Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Clarendon’s chains can’t serve you right away? The Woodgrill might light your fire.

One by one, they approach the reservation counter, each hoping that somehow the clumps of people waiting in the shadows of the faux Egyptian columns won’t doom their chances for a quick table. The hostess tells them all the same thing—expect a 25-to-40-minute wait. It’s 6:30 on a Saturday night in Clarendon, and more than 40 people are already holding out for a chance to feast on one of the Cheesecake Factory’s uniform, Dagwood-sized dishes.

These daily waits at the Factory are the envy of the restaurant industry and, one might think, the death knell for any eatery within a three-mile radius of an outlet in this all-powerful chain. But when the Arlington Cheesecake Factory opened in November 2003, part of an ongoing restaurant, residential, and retail boom in Clarendon that has jacked up lease rates for many, the corporate intruder didn’t carpet-bomb the competition. Just the opposite: It proved to be a generous neighbor. The chain’s prodigious drawing power has expanded the pool of diners in Clarendon rather than sucked it dry.

The three owners of the Boulevard Woodgrill can breathe easy now that they have experienced the worst of Clarendon’s growing pains and have actually seen some of those impatient Cheesecake diners enter their bustling place. The partners had opened their corner restaurant in April 2002 when the corporate fortress known as the Market Common was just an empty parking lot. These days the owners—two of whom also own the small Faccia Luna chain—stare at a vast landscape of dining options. There’s not only the Cheesecake Factory but also Bertucci’s, La Tasca, Rí Rá, Harry’s Tap Room, and Hard Times Cafe.

All these restaurants appear to function both as competition and as an informal cooperative in Clarendon. Each develops its own following, which is then fickle enough to abandon a favorite spot when the wait list grows too long. It’s a healthy culinary ecosystem that benefits all comers.

Whether diners choose it as a destination or just settle for it when their first option is booked solid, the Boulevard Woodgrill will both tickle you and try your patience, sometimes at the same time. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute who’s headed kitchens for both a country club and the FBI, Paul Murad has tended the fires at the Woodgrill, in one capacity or another, since it opened. You want to make sure he’s working before you enter the restaurant.

As the name indicates, the Boulevard Woodgrill specializes in grill cooking with seasoned hardwoods. The concise menu favors fish and meats that can be slapped onto metal racks, under which burn blazing-hot logs of oak, hickory, and apple wood. You’ll find grill marks on most of the dishes here, even when those black parallel lines seem mostly for show. It’s the Woodgrill’s own form of company branding.

Those marks are burned into the beef-veal-and-pork meatloaf, whose dense meatiness gains next to nothing from either the smoke or the harsh, acidic pomodoro coulis pooled on the plate. Your best bet is to ignore the tomato sauce and eat the loaf straight, then follow it with forkfuls of the decadent creamed spinach. Likewise, you can dismiss the haystack of Asian-spiced slaw that towers over the marinated slices of yellowfin tuna, which the kitchen sears on both sides to an unappetizing shade of gray; the spicy julienne vegetables prove too overpowering for the delicate tuna.

While the cooks could be a little faster on the draw with the grill tongs, they still manage to traverse that fine line between a healthy char and black death. The Norwegian salmon hollandaise, an item from the weekend brunch menu, is charred over 50 percent of its pink fillet; those black marks can often taste like ash, a sure sign that the cook let the fish sit too long on the grill’s hot spot. Still, underneath its blackened exterior, the flesh remains flaky and flavorful, and its asparagus accompaniment is peeled and steamed to Jacques Pépin–like perfection. The blackened swordfish with black bean and ginger purée, by contrast, doesn’t deliver on its hot promise, though its flesh retains its sweet, oceanic flavor.

One of the Woodgrill’s best sellers is its molasses-and-rum-brushed baby back ribs, and it’s easy to understand why. The full slab arrives at the table in two sections, each blackened and glazed from end to end. What the fall-from-the-bone pork lacks in fatty, robust flavor it compensates for with a syrupy drunkenness, which gives the lean meat the sweet kick in the ass it needs.

On another visit, though, I ordered the same ribs as part of a crab cake and half-slab special that was anything but. The jumbo lump was poorly picked over and lacked any discernible crab sweetness, or even the overspiced blast that’s so common now among these fried cakes. The ribs were even more disappointing, their glaze as faint as my memory of that first sweet encounter. I sought comfort in the Woodgrill’s warm, dense bread pudding, tarted up with cranberries and dried currants.

Following my second, sad helping of ribs, I asked the waitress if Murad was working the kitchen. He wasn’t. Nor was the seasoning man who usually shares duties over the hot grill. That’s when the tumblers clicked into place. Murad and the Woodgrill managers have not perfected, unlike some of their corporate rivals around Clarendon, the fine art of consistency.

The Boulevard Woodgrill, 2901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 875-9663.—Tim Carman

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.