The Clarendon Grill Closes. Goodnight to a Great Bar.

Last week the Clarendon Grill in Arlington, VA closed after 22 years. Even locally, this was not major news—bars close all the time. For many of us who were a part of the Grill, however, it was a significant event. For me, it has opened a floodgate of memory.

I first walked into the Grill off the street in the summer of 1998. Fresh out of college with a Creative Writing degree and consequently no viable job prospects, my only goal of the summer was to get a job that would allow me to move out of my mom’s basement.

I knew I loved the restaurant business, but I had barely any experience. Naturally, I thought I should be a bartender. I spent the day in the city getting turned down left and right, and after getting off the Metro in Clarendon to head home, I made one last stop.

I thought it was cool that this bar had things on the menu like a lamb shank and local art on the walls. What the Hell, I thought. Maybe they will hire me.

I immediately sat for the interview with Dave Pressley, a culinary school grad who was running the front of the house. Dave promptly told me that I could never get hired as a bartender, but they needed a server. The honesty was refreshing, and I took the job. In many ways, that interview with Dave started my career. I remain grateful that he gave me the time after so many that day had not.

And I was in.

I quickly took on whatever work I could get other than serving. Bar back, host, the occasional bar shift, and even security. Yes, I was a bouncer. They key to that job was to stay (hide?) behind head of security, Jeff Mozingo, and just do whatever he said. I managed to remain largely unscathed.

Months later, I was a manager—number two in charge with absolutely no qualifications to be there. I had the keys to the bar and the trust of General Manager Danny Garcia. It is safe to say that Danny took a big chance giving a 22-year-old kid the job, and I tried as hard as I could to not screw it up.

The job was intoxicating. Weekends were loud and crazy with a line around the block every single night (there were VERY few bars in the neighborhood at the time). The bar was hot and buzzing with the electricity of twenty-somethings. The noise was at times deafening from the bands, and the whole scene was clouded in a haze of smoke (yes, like actual cigarette smoke. Different time).

People laughed and cried, sang and danced, drank and fought. Something always broke, someone always quit and whatever could go wrong would go wrong. Every night was crazy but different, and I had to try to figure out how to hold it together. I absolutely loved it.

The job made me realize that I needed some chaos and uncertainty to work at my best. It didn’t lay out a career path, but it helped push me towards one. And some of the contacts that I made there continue to be some of the most important in my life. One of them I lost, but others have stayed with me.

Like my wife.

Meredith and I grew up together, but we were apart for high school and college. We both moved back to our hometown around the same time, and back then there was only one real spot for recent grads in Arlington to come together.

And I was working there.

So when there was a line—and there was always a line–I would get a call. I tried to play it cool as I let this beautiful woman slip in the back and take my breath away.

Time went on and things worked out for us.

Meredith and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary—we have a middle schooler and a mortgage, we go to bed early at night and every morning there seems to be more gray hairs. We are at a different point in our lives, but in many ways, our story started at the corner of Highland and 11th St.

My story was not the only one that started there to be sure, and that is what a great place can do—spider webs of interactions and connections spiral out and create moments and memories that exist far beyond the four walls and can last far longer than the place itself.

The Clarendon Grill was that kind of place.

For all of this, I am grateful to Pete Pflug for coming up with a crazy idea to build a construction-site themed bar on that corner all those years ago.

Thanks, Pete—it was a great run.

9 Perfect Brunch Spots for a Rainy Weekend Around DC

This article first appeared in The Washingtonian on September 17th, 2018

 

Play at The Eleanor

414 H St., NE
If you’re feeling antsy cooped up inside, head to chef Adam Stein’s playful spot where you can get a brunch and bowling fix. In addition to duck pins—advance reservations required—there are arcade games, skee-ball, and ample TVs. Also: a big menu of egg Benedicts, breakfast sandwiches, and more.

Look Inside NoMa’s Electrifying New Game-Filled Bar

This article first appeared in Eater DC on June 20, 2018

The Eleanor, opening soon, has mini-bowling, Skee-Ball, and more

Inquisitive neighbors who keep pressing their faces up against the glass at the Eleanor to catch a glimpse of the giant video games and mini-bowling lanes inside won’t have to wait too much longer to pump all their money into the buzzing machines.

Founder Adam Stein won’t say exactly when he plans to welcome the public to the game-filled bar he’s brought to NoMa (100 Florida Avenue NE), but assures Eater the fun-loving venue should debut before the end of this week. Stein has begun bringing in friends for preview nights. On June 19 he hosted a primary election returns watch party for D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton — one of the inspiring women he says his dream restaurant is designed to honor.

