheston has spent most of his young life camped alongside the Information Superhighway. He knows that if the Internet and the Food Network have taught the hospitality industry anything, it’s that foodies have an insatiable appetite for information about the products they consume. “They’re now more educated to make their own decisions,” Cheston says. “They’re the same customer who chooses Bell & Evans organic, farm-raised, cage-free chicken over Perdue.”
The McLean native and Georgetown grad wants to be “in the second wave of the craft-brewing revolution.” Unlike his colleagues at the Brickskeller, he says, “I no longer had to convince the customer that good beer exists by throwing it in their face. Now I just have to show them what is, and present to them the absolute best of the best.”
For Gresser, a French-trained chef who feels little need to compare beer with wines, the appeal of a bar devoted to high-end suds is far more practical. With the Birreria, “we have a draw to beer drinkers who would then come here and have pizza,” she says. “So it broadens our customer pool. That’s what I was looking for in terms of doing any kind of renovations or transformation of the space—to figure out a way to get more people here to enjoy us.”
While the Birreria serves the larger goals of Pizzeria Paradiso, the reverse might not be true, which may seem like an odd notion given that Gresser’s hugely popular operation serves the best Neapolitan-style pies in the area. But its popularity is part of the problem. When the upstairs dining room reaches capacity, the pizzeria starts shunting customers down to the Birreria, sometimes to dine there and sometimes just to sample brews while waiting for a prime table on the main level. Based on my observations, however, some of these patrons have no interest in altering their worldview of beer; they just want to eat a nice pie before heading back to the shops.
What’s more, the bar’s pizza-heavy menu may pair well with beer, but it doesn’t lend itself to beer pairings. Arguably, for suds to make that final ascent into the rare air of wines, it needs to show that it can match favorably with a wide assortment of savory and sweet dishes. Pizzeria Paradiso’s pies, while sometimes loaded with salty anchovies or four creamy cheeses, lean naturally toward acidic tomatoes and yeasty breads, a small flavor palette that limits Cheston’s ability to match food with beer. “Thor’s future for himself involves having his own place that, I think, would allow a broader menu,” admits Gresser. “Because the Birreria is an element of Pizzeria Paradiso, it’s not my intention to change Pizzeria Paradiso to accommodate a beer menu.”
Which means the message the Birreria leaves you with is decidedly mixed. Its craft beers might be worthy of Robert Parker–like descriptions of noses and palates and finishes, but they’re still just beverages to drink with peasant food.
Birreria Paradiso, 3282 M St. NW, (202) 337-1245.—Tim Carman
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