Red River Drama

Posted January 26, 2005 at 2:52pm

When thirsty Capitol Hill staffers found the doors to Red River Grill shuttered after the new year, rumors started flying that upscale neighbor Lounge 201 had acquired the space with avaricious plans to turn it into another pricey martini joint. An irate e-mail titled “The Boycott of Lounge 201” quickly began circulating among Congressional offices.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Our beloved Red River Grill has been closed indefinitely due to its purchase by the owners of Lounge 201,” the e-mail stated. The boycott was suggested as “a way to express your opposition to this corporate takeover and firing.”

What the disgruntled patrons didn’t realize was that Red River Grill and Lounge 201, which share a building at Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue Northeast, had always shared an owner.

Matthew Weiss, who opened Red River in May 1995 and Lounge 201 in February 2003, found himself in the middle of a firestorm and, in an effort to set the record straight, sent a letter to Congressional employees and Capitol Hill residents and even personally contacted some of the e-mailers.

In the letter, Weiss explained that “due to legal and financial circumstances [he] was not able to” give notice that the bar would be closing.

“We really are sorry about the abruptness. We didn’t want it to go down that way,” Weiss said in an interview. He would not discuss the circumstances that forced him to close the bar, but he did say that the new place he plans to open in the same space won’t have much in common with Lounge 201.

“I would never want to compete with myself,” he said.

Weiss hopes to reopen around May 1 — just in time for patio season — with a new name, a spruced-up interior and a modified concept that he described as an American pub with a basic American and bar food menu.

Weiss admitted that Red River Grill’s interior was badly in need of a makeover, and he said the upgraded space will have more comfortable seating, less clutter and updated facilities.

With a fresher look, he hopes to attract a broader clientele. “What I’m hoping for is that it’ll be a really nice combination that will … draw neighborhood people … but will also bring in the staffers.”

But amid all the changes, Weiss promised that many of the rock-bottom drink prices that made Red River such a popular destination will remain roughly the same. “We hope to maintain the $1.50 hump day” tradition, he said. And the grill’s popular margaritas will be featured along with other frozen drinks.

He said patrons should also expect to see some familiar faces behind the bar. “We’re going to try to recreate the same feel … that ‘Cheers’ kind of feel.”

Despite the initial uproar, Weiss anticipates that once people know the story, there won’t be any hard feelings. “I hope everyone will come back when we open and I can make it up to them,” he said.

A Flip-Flop at Market Lunch. “The blues are back,” according to Tom Glasgow, who runs The Market Lunch at Eastern Market, but that’s not a politically charged statement.

He was referring to the much-loved blueberry pancakes served at Market Lunch’s Saturday morning breakfast, which took a brief hiatus after Glasgow pulled the plug on the popular weekend tradition.

For two Saturdays (Jan. 8 and 15), the Market Lunch counter was dark during its usual early morning hours.

But just about as fast as you could say, “What happened to Saturday morning breakfast?” Glasgow had a change of heart and brought back the breakfast.

His original decision to end the breakfast stemmed from concerns over labor costs and various logistical problems. “It’s very labor intensive so we thought we might try to eliminate it.” In hindsight, Glasgow said, “My immediate remedy was a dumb idea.”

The backlash that ensued was quick and furious. “We have been inundated with people calling, wondering, ‘Why would you do this?’”

On Jan. 19, Glasgow placed a sign at the counter announcing that the tradition would resume Jan. 22. The only changes: an 8 a.m. start time, as opposed to 7:30 a.m., and fewer menu items. Signature dishes, like the blueberry pancakes, are still available.

Moving forward, Glasgow said he hopes to utilize his labor force better to avoid another pancake shortage.

“Tom Glasgow says it was a bad idea, so fix it and move on,” he joked.

New and Coming Soon. The owners of Georgetown’s Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar are updating the space formerly occupied by Barolo and Il Raddichio at 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE and expect to open Sonoma there in late March. Co-owner Jared Rager said the new spot will offer casual, moderately priced dining on the first floor, with fine dining and an intimate lounge area upstairs.

Mendocino Executive Chef Drew Trautmann is designing a New American menu that will reflect Italian influences with pizza, handmade pastas, wood-grilled meats and fish, and a few favorites from Mendocino, including a Kobe beef burger. The menu will emphasize local, organic and naturally raised ingredients.

The restaurant will also offer an impressive 60 wines by the glass — more than half in the casual downstairs dining room.

Meanwhile, the latest addition to the Capitol Hill pub scene, The Ugly Mug, opened at the end of the year, bringing with it the mini-burgers that made Chinatown’s Matchbox so popular. For more on the new spot, located at 723 Eighth St. SE, be sure to read next Thursday’s Around the Hill.

To Do List. To ensure good fortune in the new year, head to Ristorante Tosca and order the luxury tasting menu. The six-course exercise in indulgence includes scrambled eggs with white truffles tucked inside a hollow eggshell and accompanied by Osetra caviar; seared foie gras with cannelloni beans and black truffles; and Maine lobster risotto. The menu, which was inspired by the Italian tradition of eating decadent foods at the beginning of the year to guarantee prosperity, costs $95, or $140 with wine pairings. The menu is available through February.

Restaurant Week may have come and gone, but you can feast on a three-course dinner for $30.05 with greater cause at Poste Brasserie during the month of February. The promotion was created to assist Poste employee Charlie Davis, whose debilitating diabetes has kept him from working. The menu will feature some of Davis’ favorite dishes, including herb-crusted cod and a special sugar-free dessert, and half of the proceeds from the special menu will go to Davis.