I have to believe that one of the worst locations to open a restaurant right now is on the south side of H St. NE. If it wasn’t hard enough to establish yourself, try doing it from behind chain link fencing and the giant crater that will hopefully be a street car track one day. I have a hard enough time figuring out where to cross the street that most of the time I just give up and end up at Sticky Rice. I was determined the other night though, so I made it through the war zone that is the construction barricades and finally found myself at Smith Commons, the newest restaurant/lounge to open on H St.
The restaurant itself is a massive structure — three floors plus a deck that will be open sometime in the Spring. The second and third floors are billed as the “Public House” and while they have tables for full dinner service, they are most definitely made for drinking. There are big cushy sofas and banquettes for lounging, but it’s put together in a haphazard way that’s more eclectic-cool than college hand-me-down chic. It’s the perfect place to belly up to a leather bench with a one of Smith Common’s cocktails. I tried the Felicity Watermelon Smith, which is tequila, lime juice, ginger syrup, watermelon, basil and club soda. Had I not been driving, I would have had about five more of those. Friends at our table gave high marks to the classic margarita as well, and a big thumbs up went to the traditional Pisco Sour.
Smith Commons isn’t all liquor all the time though. Their beer list is extensive, with about forty permanent and seasonal craft beers both on tap and bottled, coming from the United States, Canada, Belgium, Germany, Scotaland and Ireland. The wine list isn’t huge but has something for everyone, with plenty of wines by the glass for under $10.
But what of the food, right? My meal started off strong. The beef carpaccio was beautifully prepared with just the right about of salt and pepper and caper oil, and my “mushroom cappuccino” was so creamy and flavorful it gave my mom’s Thanksgiving cream of mushroom soup a run for its money. My main course was a bit underwhelming though. My sea bass was cooked fine, but without a hard sear or a little bit of crunch to it, it was just a little mushy. It would have been perfect for my grandmother though – a bit on the bland side and quite easy to chew. The folks at the table that ordered the lamb chops with potatoes and grilled eggplant were in better shape than me — the lamb was lovely and rich, and the winter veggies made for a comforting dish on a cold night. Once again for dessert, I chose wrong. While I ordered the underwhelming chocolate crepe, my friends at the table with the Belgian chocolate lava cake were the big winners. (I should have known better, Executive Chef Frederik De Pue is from Belgium after all.) It was oh-so chocolately, but with a tiny portion cut with vanilla whipped cream, it was perfect.
Though the food was at some points less than exciting, the dishes made for snacking while drinking definitely have the most appeal. The Public House menu is rife with fancy bar favorites like crab cake sliders, fish & chips, those tasty lamb chops and Angus beef sliders. A friend recently tried the burger off the dining room menu and deemed it “bitchin’.” That’s high praise if I’ve ever heard it. And Smith Commons wants you to indulge your inner nibbler with their “Smith Hour” happy hour. Tuesday through Friday from 5pm to 7pm, bars on all three levels will feature $5 favorites, a specially chosen selection of beer, wine, cocktails and small plates.
My best advice with Smith Commons would be to go with friends who love to chat and drink, and wear comfortable shoes. On a random, cold Thursday night when I was there, the entire restaurant was packed. So much for my theory about that tough location behind the street car tracks.
Smith Commons is located at 1245 H St. NE. The closest Metro station is Union Station (Red Line). For more information and reservations, call 202-396-0038.