By Mike Laws - 03/17/11 11:43 PM EDT
… It’s a dark, fusty, musty place — wooden bartop, tables strewn slapdash across what cannot rightly be termed a dining room, a paucity of natural light. The restaurant seems to have been all but abandoned: Even on a midsummer Friday afternoon, prime time for the type of tie-loosening and steam-venting professional Washington does at least as well as its actual work, there’s only maybe another customer or two to be seen tilting a stein …
Now, Bullfeathers does have one obvious and distinct advantage in its effort here: that iron rule of real estate: location, location, location. Make the place hospitable enough — in both ambiance and menu offerings — and it’s practically a can’t-miss, just by virtue of sheer proximity to a full House of staffers in need of sustenance. In other words: Build it right, and they will bring their business.
And business is a-boomin’. Stop by these days as a happy hour gets into full swing and you’re likely to encounter all manner of different types thronging the bar or crowding the dining area: hungry tourists elbow to elbow with thirsty legislative assistants, the aforementioned odd lawmaker or two. But it’s not uncomfortably full; the space is sufficiently capacious that there’s probably never much of a wait. On a recent Friday evening, despite a good deal of bustle, a dining companion and I were seated close enough to the place’s entrance to enjoy a bit of early-spring breeze flitting in through the open front windows. This alone seemed to mark a departure from Bullfeathers in its previous incarnation, which is to say it’s no longer a stuffy cavern wholly divorced from the neighborhood containing it.
Indeed, the new ownership has turned the place downright respectable. Glomming onto something of a citywide trend, there’s the open kitchen in the back, all antiseptic fluorescence and stainless steel — and as such a nice counterpoint to the muted lighting and woodsy hues of the rest of the space. A new marble countertop lines the bar (still massive, by the way — this reviewer didn’t stop to count, but the thing must seat about 20, maybe more). An elegant black-wood partition cordons off the dining room, newly upholstered and newly orderly in its arrangement of furnishings; no longer is finding your way to the bathroom reminiscent of the garden hedge-maze scene in “The Shining.”
It’s a soothing setting in which to enjoy a meal that doesn’t ask a whole heck of a lot of you — in terms of expenditure of coinage or deployment of taste buds — which is the MO, as far as I can tell, of the food on offer here. Besides, Washington now fairly teems with establishments fusing esoteric cuisines or indulging quasi-celebrity-chefs on their wildest flights of fancy; what a place like Bullfeathers wants to prove is that even in the food court of power, there’s room for a comfort-fare kiosk.
Thus you’ve got a menu that hews largely to tried-and-true Americana: rib-stickin’ bar food good enough to pair with one of the more obscure of the place’s 30-something-strong list of beers, but that wouldn’t feel déclassé to wash down with a Miller Lite, if that’s your thing. Mac-and-cheese, wings, chops, fries, burgers, pizza — here’s Bullfeathers’ wheelhouse.
Of particular note are the short ribs, perfectly fork-flaking tender and seasoned amply, but not overwhelmingly, in a salt-smoke glaze; the four-cheese dip appetizer (though with its heaping pile of two types of bread and overall oily heft, the zippy dish will probably necessitate a doggy bag for whatever else you’ve ordered); and, as if you had any room left, what with these gargantuan portions, the milkshakes, which light out for territory beyond your run-of-the-mill chocolate/strawberry/vanilla and include flavors as varied as Cap’n Crunch and apple pie.
Oddly enough, it’s the items the menu promotes as being made fresh in-house that too often fail to excite. Egg rolls arrive at the table unevenly heated, a flaky shell harboring a tube of nondescript, rubbery meatish something-or-other; this reviewer couldn’t help but think of those prefab appetizers TGI Friday’s packages for supermarket freezers. Worse still is the Tokyo Tuna sandwich, wherein an obtrusive dill sauce drowns out the flavor of the fish (though perhaps that’s intentional; it was apparent from its overbright neon pinkness that this was likely one of those vacuum-sealed fillets).
So perhaps the smattering of Asian-inspired selections needs a bit of work. And perhaps that’s no shock, at a place with a menu the size of Bullfeathers’, where Conventional Diner Wisdom — french fries, good, go ahead and order; Clams Casino, don’t risk it — holds. In any event you probably can’t go wrong with, oh, about 90 percent of the menu. None of it’s going to floor you, but most of it won’t disappoint, either. Haute cuisine was never the idea; rather, it’s a comfortable venue serving up comfortable fare, all of it just steps away from one of the most frenetically paced and stressful work environments in the entire world. Truth be told, Washington could use a few more places like this.