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Meal Ticket: Sticking With What Works

A mix of private and community vibes mingles with just-right food options at Tunnicliff’s

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Having recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, Tunnicliff’s Tavern, an unassuming congressional watering hole, doles out its modern American persona with the likes of a super grilled cheese with tomato, bacon, onion and fries and a smoked gouda mac and cheese.

Knowing what’s right and doing what’s right are, quite often, two mutually exclusive trajectories. Particularly when it comes to a properly executed happy hour.

“I just want a beer and something not good for me,” a self-aware patron at Tunnicliff’s Tavern informed a gaggle of gal pals coyly debating salad options.

The truth is, Tunnicliff’s will most likely never appear on any “healthiest dining” listicle or get a shoutout from Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. But none of that matters to the devoted clients who have made spending time at this Eastern Market standby as much a part of their daily routine as breathing, or, well, eating.

Same as It Ever Was

This unassuming congressional watering hole celebrated its 30th anniversary last fall, although the establishment has changed hands at least once since landing on the Capitol Hill landscape. Owner Med Lahlou, who also oversees Station 4 and Ulah Bistro, added the property to his portfolio just more than a decade ago but hasn’t tinkered too much with the formula that’s seen residents through the past three administrations.

General manager Lance Cook said he has worked at Tunnicliff’s off and on for the past decade, stepping away from the place for seven years to tackle some part-time assignments while his young children were growing but returning full time to the neighborhood saloon last October.

“As much was the same as had changed,” he said of the professional déjà vu he experienced on settling back into the all-too-familiar setting. “It was like stepping into a time machine  . . .  [though] all of us have a lot less hair and are a little chubbier.”

Regardless of whether the years have been kind, no one seems to be complaining.

Those who continue to gather do so without thought or reservation, like moths to a playfully flickering flame.

Some nights the crowd seemed almost impregnable, as if we’d stepped right over an illusory velvet rope into a universally accepted private party people were just too polite to kick us out of. On other visits, the vibe was much more come-one-come-all, offering up easily accessible topics of conversation — Local sports! Dim-witted politicians! Relationship killers! — one could readily weave in and out of with a clink of the glass and a broad smile.

The bar — which feeds attendees a steady diet of tongue-in-cheek philosophy via chalkboard (“I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat” — Will Rogers; “People with no weaknesses are terrible. There is no way to take advantage of them” — Anatole France, were two deep thoughts that recently caught our eye) — is home to grizzled retirees who spread their paper out across adjoining seats while nursing an adult beverage or meet pals to drain beer after sweating beer while dissecting whatever SportsCenter highlights or news interviews flash across the overhead TV screens.

The tented patio is the weekend playground; that’s where friends lazily linger over slowly dwindling entrees, hoisting boozy Bloody Marys in salute to lost-in-thought colleagues or waving cheerily to neighbors shuffling past with bags full of carefully balanced groceries dangling from outstretched limbs. Things are more fluid within the main dining room, with Type A personalities sticking strictly to business while the more leisurely inclined meander through the menu while weighing in on pop-culture happenings.

Cook estimated that on any given day, about a quarter of the crowd is die-hard regulars. “We pretty much know where they are going to sit and what they’re going to order,” he said of the flood of familiar faces staring back at him during a typical shift.

According to Cook, a number of lawmakers enjoy cloaking themselves in the relative anonymity provided by the bustling tavern environment. “I think this is a place that they just like to chill,” he said, noting that staff is instructed to “just let them be.”

Sure enough, we overheard one distressed pol wish for a reprieve while marching past the front door.

“I just want to turn into Tunnicliff’s,” a House member begrudgingly informed staff while dragging his feet toward what looked to be a working dinner at the adjoining Acqua al 2.

Open Wide

Although Cook maintains that Lahlou is a wiz in the kitchen, chef John Quintana remains the driving force behind Tunnicliff’s modern American persona.

Daily specials run the gamut from New England clam chowder and Guinness pie to chicken tacos and catch of the day compositions.

Jumbo lump crab cakes are adequate, revealing loosely packed patties of binder-free crustacean threaded with herbs and baptized in drawn butter.

Fried cod is better, each batter-dipped hunk of tender fish perfectly delicious on its own but rendered even more appealing après dunk in lemony tartar.

The super grilled cheese, a Stoney’s knock-off, gets the job done. Each bite of oversized sandwich benefits from piquant raw red onions, rich American cheese, crunchy hickory smoked bacon, lush tomato and generously buttered Texas toast.

Dairy heads can indulge in mac and cheese featuring shells swimming in a sea of savory cheddar, salty Parmesan and smoked gouda (much appreciated), complemented by a block of cake-sweet cornbread.

The Texas burger piles a ton of extras onto a cooked-to-order, half-pound beef patty. The grilled meat is smothered in sweet barbecue sauce, tangy coleslaw, smoky bacon, gooey cheddar and caramelized onions — a drippy medley that’s great for your dry cleaner but unfortunately makes it tough to enjoy any of the individual flavors.

No such trouble with the braised short ribs. The generous slab of slow-cooked beef was always meltingly tender and always displayed a twinge of underlying sweetness. (It’s spiked with cinnamon.)

Building Bridges

Antonio Matarazzo, Lahlou’s partner, is most excited about their latest endeavor: Lupo Verde.

He said the forthcoming restaurant — scheduled to open in early June at 1401 T St. NW — would pay homage to rustic Italian small plates (“piattini”) and also introduce Washingtonians to hybrid Neapolitan-Roman wood-fired pizza. “Our goal is to provide a kind of experience  . . .  you can’t find in D.C.,” Matarazzo said, listing house-made mozzarella and Campari-based beverages as house specialties.

Tunnicliff’s Tavern: 222 Seventh St. SE; 202-544-5680; tunnicliffs.com

Open for lunch Monday through Friday and for dinner and late-night dining daily, in addition to brunch on Saturday and Sunday.

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