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Bistro a Go-Go

How badly did Dupont Circle need a restaurant like Bistrot du Coin? Just stroll by the place some night. It’s hard to miss. The entire front wall remains folded open even during downpours, revealing a dining room so regularly populated it makes you wonder where the hell all of these people hung out before the place opened. Paris? Barside patrons consist of solo diners wolfing down escargots and well-read-looking night owls drinking imported beers out of curvy, gold-rimmed glasses. The air is smoky. The accents are decidedly European. And over there, at a front table I’d wait an hour for even if there were another open right now, am I, a thick, peppery hunk of pate stuck to the crust of my bread, an ear tuned to my fluent-French-speaking friend as he debates with our waiter whether he’ll summon a second glass of pastis or dive into the Sancerre we’ve ordered in anticipation of the relatively lighter fare ahead—namely, rabbit stew and monkfish in a creamy, crawfish-studded lobster sauce.

Full disclosure: I’m a freak for French bistros. The personality balance of a great bistro closely resembles the traits I look for in a dining partner: Unpretentious in style but serious, perhaps even snobbish, about food; ratty, homespun, or graceful, depending on your view. You can keep your thick porterhouses and Herculean mounds of mashed potatoes. Make my steak thin and a little tough, then cover it in bearnaise and plop it next to a thicket of frites.

On its surface, Bistrot du Coin presents a fair, even touching rendition of the classic French bistro. And with this form of restaurant, surfaces count for a lot. The space is airy and open, an encasement of smoke and sound that’s never too stuffy and usually just loud enough. Michel Verdon, a partner in Les Halles, and the profusion of French-speakers on the staff no doubt account for the finely tuned atmosphere, which feels by turns neighborhoody and imported, like that great Belgian beer you’ve been drinking at the corner bar ever since you got your first fake ID. Mustard-colored walls hold vintage French posters and rusty tin advertisements for Stella Artois and Gitanes—”authentic” touches that could seem overly eager if the frites weren’t just so. In short, the place feels as though it’s been around for years. “This really used to be Food for Thought?” my friend asks upon reaching the hostess stand.

The joint’s startling transformation from dreary throwback hangout to hip, bustling bistro is helped along by a parade of pitch-perfect classics. Here is the place to tend to your jones for pate or rich, cheese-crusted onion soup. From English to French, “medium rare” translates as simply “rare,” and the steaks here, from the sauteed pave in peppery cream sauce to the shallot-sprinkled onglet, come deep-red and seared just a bit; they’re vehicles for their toppings as well as for their own flavorful juices. The cassoulet’s soupier than some, but each bite yields the sumptuous, mingling flavors of long-cooked white beans, sausage, pork, and duck confit. Sniff the air above a kettle of moules mariniere and you can practically taste the plump mussels scented with wine, shallots, and parsley—not to mention the bread you’ll be dipping in the juice until it’s gone.

Bistrot du Coin’s salads are appropriately eclectic and meal-like in substance. One includes smoked herring over boiled potato slices alongside a thatch of barely dressed greens; another is mostly duck—both carpaccio and thin-sliced breast meat—laid over wilted young leeks and rimmed by a colorful dice of fennel, carrots, and more duck. The best items on the menu are rendered memorable by the tiniest of touches—the extra-crisp crust over the top of potatoes cooked with bacon, onion, and sharp reblochon cheese, the buttery spaetzle served with the rabbit stew—whereas the forgettable stuff simply lacks the motherly attention that is a great bistro’s trademark. Both the sliced duck breast and roasted half chicken arrive mercilessly overcooked, and dessert seems to be an afterthought: Crepes suzette are listless and cold. Praline mousse tastes like a bowl of cooked sugar, the apple tart like last week’s apple pie.

Bistros are meant to age without changing much in the process, and, in many ways, Bistrot du Coin’s already nearing adulthood. The spot where the wood floor segues to tile near the bar looks so smoothed-over that a tourist could easily assume that butts have been parked on stools here for years. And in keeping with tradition, the waiters are gruff, weathered, smart, and a little arrogant—their snootiness and formal attire tell you that they are the real deal. On another evening, after taking his seat at our table in the restaurant’s rear, my friend pays a high compliment when he asks, “Where did they find all these French people?”

Bistro du Coin, 1738 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 234-6969.

Hot Plate:

One reader calls Luciano’s Cafe “kind of a neat little spot.” For an Italian deli, it’s not so impressively stocked—if you’re looking to bring home fancy olive oils, try Dean & Deluca down the street. But the sandwiches are burly and plump, if not uniformly awesome. The prosciutto and mozzarella panino is an agreeable mix of salt cut with dairy, although the filling in its meatball counterpart is rubbery and dull. The guy behind the counter is bartender-affable (“You a student?…Really?…So what you doing in here?”), giving credence to the reader’s claim that “even though it’s in Georgetown, it’s not the Georgetown feel.”

Luciano’s Cafe, 1219 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 342-1888. —Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to

banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.