True neighborhood joints share one unwavering characteristic: They’d never be caught dead calling themselves neighborhood joints. Locals latch onto these eateries because of their strangely calming traits—a certain dinginess or rowdiness, perhaps, or the low lighting, friendly staff, lack of pretension, and the never-changing menu of foods that keep the deep fryer constantly bubbling.
One whiff of haughtiness and a restaurant’s community appeal can sink faster than the Ford Motor Company’s profits, which explains why dives tend to rule the ’hood. Neither Stoney’s Bar and Grill nor Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper fit under the heading of “dive,” but they both qualify, more or less, as local haunts, even if each place grabs its neighbors’ attention in drastically different ways.
Stoney’s works the dingy-tavern angle. For decades, in fact, it has reigned supreme over these groundling institutions, and there’s no reason to believe its recent move to a well-scrubbed, smoke-free location on P Street NW will force it to surrender its crown. But if Stoney’s reemergence in the heart of Logan Circle signals a new permissiveness for fresh, clean faces in neighborhood circles, then Eamonn’s in Old Town looks to redefine the concept altogether. Eamonn’s is an Irish hangout that doubles as a high-minded destination restaurant.
The funny thing is, chippers were never designed to be social institutions. How could they be? They don’t serve alcohol, which means they could never hope to keep an Irishman’s attention longer than the time it takes to consume a vinegary wad of fish and chips. Chippers are after-hours stops “for the lads getting home from the pubs,” says native Dubliner Cathal Armstrong, the man behind Eamonn’s and the much-decorated Restaurant Eve. “They’ve been drinking pints of Guinness all day. They need something to fill [their] stomach up.”
Armstrong decided to graft the classic Irish late-night fryhouse onto the body of an American pub—a Frankenchipper, if you will. His handsome corner operation, all bright lights and polished woods and mirrors, invites diners to linger. It encourages them to gather around small wooden tables and knock back a pint as they dig into plump pieces of golden cod or a bunless round of battered ground beef. Never mind that the food arrives in a brown-paper bag splotched with grease stains and that you’re eating with plastic utensils; that’s more of a nod to the take-away history of Dublin’s chippers than an invitation to consume your food off-premises.
Eamonn’s hints at its ambitions in the way it hawks its tidy menu of fried foods: Everything’s a la carte. No burger or chicken platters here as there are at Stoney’s. A regular piece of cod sets you back $6.99, a small chips another $2.50, and a pint a cool fiver. The prices—immodest only when compared to the quantity of food served—reflect the fact that Armstrong buys ingredients for Eamonn’s as carefully as he does for Eve.
Armstrong not only imports sodas, condiments, and candies from Ireland and Britain, but he also buys grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free beef from Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley. The meat, Armstrong says, has absolutely no intramuscular fat, which explains not only the chewiness of his “batter burgher” but also its pure beef flavor that lingers on the tongue. The same thick multiflour batter on his burger can be found on Armstrong’s juicy, sweet, flaky white cod, which he purchases from Congressional Seafood, the respected Jessup purveyor that also sells to considerably more expensive restaurants such as Kinkead’s.
The chef’s fussiness toward his ingredients, however, is all but invisible to the diner; the only chest-thumpings on the menu are the semi-standard promises of fresh fish and hand-cut chips. Oh, and a note that reads, we don’t use a lick of preservatives ’cause it’s just not good for yis. It’s pretension concealed as a lack of pretension, and it works.
Tony Harris, the crusty owner of Stoney’s, probably wouldn’t know a free-range cow if it bit him on the ass. His purveyors don’t worry about sustainable farming and intramuscular fat; they worry about moving truckloads of product really fast. “We’re not going out of our way to buy organic or some special ingredient,” Harris says. “[We buy] what we can find, basically in the grocery store if we had to.”
Not that Harris’ ingredients have made much difference to his customers. For 37 years, the old Stoney’s on L Street NW attracted a loyal following of hookers, lobbyists, journalists, Secret Service agents, and celebrities who crammed into the place practically because it dared to serve greasy food with attitude. Forced to close last year, Stoney’s has been resurrected on P Street, across from a Whole Foods and in the shadow of countless condo units.
With its spotless shamrock green walls and its silent flat-screen TVs, the new Stoney’s may genuflect before gentrification, but it does so with a proper blue-collar contempt toward finery. Stoney’s still exudes a sort of rec-room hominess; it continues to proudly display not only police patches from around the world but also snaps of Harris with various celebs and politicos whose careers have faded as much as the photos. Stoney’s feels as if it already has a story behind it; Eamonn’s, by comparison, is still composing its own clever limerick.
With a few tweaks—more salads, a selection of chicken sandwiches for the fat-fearing crowd—Stoney’s menu has been the model of consistency and simplicity. Its super grilled cheese (the classic plus bacon, tomato, and onion) gets all the hype, but Stoney’s plain ol’ grilled cheese is a marvel of mid-century Americana: buttered Texas toast with American cheese melted between the slices. It’s dignified and cheesy (in both senses of the word) at the same time. Stoney’s burger line struts even more fat-on-fat action, particularly its messy chili cheeseburger, which arrives so soupy you need to eat it with a fork. Now if only the kitchen could learn how to cook pizza, which tends to be crisp on the bottom and stone-cold on the top.
If Stoney’s has anything in common with Eamonn’s, it’s a desire to remain grounded in simple traditions. Stoney’s may no longer be a smoky dive, but it grew out of one, and Eamonn’s may not be a true Dublin chipper, but it was inspired by one or two. “The restaurant business is a very difficult business,” says Harris. “It’s very trendy. We’re not trendy. We’re basic, and I think that’s what keeps us alive.”
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