“I can’t get over it,” Norton tells Eater of the unexpected tribute.

The self-styled Eleanor shares some things in common with its predecessor Bar Elena, including certain menu items as well as similar electronic diversions, but also works in new additions.

The twin bowling lanes Stein had installed at the far end of the narrow space are his crowning achievement. Shaving that attraction in half — Stein originally wanted to have four bowling lanes — allowed him to create an area that is now home to a basketball game, Golden Tee machine, Big Buck HD video hunting game, and two Skee-Ball cabinets. He’s also sprinkled other games throughout including Mortal Kombat 3, a four-player Pac-Man Battle Royale with a massive screen, and assorted pinball machines. All the games, including the mini-bowling, can be charged to refillable game cards that provide nine credits per dollar. Games such as Mortal Kombat require three credits to play, while the Pac-Man Battle Royale runs eight credits per turn.

The Eleanor is projected to operate from 4 p.m. till at least 2 a.m. to start. Stein says lunch and brunch service should follow in the coming weeks.

Scroll down to look around the bowling-obsessed restaurant:

The bar at the Eleanor has seating for over a dozen cocktail lovers and slushie fans.
There’s a digital jukebox and a projection screen in the main dining room at the Eleanor.
Founder Adam Stein says this corner of the Eleanor can be transformed into a stage for visiting musical acts by removing the tables in loading in equipment via the rolling garage doors.
Eleanor founder Adam Stein says he’s working on adding a new Star Wars machine to the pinball zone.
Tables line the passageway leading from the main dining room at the Eleanor to the mini-bowling lanes.
Bowling enthusiasts at the Eleanor can relax on leather sofas and benches while waiting for their turn.
The men’s room at the Eleanor includes images from bowling comedy “Kingpin,” as well as a shot of late President Richard Nixon bowling at the White House.

Tony and Kevin. Two Chefs Gone Too Soon.

When I think of Anthony Bourdain, I can’t help but thinking of my friend, Kevin Weeks. Both chefs and both lost to this world too soon, each harbored some of the same qualities: an unquenchable and unyielding appetite for life, a passion for what they did and a similar passion to share it, and a deep and tireless curiosity to learn more about the world and its people. They were also two very influential people on my career and in my life.

I first read Kitchen Confidential two years into my life in the restaurants, right as I was deciding if this was going to in fact be my life, and I was going to abandon whatever my earlier plan had been—law school, journalism…cubicles. I was working for Kevin–a chef with wild red hair, chili pepper tattoos, a love for music, photography, painting, books, anything interesting really, and the sensibility that sleep was optional.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I loved being in this business. With Bourdain’s book in my hand, I nestled myself under Kevin’s wing, and I figured this path was sure as Hell good as any other I was considering.

From there, the wild ride began, and it continues to this day. I struggled mightily, I failed repeatedly, but I pressed on. I remember thinking early on with a mix of fear and excitement, “Holy shit. Is this what it is like?” Kevin basically responded, “Yes. And no. Now get back to work. And you’re buying tonight.”

I did it because I loved the heat and the salt and the night and the noise. I did it because I felt, even then, that I only had once chance on the ride, and I wouldn’t take the path well-traveled because I was supposed to. But I also did it because I wanted to be like Kevin. And in a way, like Anthony Bourdain.

Anthony Bourdain pushed himself out of his comfort zone in so many ways. He wrote his story beautifully, and then he spent years telling other people’s stories. He went where many others had not—across borders and onto the backstreets, down the alleys and through the dark doors without fear or prejudice. And then he left the comfort zone of his new famous life and owned up to his past, supporting the #metoo movement in our business and becoming a leader when our industry needed them the most.

It was remarkable to watch Bourdain’s career evolve. He was to me, a good chef, a brilliant writer, and a preternatural connector. Rarely can someone meander their way to match their career with their true talent. He brought the secret pain and joy of the professional kitchen to the masses, and then he went further to connect the world to itself. I don’t think we will know the significance of his loss for some time.

Kevin died in a car crash, the result of a negligent driver, over 11 years ago. He was 35. My wife was seven months pregnant with our daughter. At the time, we were planning a restaurant together that would become Eventide. He never got to see it, and he never got to meet Evelyn. Many of us that were lucky to be in his orbit have never forgotten that awful night, never forgotten the impact he had on us and never stopped missing him.

