Catching up with friends who’ve been away from DC for a while is always interesting. You want to take them someplace that’s different, that shows the changes of the city over the past five years or more, but also you require a vibe which allows you to actually hear each other. I had this challenge recently with a friend who’d returned to DC from living in London, so naturally I wasn’t going to kill myself trying to impress her, I just wanted to find a place that simply said “Welcome Back to Washington.”
We found it at the bar at Ben’s Next Door. What could be more Washingtonian than the new bar and restaurant opened by the Ali family of Ben’s Chili Bowl fame? I mean, have you seen the crazy lines of tourists outside Ben’s lately? I had to show her how the legend of U Street continues to grow.
Funnily enough, we made it just before the news of chef Rock Harper’s departure. I’m really glad we both had the instant instinct to stick to the bar. It’s a looooong one (53 feet, to be exact), which always makes me a bit nervous about service, but there was no need to worry. We spent several hours catching up under the careful eye of bartender Anthony, who made sure we never wanted for anything.
It was a real locals crowd that night, U Street denizens cheering on the Caps against the Pens, but it never got too loud and there was a happy buzz to the place. The bar area is pretty unremarkable, warm wood and walls, just an invitingly simple style with TVs over the bottles. My friend stuck to Xingu black beer (“like a Porter,” said Miss Londontown) while I tried two of their specialty cocktails.
First up was the Blueberry Caiprioska featuring muddled blueberries, blueberry vodka, and freshly squeezed lime juice. Hmm… well, it was pretty. Frankly, I was late, I was shellshocked from a bad work day, and it was the first drink on the menu. Normally I’m not a blueberry girl so my “eh” reaction should be taken with a grain of rock salt. Just not my thing. For my second round I went with the old-reliable “what do you like to make?” question and Anthony served up the Citrus District. Made with Zodiac vodka, Pama liqueur, limoncello, and freshly squeezed lemon & lime juice, this was both pretty and delectable, making me quite happy. Classic girly drink.
The beers on tap looked like they would satisfy most, ranging from Guinness, Delirium and Stella to Heineken and Peroni (what’s up with Peroni these days? it’s everywhere!). As far as the goodies, there are special “bar bites” served til closing, including some standards from Ben’s Chili Bowl. We tried the Spicy Buffalo Wings to complete my friend’s American re-entry – lipsmackingly good, setting my eyebrows on fire (“these aren’t really spicy,” pronounced Miss Currytown).
But, we needed more and hit the entrees, which are also available at the bar, and basically again put ourselves in Anthony’s hands for recommendations. With the news of the chef’s departure I can’t say whether these will stay the same, but I loved the Duck Confit Fricassee – a luscious bowl of veggies and duck in a delicate sauce, perfect on a cold rainy night, and my friend’s Roasted Chicken with Rosemary Maple Sauce was deemed lovely.
By the end of the night, with the Caps winning and the bar erupting, we’d been taken care of perfectly by an attentive bartender, and shockingly discovered someone had bought all our drinks. That’s what I call a good welcome back to the States!
Ben’s Next Door
1211 U Street NW
Washington, DC 20009