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My aunt and her friends used to meet for lunch at a cafeteria a few blocks from her house. “The food is good,” Aunt Marvel insisted, leaning on the word “good” as if she knew I was skeptical.
Those lunch ladies have long since made their final trip to the Washington Adventist Hospital cafeteria. I’ve yet to run across others who eat institutional fare by choice: If you’re not in college, prison, or a semiprivate room, your closest approximation of compulsory dining comes at clubs. Sometimes booze forces your hand: You huddle outside with like-minded fans until the doors open, down a few beers to celebrate getting that spot within spitting distance of Steve Earle, and only then realize that you’d better consume something to soak up the alcohol or awaken the next day with some truly transcendental blues.
Other times the venue suggestsor imposesa food purchase. “I never feel like I have to order something at the Birchmere,” my husband asserts. “I’m paying a ticket price, not a cover charge.” But I remember the days when the pressure for concertgoers to dine at the venerable Alexandria club was almost as onerous as the “Silence Please” admonition on the tabletop cards. Which might not have been badhad the food not been famously awful.
Fortunately, the Birchmere’s food was spiffed up along with its location when it moved in 1997. Although the menu relies on the same heehaw cutesiness as the decor, if the Grand Ole Theme Park setting doesn’t dissuade you from queuing up for Aimee Mann, neither should the “Goodness, Gracious Great Bowls Of…” headline scare you away from the Beef Prison Chili, dense with ground sirloin and festooned with scallions. The chili reappears atop the Birchin’ Nachos, standard appetizer fare with less finesse than the buttery Onion Tangle but a longer half-life; if you don’t gobble down the threads of battered Bermuda onion within five minutes of the plate’s hitting the table, you’re left with a congealed centerpiece between you and the object of your musical affection.
In keeping with the Birchmere’s fantasy-South locationbounded by Austin, New Orleans, Nashville, and Mayberrytomatoes, smoke, and salt abound. One of the few offerings that’s not reddish-brown is the chicken pot pie: a slab of puff pastry on a pond of cubed chicken breast, vegetables, and yellow gravy. The peas and carrots are plump enough to make you rationalize the empty calories in that creamy sauce. The Cajun chicken, two tender thigh-and-leg portions rubbed with a savory-but-not-fiery barbecue mixture, incites such fleshly gluttony that you wouldn’t dare order it if k.d. lang were onstage. The Birchmere’s chef is particularly deft with meats; witness the steak po’ boy, with its firm, yeasty baguette, honest-to-Texas steak chunks, and abundant mozzarella and caramelized onions.
The table service at the Birchmere is superbly unobtrusive, right down to the large, club-light-friendly check totals that keep you from spending the encore negotiating the tab. A much less convenient dining experience greets patrons of the 9:30 Club. Despite a paucity of tables, 9:30 offers a variation on table service: Order at the takeout window on the main floor or at one of the bars, let the staff know where you’ll be, and someone will deliver your meal to you. Maybe this system works on a slow night, but when Shane MacGowan packed the cavernous space, I had to run an obstacle course of lit Camels and dripping glasses to snag my server (trapped behind the bar with my tray), only to get a Chili Veggie Burger sans chili (though the bill reflected the higher price of the chili burger). Furthermore, although the firm, meatlike patty, the romaine, and half the whole-wheat kaiser roll were serviceably tasty, the other half of the roll was harder than MacGowan’s liver.
The Nachos of Ulysses, one of the menu’s better offerings, is a sprawling vegetarian smorgasbord, with heaps of melted Jack cheese, salsa from a slightly pricier Price Club jar than the Birchmere’s, and a dollop of sour cream. If you don’t have a counter on which to perch your food, you’d best forgo them.The 9:30 Club sandwich, however, is a portable meal in a chewy baguette: The “antibiotic/nitrate free” turkey, ham, and medium-rare roast beef touted by the menu are complemented by a piquant pesto mayonnaise that elevates the sandwich from opening-act to headliner quality.
The Black Cat, which features a David Lynch-goes-to-the-Bronx bar/food areadim lights, slouching sofas, excellently eclectic jukeadjacent to the performance space, prides itself on having food from the folks who used to run Food for Thought in Dupont Circle. Although that establishment fought hard to overcome decades of vegetarian clichés with its spicy, multitextured platters, a lot of the Cat’s menu languishes in the ’70s. The watery, seemingly chili-free vegan chili, in particular, has that salty-soy tang I remember from my childhood in Takoma Park, where the Seventh-day Adventists peddled cans of meatless Loma Linda chow.
The falafel, tender and redolent of cumin, partners well with the accompanying pita, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and lemon tahini. Other sandwiches are less successful: The “BBQ” chicken sandwich, with no sauce or discernible seasonings, is a desiccated minimedallion lost in a dull bun; the burger is also a bummer, so overcooked that it crumbles into throat-clogging clumps.
The Cat’s most ingenious food-service feature is the “Food for Thought-O-Mat,” a ’50s-style automat containing vegetarian sandwiches, snacks, and desserts. The comparatively low prices make for loweredand more easily satisfiedexpectations. Although I can’t say that the vegan smoked turkey tastes like turkey (or even smoke), the soy meat substitute is an innocuous foil for a salad-in-a-bun of crispy iceberg lettuce, a sliver of tomato, and vegan mayo. The only disquieting feature of my order: the date on the package, a full nine days earlier. Was this sandwich supposed to last for nine days? Food for thought indeed.
Like the Cat, IOTA offers a dining area that’s separate from the club area, though with a tonier ambience. A bar, open to both sides, separates the charming, jewel-toned cafe from the rec-room-like club.The menu, served in both rooms, whispers food-porn words like “concasse” and “tapenade,” and the chef usually rises to the level of its tone.
A recent soup of the day, curry tomato, was a pretty, gold-tinged broth that would have been improved by the addition of something beyond, well, broth (chickpeas and carrots, in my mental test kitchen). But the smoked chicken chimichanga didn’t lack a thing: A Gaudiesque masterwork of crispy tortillas, chunks of chicken breast, firm black beans, and chipotle aioli, it prompted a return visit from bartender/server Maria, who rushed from behind the bar clucking “You’re losing it!” and used a spare fork to shove the great crumbling mass back onto my plate.
An unabashedly earth-friendly veggie burgerunlike the beef simulacrum at 9:30, this patty favors the grains-and-sprouts traditionwas trumped by its accompaniment. I think of french fries as space fillers, like foam peanuts in FedEx boxes or golf on television, but IOTA’s thick shoestrings are worth their own plate: whipped-potato smooth, as delicately crisp as late-September leaves, and studded with salt and freshly ground pepper. Maria, on duty for this second visit, wisely suggested vinegar as a seasoning. Chasing them with a cold ginger ale, I pondered another set of captive dinersthe performersand hoped that Australian bluesman Jeff Lang would be able to stop tuning long enough to get ’em while they were hot.
Birchmere, 3701 Mt.Vernon Ave., Alexandria, (703) 549-7500.
9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW, (202) 393-0930 (concert line).
Black Cat, 1831 14th St. NW, (202) 667-7960.
IOTA Club & Café, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 522-8340. Pamela Murray Winters
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.