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Someone should get a DJ night at Stoney’s, a bar and grill just south of Logan Circle, on the fringe of downtown. Actually, I should get a DJ night there. It’s in my neighborhood, for one thing. And it’s my new old-favorite place, for another. True, there’s no room for dancing, but the management probably wouldn’t allow that anyway. It’s not that kind of place.
But I wouldn’t necessarily have to be that kind of DJ, either. I could easily be the kind of DJ perfectly content to play old, nondanceable records by Randy Newman or Thin Lizzy, say, in between new, nondanceable records by Stephen Malkmus or Elastica. And it could all be set to the steady hum of the restaurant’s wide-ranging clientele, which runs the gamut from suit-and-tied office workers by day to occasional recreational stoners by night, all of whom casually drink and converse over their Pastrami Delights and One Eye hamburger platters. A low-volume DJ playing nondanceable songs (that’s me!) could easily provide the perfect soundtrack for Stoney’s, which, in addition to serving up beyond-bar bar food, also provides an addictive anti-scene, an appealing public space where you can actually manage to find some privacy from time to time.
Stoney’s, in other words, is a beatific throwback to another time (it doesn’t even accept credit cards)or maybe just another place. But it’s familiar anyway, because Stoney’s is archetypically anodyne, nearly womblike in its wood-paneled low-rent splendor. Lights at Stoney’s are dim, sight lines are correspondingly hazy, and the dull-green carpet is soothingly well-worn. The bar’s two TVs are usually mute and typically tuned to sports, mostly golf or baseball, adding an extra lining of somnolence to the establishment’s already comfortably numb aesthetics. Sew-on patches from police departments around the country are Stoney’s main visual affectation, unless of course you count the shower-mirror panels they border, which back up the modestly stocked bar. And who wouldn’t? That would miss the point entirely. On the other hand, Stoney’s is actually a wonderful place for missing points. And appointments. It’s a great place for sitting all day with your favorite co-conspirator. Or by yourself.
The food at Stoney’s would certainly make the trip worthwhile even if the place didn’t come with five-star atmospherics. The regular pastrami sandwich, for instance, could easily qualify for “loose-meat” status in certain regions of the country, a testament to the balancing act of the skilled grill men (always men) at Stoney’s, who expertly pile the well-spiced beef precariously high, gliding the spatula from the grill to your plate in a single, graceful motion. The accurately named Delight variation plates a gigantic version of the sandwich with Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing next to a scoop of fresh potato salad actually worth passing up the fries for. Don’t misunderstand: The fries are so good, no condiments are required. But with the Pastrami Delight, which arrives between inch-high slices of toasted rye, they seem like overkill. By comparison, the potato salad is almost garnishlike in its modesty, the perfect accompaniment for such an extravagant sandwich.
There’s not much modest about the One Eye, however, one of Stoney’s signature hamburger offerings. (There are eight burger choices in all, each one a house specialty.) Making good on its name, the One Eye comes topped, decoratively, with an egg cooked over easy. The sandwich, served with fries and featuring a thick slice of melted Swiss cheese, is predictably rich, Parisian in its near-raw-egg-improves-every-dish kind of way but also distinctively American in its comfort-food connotations. The big, juicy patty competes for your gustatory attention with the big, juicy egg and almost wins. But only almost. I recommend the One Eye only if you’re feeling especially hearty or exotic, or if you’re Parisian, in which case you of course must have it.
The grilled-tuna-steak sandwich, on the other hand, is a perfect choice regardless of the nationality of your palate or the delicacy of your constitution. Served with fries and cole slaw, the sandwich, like nearly all Stoney’s offerings, comes cooked to order. I prefer the near-blackened version, with tasty grill detritus from neighboring entrees agreeably commingled with the sandwich’s pepper-dominated spices. A blackened-chicken sandwich is similarly intoxicating, a mélange of Swiss cheese, crispy bacon strips, and mayonnaise slathered generously atop the plump breast meat.
You don’t have to be hungry to go to Stoney’s. Though chances are you’ll suddenly find yourself famished once the heady aroma from the grill wafts in your direction, Stoney’s is also a great place just to sit at the bar and drink and talk, either with friends or with the friendly and efficient, if vaguely melancholy, wait staff. Still, if you’re even just a little hungry, I strongly recommend a slice of Stoney’s corn bread, a moist and yellow cube nearly 3 inches high that goes wellexceedingly wellwith a cold Bass Ale. And a bowl of the restaurant’s temperately spiced chili, rich with ground beef, green peppers, and kidney beans, makes a perfect side dish for the gargantuan slab of bread.
If the restaurant is busy while you’re there, you can be endlessly entertained at the bar’s far end by the feats of derring-do the restaurant’s cooks regularly perform. The top end of the bar, however, is a different story. Pull up a stool there and, if you linger long enough, your eye will inevitably be drawn to the ship depicted on the center panels of the bar’s mirrored backdrop. It’s an inexplicable image; nothing else in Stoney’s is nautical-themed. But there it is anyway, simultaneously mysterious and familiar, like Stoney’s itself. If you’re like me, that ship will probably conjure fleeting feelings of deep-seated (and completely uninformed) affection for the likes of the Merchant Marines, Jacques Cousteau, and, after a second beer, maybe even Jimmy Buffett.
Wait! That’s it! “Cheeseburger in Paradise” could be a great set opener for my first DJ night at the bar. It’s way too obvious, I know, and maybe even too danceable, but at Stoney’s, the sentiment would be pitch-perfect. Stoney’s, 1307 L St. NW, (202) 347-9163. Shannon Zimmerman
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