“Isn’t there some other sitcom on?” asks the man at the bar, who’s apparently not amused by this episode of Coach. We are drinking and watching TV—three of them, to be precise. The bartender obliges his patron and then some, exhibiting a talent for channel-surfing two sets at once. While one hand vetoes station after station, the other settles on auto racing. “Keep it here,” a woman barks.
At the moment, it seems I’ve succeeded in locating a cultural void. The swirl of excitement that engulfs me finds its home at Nick’s, a restaurant/nightclub in Alexandria that, according to a banner hanging outside, offers “rock ’n’ roll with a touch of class and good food.” Flanked by a trophy shop and an empty storefront, Nick’s has a monopoly on the good times on this particular suburban block.
In college, I once climbed the ladder of success at a business similar to Nick’s. I started my career as a dishwasher/cook and ended up a “doorman,” a position that required me to ensure that every patron was equipped with fake ID. In the event of trouble, I was to bravely place a call to the police. The night I got fired, I was pinch-hitting for an absent cook. In a fit of hormonal rage, I buried a cigarette butt in a pile of curly fries I thought was going to the meathead who slept with my girlfriend on the nights I was unavailable. As it turns out, said fries were meant for the restaurant’s owner, who was less than sympathetic when I explained to him the motive behind my choice of garnish.
I don’t mean to suggest that Nick’s kitchen would ever cough up anything quite so heinous; in fact, as I write, I’m happily gnawing on baby-back ribs left over from my last trip to the restaurant (what was a little fatty when served hot turns out to be quite appetizing cold). But given my personal history, I think it’s understandable that I set my critical barometer a notch below normal when judging Nick’s culinary offerings.
“All the food and drinks are on the house,” I’m told on my second trip to the ’burbs, as I take a seat among several other freeloaders. Unlike before, tonight I’ve come as an official guest of Nick’s, lured by the promise of free grub to judge the finals of a battle of the bands that has raged over 15 previous Wednesdays. While one of the judges opts only for beer (his last name is Bukowski, make of that what you will), the rest of us take to our situation with appropriate passion.
If I learned anything in my days as a third-rate cook, it’s that liquid cheese has more in common with Elmer’s than with cheddar. So when our plate of nachos arrives slathered with orange goop, I indulge only because I don’t want to seem ungrateful. My 10-inch pepperoni pizza is hard on the edges and undercooked in the center, but again not wanting to appear snobbish, I eat it anyway. By the looks of it, the other judges have ordered more wisely. One makes sport of a pastrami sandwich before I can get a good look at it; the other appears to enjoy his steak: “Not bad, lots of pepper.”
As the night grates on, my inclination to keep an open mind gives way to quiet contempt. How in the hell, I think, can this place get away with advertising class when I’m watching a guitarist brutalize Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? (“Thou shalt not take Hendrix’s name in vain,” quoth Bukowski.) Good food? This is heresy; I’ve had more gratifying cigarettes. Oh God, a drum solo? And I thought the light show was a joke. I’m being violated here.
Tightening my Doc Martens and staging a “class” war seems appropriate, but just as I’m getting all worked up, someone beats me to the punch. The less-than-svelte lead singer of Ton O’ Luv announces his motto: “Just because you got a pregnant wife and a big old house doesn’t mean you have to act like my parents.” His band of perceptive smartasses has just finished a thrash-and-burn medley of George Michael songs. The string of debacles that had filled the evening—from the slimy nachos to the soulless funk band—is redeemed by the band’s brash mockery: Prince’s “Kiss” as speed metal, Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” as reggae, “Tastes Great, Less Filling” as a celebration of oral sex. It’s enough for me to consider re-evaluating Nick’s. It’s less a cultural void than a genuine suburban subculture. Then again, when I return to the bar another night, it’s back to channel-surfing.
Nick’s, 642 S. Pickett St., Alexandria. (703) 751-8900.
Next to finding a parking place, the hardest trick to pull at Vace Italian Delicatessen is to make it home without eating at least one slice of pizza on the way. For those reluctant to stray from the house specialty, I recommend Vace’s sfogliatella, a shell-shaped pastry stuffed with sweet ricotta cheese that, like the pizza, can be warmed either on the premises or at home. I’m told Vace generally only bakes sfogliatelle during the week, when I’ve been buying them as a complement to my morning coffee.
Vace Italian Delicatessen, 3315 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 363-1999.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.—Brett Anderson