Back when Mr. Henry’s put down roots on Capitol Hill, congressman turned commander in chief Lyndon B. Johnson was still calling the shots in the Oval Office, the only Washington Senators anyone cared about were the ballplayers who took the field at RFK Stadium and relations with Cuba were far less relaxed than they appear to be today.
Eight presidential administrations later, the family-run establishment (601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) endures — providing safe harbor to locals against changing tides that continue to wash away neighboring dive bars.
Not that that kind of staying power comes easy. Mr. Henry's, which once upon a time showcased the talents of soul singer Roberta Flack and attracted its share of gay and lesbian fans, has since seemingly faded into obscurity. A leadership shake-up in 2014 caused some soul searching, as longtime business associates Alvin Ross and the Quillian clan wrestled with how to proceed following Ross’ intended retirement. Per a press release borne out of the management shuffle, the presiding owners (they’ve been married to the project since 1972) chose to stay the course rather than abandon ship.
But they did bring in Mark Steele, a veteran of the Delaware hospitality scene, to help spruce up the place.
The newly minted general manager has been piecing together another game plan since last summer. His core concerns have been overseeing ongoing renovations and recalibrating the food and drink that hits every table.
The biggest change has been the restoration of the second floor.
Mr. Henry’s Upstairs, as it’s been rebranded, is all about blending nostalgia with modernity.
Reclaimed wood paneling intermingles with freshly laidcarpet. A vintage bar is illuminated by flickering plasma TVs. And a steady groove of Motown favorites keeps customers of all ages rocking in their seats.
Steele has also revamped an adjoining kitchen, springing for a new panini press and beefing up the restaurant’s burger program.
"It's Monday, so if it's got the word 'burger' in it, it's half price," one server alerted the table as we took our seats.
The current burger carte runs a baker’s dozen deep, ranging from the aptly named Over the Top burger (more on that in a second) and anytime breakfast-themed hangover helper (fried egg, bacon) to traditional patty melts and basic cheeseburgers.
A gourmet-sounding turkey burger underwhelmed. The smallish patty emerged overdone (medium-well tastes nothing like medium-rare, y’all) and was done no favors by a fleeting red onion jam. The relish-like condiment offered a whisper of sweet, but dissipated far too quickly.
The deconstructed pesto burger lacked cohesion. The meat was fine and the melted fontina (good call) tasty, but everything else involved — from the baby spinach leaves haphazardly tossed on top, to the too-timid pesto sauce meekly spread across the bottom bun — did not get the job done.
A vegetarian option picked up the pace, layering a savory black bean burger with tangy salsa, creamy guacamole and zesty pepper jack cheese.
Then, we went over the top.
"I had no expectations, so this is great," one companion said after voraciously disposing of a cholesterol bomb forged from mouthwateringly juicy meat, crunchy fried onion rings, gobs of melted cheddar and interwoven strips of crispy bacon.
During daylight hours, the rundown booths and rickety chairs sprinkled about the main floor are more likely to be claimed by cabin feverish retirees than adventurous Hill staffers.
"Hi, Miss Sonia!" one waitress cooed as she leaned in for an air kiss from an older lady who, just seconds after strolling through the front door, was delivered a whipped cream-topped coffee beverage. (Standing order or instinctive service?) Staff was thick as thieves with a boisterous group of gray-haired patrons clearly more interested in catching up than in the barely touched sandwiches and nibbled-on salads before them.
"I know how you all operate," a server teased as another roar of laughter erupted from the circle of happy campers.
In addition to rolling out the burger 2.0 strategy, Steele has orchestrated theme nights for every appetite (think: homespun pasta nights on Wednesdays and weekend fish frys).
He spoke highly of various experimental dishes — a cider-marinated pork chop and flat iron steak bolstered by herb butter have performed well, Steele said — and assured this hired mouth that no expense had been spared to improve the quality of everyday meals.
But in a place where Fireball shots remain a happy-hour staple, perhaps it’s more important to remain focused on the fundamentals.
Pork barbecue sliders proved to be a poor investment. The pulled pig, sweeter than most and devoid of real vinegar sting, is sparingly applied to twin potato rolls. A solo pickle chip is speared to the outside of the bun. Most companions tapped out after just one bite of the woefully tang-free, pitifully proportioned pub grub.
Nachos suffered from major disconnect. The tortilla chips were barely covered by pieces of dry chicken breast, a few strategically placed jalapeño s and a smattering of shredded cheeses. The stuff that could have restored some much-needed moisture to each dull bite — chunky guacamole, tomato-rich salsa and cool sour cream — was, unwisely, relegated to the sidelines.
Spicy crab dip summons a crock of shredded blue crab meat with a crisped-up top (way to go, broiler!) and gooey hot center. The crustacean is ensconced in Old Bay and heavy cream. Crusty rounds of toasted baguettes virtually beg for a dip.
One unexpected bright spot: dessert.
A server hailed the house bread pudding as a thing of beauty. He was smart to do so.
The easily customizable dish (available either hot or cold) sports syrup-soaked croissant bread studded with juicy, rum-spiked raisins. A throwback sweet worth remembering the next time you consider strolling over to this still-evolving spot on memory lane.
Mr. Henry's: 601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-546-8412; mrhenrysdc.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner and late-night dining daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
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