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Fireplaces cultivate a kind of alcoholic wantonness indigenous to the northern part of the country. While misguided romantics still regard a hearth’s flickering glow as the perfect aphrodisiac, folks from the north consider a fireside tryst to be the logical consummation of an evening spent getting too drunk to talk. When a fire indoors is more a necessity for heat than a substitute for light, it begs to be enjoyed with beer, by the case. Wine is usually best served in moderation—an insulting concept to anyone bingeing to forget that it’s too cold to go outside.
As I enter Polly’s Cafe, the scent of wood in hot decay is enough to get me to discredit any wine drinker as a posturing fake. Finally, I think, a place for beer.
“I say we get a bottle of red,” announces a wine-fiend friend as we take our seats. A few nights earlier, I dined here with a Kentuckian who, after a glass of her native bourbon, had the decency to switch to beer—once the fire took hold of her senses. I should have invited her.
In the minority tonight, I say nothing except to suggest the house merlot. “No, let’s get the cabernet.” One bottle, and as the evening fades into night, I think, we’ll be silly on hops and barley.
Polly’s Cafe is a restaurant in the space of a bar too nice to serve only drinks, or a bar that serves food good enough to eat sober. Whichever, the basement room on U Street near 14th NW feels like a log cabin. It’s not just the fire: It’s the wood grain everywhere, the heavy jackets hung in the entryway, the people with those sporty hiking boots that could double as tennis shoes.
Polly’s confines are also cozy enough that it’s hard not to establish a rapport with a neighbor. “Are those any good?” I ask the guy half an arm’s length away, gesturing with my eyes towards his plate of calamari. He nods yes, and my party abandons its mannerly instincts, ordering some squid for ourselves before the last member of our group arrives.
Sometime between the arrival of our calamari and the end of our bottle of cab, my raging beer jones is sucked away by our disjointed reverie: “These horses live better than people,” the architect in our group reports on her studies of stables. “So I had this dream where my naked ex-boyfriend is playing Monopoly in bed with my dad,” confesses the pushy wine fiend. “Doesn’t this salsa verde taste sort of like puréed broccoli?” I ask, probing to see if anyone else likes the sauces that accompany the dish as much as I do.
As befits wine drinkers, we stayed away from the lowbrow meatloaf (served hot or cold) and hamburger (worthy, but fries are extra) that I had washed down with beer on other nights. Polly’s salad was a hit, an appetizing mess of marinated navy and black beans, sliced chicken, and veggies. “Go for the onions, I think they’re grilled,” advised the wine fiend.
The soups we tried—potato leek one night, butternut squash the other—were flavorful, but could’ve been hotter. The snack pizza, served on a pita with feta cheese and an inch-high layer of spinach, was great—if you really like spinach.
The chief revelation, however, was that Polly’s treats the portobello mushroom like an exotic cut of beef. The ’shroom steak had me blushing. “I thought it was really gonna be a steak,” I confessed, to a chorus of ridicule. Instead, out came two fist-size, garlicky mushroom heads, grilled, topped with vinaigrette and fresh parmesan, and laid on a bed of beans. The thing got devoured.
Whatever surliness you encounter on a busy weekend night at Polly’s is forgiven if you choose to nurse your hangover at the restaurant’s weekend brunch. Sick people need to be dealt with gingerly, and our waitress greeted us with gentle touches on the shoulders. When I responded with disbelief that my onion-and-cheese omelet came with choice of any kind of drink (only $6.50, but I decided to pay extra for the liquid trifecta of coffee, juice, and a bloody mary), potatoes, and no fewer than six slices of bacon, our server got cocky about the courtesy. “We treat you right,” she smiled. Ignoring recommendations to go for French toast, the wine fiend from last night adopted a new vice and ordered the portobello mushroom sandwich. “It’s like I’m eating a beast,” she gloated.
The quality of a hangout isn’t dependent on the menu as much as on the behavior it elicits. And Polly’s—thanks largely to the fireplace and a jukebox that played Cab Calloway, Mercury Rev, Skunk Anansie, and John Coltrane in quick succession—certainly invites comfortable loitering, not to mention repeat visits.
On my last night, I wasn’t all that surprised to run into the wine fiend, who had returned on a date. As my friend pointed out some minor rock ’n’ roll celebs at the bar, I noticed the fiend nibbling again on a portobello mushroom. A call from her the next day verified my theory linking fireplaces to gluttony, though in her case, an unusual variety. “I think I might have overdone it with the mushrooms,” she groaned.
The people at Li Ho Food in Chinatown probably get their share of vacant stares. A minute of my looking lost and the lady behind the counter knows what I’m after. “Singapore noodle?” she asks. I’m hardly given the chance to respond before a dish is thrown in front of me like the blue plate special at a greasy spoon. Discrete chunks of jalapeño pepper give this pile of shrimp, pork, egg, chive, and noodle its kick; the $3.75 lunchtime price tag (it’s $7.50 at dinner) and the mass of it all make it a twice-weekly dish for some. Smokers welcome.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail. CP