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Most of the memories I have of wine bars don’t involve conversation or fancy snacks or people-watching or smoke-filled evenings. Instead I remember the soft noise that feels like silence relative to the clamor of saloons specializing in beer and spirits. The quiet sets a mood but also challenges you not to disrupt it. It’s a setting ripe for romance, posing, and tense awkwardness, in which actual wine plays only a minor role.
Wine bars often have great food but rarely qualify as great restaurants, so Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar’s name is somewhat misleading. Opened by the owners of Geppetto in that restaurant’s former Georgetown space (Geppetto still offers takeout and delivery service), Mendocino serves wine for people interested in enjoying some as a complement to dinner. The list of over 80 West Coast vintages and the Cruvinet system, a vacuum contraption that enables the restaurant to serve many different wines by the glass without spoiling the bottle, give Mendocino the right to the wine bar name, though the restaurant is geared mainly toward the pleasure of gastronomes and voluptuaries. Mendocino is way too expensive to ever be a hangout; what you pay for is fawning service and wonderful cuisine in a squeaky-clean atmosphere.
Which is not altogether bad, but it’s not what we expect on our first visit. We plan on Mendocino being self-consciously hip, ideally dark and smoky; it turns out to be luminous and posh.
“I hate the maitre d’ already” is the way my girlfriend greets me at the door, having mistaken the host’s cordial offer to help her as derogatory. The Mendocino staff is remarkably efficient, and there’s a chain of command they adhere to that strikes us as comic. A host pulls out the chair of each female guest while the waiter lends a hand with the coats and then passes them off to another member of the staff. “Robert,” the waiter says to his colleague, “what we have here are some coats. Could you please hang them up for these folks?”
The civility never lets up, but it’s not the staff’s fault that we find all the attention so grating. We’re an odd group. Marty’s a good buddy who has been close with my girlfriend for longer than either of them have been close with me. The fourth party, Judy, my girlfriend’s oldest chum, I know well from when she dated one of my high-school cronies; she dates someone else now but is with us tonight partially because she and Marty have been flirting over e-mail. By Washington standards the roots we all share run deep, but tonight we’re tired and testy. The night will end with some minor quarrels on a dance floor on the other side of town.
Which is too bad, because our diminutive soap opera overshadows the food. As any waiter will tell you before you order, Mendocino serves cuisine inspired by the restaurants and attitudes of California’s wine country. “Everything is delicate,” says our waiter. “Nothing on the menu is abrasive.”
This aesthetic is most evident in the seafood. Fillets of rockfish and salmon are hardly seasoned and better off because of it, the gentle nuances of the fish being emphasized. Chilean sea bass and a grilled yellowfin tuna steak are merely dusted with spices, the former with a mixture of garlic, cumin, and chilis, the latter with black pepper and minced garlic. The pastas are much richer. A plate of only four ravioli looks awfully stingy (especially at $21.95), but the little buggers are dense, filled with steamed lobster and basil-and-garlic-seasoned ricotta. Two linguini dishes, one with squid-ink pasta and fat shrimp, the other with black-pepper pasta, shiitake mushrooms, and scallops nearly the size of hockey pucks, are the best values at dinner. Mendocino’s lunch menu offers more affordable sandwichesthe grilled tuna burger with horseradish pommery mustard is wonderfuland some thin-crust pizzas.
On later trips I arrive already attuned to Mendocino’s Californian interpretation of the wine bar. The mental adjustment makes a world of difference. When I mention to the waiter that my spinach salad is just fine but that the squares of saga bleu hidden in the leaves are a little too buttery, he suggests spreading the cheese over some of the crisp breads that accompany all the meals. It turns out to be good advice. He later brings me out half a Caesar, which is prepared in the same spirit as everything else and coated ever so gently with dressing, “just to enjoy.” The rack of lamb that follows, with sides of grilled eggplant and a surprisingly complimentary kalamata olive tappenade, is succulent, grilled to roughly the same hue as the pinot noir I use to wash it all down.
Adding to a vibe that I suspect is more reminiscent of a luxury spa than of any other wine bar I’ve been to, my waiter sees that I’ve finished gnawing on the bones and clears my plate without a word. When he returns, he asks me just what I was wondering myself: “Are you comfortable?”
Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar, 2917 M St. NW. (202) 333-2912.
Five Guys is the name of a scrappy hamburger meccaand a decent description of it as well. There are generally about five people on duty, all of them male and more interesting than anything else in the place except what’s on the grill. Five Guys has no decor, just a counter, a kitchen, a bin full of peanuts, and a bulletin board tacked with patron-penned endorsements like “Five Guys…It’ll make you slap your mama.” Five Guys boasts that the burger meat has never been frozen. The proof is between the buns: an oozing, plump patty just irregular enough to verify that it has been shaped by a human hand. I recommend asking for grilled onions and mushrooms; the guys will pile on enough for a small salad. There’s no place to sit and eat in the shop, but I’ve found that the newspaper dispenser outside makes a reasonable table.
Five Guys, 3235 Columbia Pike, Arlington. (703) 685-1151.Brett Anderson
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