By Mike Laws - 09/30/10 10:30 PM EDT
Meridian Pint will be whatever you want it to be. My advice is to let it.
If not a truth universally acknowledged, it’s at least usually the case that places that take great pains to please everyone will wind up satisfying no one. The safer play, if you’re an upstart restaurant, is to pick a theme, even an outwardly absurd one (did someone say sushi ‘n’ tater-tots?), and stick with it, letting this original idea infuse and inform the various elements that will come to define your joint’s attitude: lighting, noise level, menu options.
To wit: The Pint, catty-corner from Red Rocks pizzeria on what will surely soon be a much more heavily trafficked block of Columbia Heights, manages, improbably, to be each of the following, sometimes all at once:
• A dimly lit, come-as-you-are neighborhood pub: shuffleboard in the corner, mac-‘n’-cheese and/or deviled eggs available upon request.
• The kind of place with $16 beer-battered fried catfish, and thus a foodie destination, what with the gastropub craze.
• A purveyor of so many American craft beers that the list will make your head spin.
• An unabashed employer of nonetheless-lovable gimmickry.
Starting with that last one, Meridian Pint is fast becoming known for the handful of tables in its downstairs bar that include their own self-serve taps. The idea is you come with a group, toss your friendly barkeep an AmEx, and pour that Sierra Nevada to your hearts’ content. The system functions something like pumping gas and works out to a little more than $5 a pint.
Sadly, this aspect of the bar becomes its least charming, at least on our visit. We’re told that our party of three might get bumped from the tap-topped table in favor of a larger group, and that there’s even some rule about how much you must drink per hour that would almost certainly lead to our trio becoming heavily tipsy, possibly even boorish. Bummer. Still, we agree, posting up at one of these booths would make for a killer office party.
Happily, the downstairs at Meridian, sexy-dark, almost club-like, has plenty on offer even for your garden-variety thirsty threesome. And if the array of tipples seems dizzying at first blush, the ultra-knowledgeable staff behind the sinuous bartop is there to provide all manner of clarity. On our visit, the bartender is pleased to explain, in not-insignificant scientific detail, why certain brews are marked NITRO, holding forth on the abundant gaseous element and how it’s added in-house to displace carbon dioxide, thus leading to a smoother, more flavorful experience. Of course, you don’t need to know this to enjoy (for example) Oliver’s Cream Ale, a spectacular oatmeal stout from Baltimore — but hey, it can’t hurt.
Soak up enough of these high-octane microbrews and you’ll shortly find yourself in need of something to line your stomach, which is the point where a trip upstairs reveals another of Meridian’s many sides. Where the downstairs is all svelte minimal modernism, twilit and unadorned, the ground-level dining room decks itself in the sumptuous cream-whites and ocher tones, the lambent overhead lighting of certain similar local comfort-food establishments — places where clever chefs serve up new twists on the Old South.
The Pint does them one better by keeping the fare just this side of too-cute-by-half; you won’t find chicken-fried steak alongside pommes frites here. Order the aforementioned catfish, for instance, and you’re in for a long night’s work: Just as in the actual South, the portion is monstrous; I could barely even touch the fantastic hand-cut fries beneath the gargantuan heap of delicately oiled, gold-flaked fish. Even better (and bigger) is the pork chop, sheened in a rhubarb/hard-cider glaze and cooked to a perfect pink-white, simmering center.
But let’s face it: This place is all about the ale. Click over to the Meridian Pint website and you’ll find only one option under the Drinks tab: Beer. Ordering a cocktail or — my God — wine here just feels wrong.
My advice, then, is to make fast friends with the waitstaff, more than 95 percent of whom hail from close enough to the Pint that they can walk to work. These folks seem to take great pride in their intimacy with the many and sundry craft beers their bar boasts; what’s more, they’re quick to offer favorites from off the menu. I suspect this may be another of the joint’s (lovable) gimmicks — making customers feel like VIPs by letting them in on an ostensible secret — but, really, who cares?
You won’t once you’ve tried the Jolly Pumpkin La Roja, one of those off-menu items, a sour, frothy reddish ale that arrives in a whimsical wine-size bottle whose label features a mischievous Puss-in-Boots-type character. This product of Dexter, Mich., is the sort of heady elixir you’d be liable to describe as “intoxicating” even if it didn’t contain alcohol (which it does, at more than 7 percent by volume). Just sweet enough without being cloying, it’s the perfect accompaniment to, say, those smoky-sweet pork chops.
Of course, if this sounds too rich for your blood — if you and your buddies are just looking to kick back and watch the game over a few cold ones — you’re only a staircase away from the perfect bar for that, too. And it happens to be on the premises.