City Paper is not for tourists
Ask people what they love most about where they live and beyond the particulars of the living space itself, the first thing they invariably come up with is the importance of what you might call quality-of-life externals: the spaciousness of the back yard, say, or the nearby park where you can roller-skate or take the dog.
For me, the best quality-of-life external is a microbrewery I can walk to. It would be a lie to say that the reason my wife and I bought our house in historic Hyattsville a year and a half ago was because of Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery, and General Store. But it might be the reason if we were buying today.
Back then, Mike Franklin’s dream of a lively neighborhood eatery was still in the drawing-board stages; he had only a hole in the ground to show for the $1.3 million loan he’d drawn from a local bank. Ten years earlier, he’d purchased Hyattsville Hardware Co., a once-popular destination for such durable goods as washing machines and electric mixers that had been superseded by superstores such as Home Depot. Franklin, who lives just two blocks away, was a toy salesman at the time, and he decided that what the neighborhood needed was his version of a general store, a funky little shop that was less practical than fun, full of penny candy and offbeat cookbooks and rubber chickens. In the back was a deli, where an eclectic mix of regulars—professors from the nearby University of Maryland, lawyers from the courthouse a block away, the musicians and artists and ordinary, hardworking folks who make up the alternately industrial and quaint neighborhood that is historic Hyattsville—would come for the bowls of vegetarian chili and the tuna melts and the spicy fries.
The deli is gone now, replaced by a steel-and-glass structure that causes traffic along Route 1 to slow. (The general store has expanded, and now the entirety of the original brick building is filled with not just toys and candy but an impressive collection of affordable wines.) The large, cut-out side window showcases one of the pub’s brewing vats, and the plate-glass windows invite passers-by to gawk at the overflow crowds that have been a mainstay since the place opened, three months ago.
Already, Franklin’s, with its exposed beams, funky colors, and playful design sense (dig the corrugated metal siding!), is being touted by local officials as the centerpiece of the much-talked-about Gateway Arts District. The idea is to attract commerce and art—an often uneasy alliance—to the sometimes desolate stretch between Hyattsville and Mount Rainier. Artists’ live/work spaces are next, followed by (everyone hopes) a steady infusion of shops, boutiques, coffeehouses, and more restaurants. If this sounds like gentrification, it’s gentrification of an appealingly modest sort, one that aims to grow with, not against, its environment.
The same might also be said of Franklin’s, which boasts so few claims to refinement that it seems to be doing everything possible to avoid being tagged as upscale. So if, for example, the gunmetal-gray chairs on the second floor look as though they were bought on the cheap from a wholesale distributor, it’s because, well, they were. “Aren’t they cool?” one of the managers said, exulting at their unexpected pickup as she took me on a brief tour of the place shortly before its opening. I suppose they are cool, if you’re the sort of person who likes kitsch, but they strike me as out of place in a room that also features track lighting and a gleaming copper bar. On the other hand, it’s juxtapositions like this that give the place its distinctive character, its loopy charm.
This need to have it both ways, to be both a serious restaurant and a funky hangout, new without also being yuppified, extends to the menu, which revels in its eclecticism. Dishes such as pad thai, potstickers, and a coconut-curried chicken share space with burgers, ribs, fish and chips, wood-oven pizzas, barbecued chicken, and—believe it or not—shepherd’s pie. As a result, the kitchen sometimes loses its focus. Inconsistency, some three months after opening, remains a problem.
Early on, the burgers suffered from overcooking—a “rare” arrived one night without even a hint of pinkness—but no more: These days you get a half-pound patty with juices that run at your first bite. There are 18 toppings to choose from, including goat cheese and grilled eggplant, and they’re piled on thickly. The fish and chips has seen its share of changes, too. In its initial incarnation, it was too heavily battered and greasy. In the new, improved version, you’re conscious not so much of fry, but of the hunks of moist white fish. Tinkering with the chicken pot pie has produced a crust that is lighter and flakier and a smoother, richer gravy inside.
Tuck into any of the above along with one of brewmaster Charles Noll’s terrific beers and no matter what kind of day you had, you’ll be feeling pretty damn good about yourself in a hurry. The beers—there are nine in all—range from the Twisted Turtle, a pale ale, to the Prince George’s Stout, thick and sweet with hints of chocolate and licorice. For $4.95, you can put together a sampler of any four of them. On Fridays, Noll serves up his Frickin’ Firkin. Here, the beer is tapped in “real ale” form, according to Noll, who can wax as lyrical as any vintner about his craft. (What does this mean for the average beer lover? It means that the ale is still undergoing a secondary fermentation, producing less extraneous carbon dioxide—which significantly reduces the amount of carbonation you’d normally expect to find.) One of the newest additions to the lineup, which Noll changes to reflect the changing of the seasons, is one of my favorites: St. Armand’s Summer Wheat. It’s got the lightness and fruitiness of a Hefeweizen, but with more body—and more kick, too.
The ribs, on the other hand, are still very much a work-in-progress. When I ordered them the first time, in March, they were dry, though I liked their sweet, peppery glaze. I tried them again more recently and was surprised to find that the kitchen, in attempting to correct the problem, has gone so far in the other direction as to create another. The ribs aren’t dry at all now—and they’re even meatier than I remembered—but they’ve also lost their essential ribness, that slow-cooked, smoky, greasy goodness that keeps you hacking off a sixth, a seventh piece from the rack long after you’re already full. I’m hoping Franklin’s figures out some sort of compromise, because this is the kind of food that brewpubs exist for.
The more unexpected choices, though, aren’t all forgettable. I’ve got a weakness for the black-skillet mussels, coated with kosher salt and roasted in olive oil, which deliver the dark smokiness the ribs themselves currently lack. Ditto for the “Popeye’s” spinach: a mound of the baby-sized leaves topped with bits of blue cheese, red onion and bacon, and a warm lentil vinaigrette that you should really ask to have on the side, to avoid having your salad turned into a puddle. I wonder, however, if the large, eclectic menu is too eclectic, if, in the end, it doesn’t divert the kitchen’s energy and attention away from working to perfect a handful of signature dishes.
But eclecticism is not the sole cause of inconsistency here; so is inexperience. Not only is this the first time that Franklin has owned and operated a restaurant, it’s also the first time he has overseen a staff this large—some 70 employees. The first chef he hired he also fired, after just three weeks, and still more changes are expected in the months to come.
If it were up to me, there are two modifications I’d make right away. The first would be to shrink the menu by about a third—dropping the unremarkable pastas, for instance. It can only help the kitchen’s concentration. The second has to do with the commitment of the waitstaff—or, in some cases, the lack thereof. Inattention, or the occasional forgetfulness, is to be expected from time to time in a place as busy as this one. Indifference is not, and often I can’t help thinking that some of the young waiters and waitresses have little affinity for the funky, offbeat character of the place and regard Franklin’s as no different, really, from a Bennigan’s.
As if Bennigan’s would ever think to include gunmetal-gray office chairs. Or, for that matter, shepherd’s pie.
Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store, 5123 Baltimore Avenue, Hyattsville, Md., (301) 927-2740. —Todd Kliman
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