I gave a eulogy for Kevin—one of many given—where I tried to sum up what it meant when I said we should all wake in the morning and “Do something Kevin today.” Essentially it means at least for a moment, go and grab life into your hands. Inhale deeply, taste it all, slurp up every drop and then…go back in for more. Break out of your mold, free yourself from your rut, and seek and savor something new. Kevin was a chef, but he was also so much more. He could do it all, and he would try anything.

Anthony Bourdain did that over and over. It makes me so sad to see how that was possible for someone so similar to my friend, and to wonder just what Kevin could have done if he had more time to grow. I have no doubt it would have been special, and I don’t think anyone who ever met him would doubt it either.

And yet here we are, and the world pushes on without the benefit of these two extraordinary people. There is nothing we can do about it, and they would surely not want us to linger in our loneliness. For more than 10 years, I have been trying to do that, and I am buoyed by the thought—the hope, really—that Kevin would be proud of me. I don’t know how else to do it.

I imagine that Anthony would have liked Kevin, and that Kevin would have liked Anthony. I like to think they would have loved to sit together, slurping noodles, slamming back shots and laughing and singing. I would have liked to be there as well; sitting there being grateful to know them and trying not to say anything stupid.

I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in Heaven. But the idea that maybe the two of them could be sharing that meal together now makes me pause–and smile. And in another 40 years or so, if there is an extra chair, and I get to sit down, I would be grateful.

Kevin with a huge striped bass he caught off Martha’s Vineyard before he cleaned it and cooked it for us, and Kevin and I headed to or from (can’t remember) or friend’s wedding.

NoMa Newcomer The Eleanor Is Working on Hemp-Spiked Drinks

This article first appeared in Eater DC on June 5, 2018

Bar staff are also investigating local spirits, regional brews, boozy slushies, and draft cocktails

While they insist that serving pitchers of now-ubiquitous Narragansett Lager is inevitable because of all the mini-bowling that’ll be happening at nearly ready entertainment zone the Eleanor, bar staff at the NoMa newcomer have much funkier beverages in mind.

When he converted Atlas District watering hole Boundary Road into Bar Elena last year, chef turned restaurateur Adam Stein made an effort to honor the predecessor’s commitment to fancy cocktails and local beers.

This time around, Stein has brought in newly married couple Jessica Rockwell and Katie Rockwell to serve as co-general managers and drink gurus. Jessica Rockwell, who worked with Stein at Light Horse restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, is focused on building the Eleanor’s beer list. Katie Rockwell, another Light Horse alum who also spent time at Boundary Stone and budding chain All-Purpose, tells Eater she’s looking into drinks with some curious ingredients.

A little something that Katie Rockwell says has been rolling around in her brain since a road trip through the south: recreating the sensation of shelled peanuts plopped into bottled sodas. Although she says the custom seems to favor adding the salty specimens to Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper, Katie Rockwell is toying with mixing a peanut reduction into a whiskey-soda drink. Her other scientific endeavor involves using aromatic terpenes — organic compounds found in hemp and other plants — as bitters. Katie Rockwell says the liquid extracts she gets from her cousin’s farm in Colorado contain no THC — so no one’s getting stoned from these drinks — but do add different flavors, including “piney” and “herbal” notes, to cocktails.

If all that scientific stuff sounds way too complicated, the Eleanor will also have something anyone can understand: vodka slushies. Katie Rockwell says the goal is to create a base slush from a neutral spirit that can then be cut with other liquors, mixers, and flavors at will. There is also discussion of having at least one draft cocktail on tap. And the bar will serve crushed ice exclusively: a) so as not to excessively water down drinks, and b) because it’ll be that much easier to make frosty seasonal swizzles.

Jessica Rockwell, meanwhile, wants to fill the Eleanor’s 20 taps with a mix of beers that mean something to the various staff members. The aforementioned Narragansett is a nod to Stein’s time working in New England. Jessica Rockwell counts herself as a fan of Michigan’s Founders Brewing Company, so she’s carving out room for some of its beers. She and Katie got married at DC Brau Brewing Company, so that local favorite is definitely included. As are others Jessica Rockwell and Katie Rockwell have worked with over the years, including 3 Stars Brewing Company, Port City Brewing Company, Right Proper Brewing Company, Hellbender Brewing Company, Potter’s Craft Cider, and others. Local spirits makers on Jessica Rockwell’s short list include D.C.-based New Columbia Distillers and One Eight Distilling Company, as well as Gray Wolf Craft Distilling in Maryland.

“I’m mostly looking forward to building a community,” Katie Rockwell says of their mission.