The diner, refined

The diner, refined

All-night eateries are good for a great many things — soaking up spirits, breaking up road trips — but they are not, generally speaking, good spots for wading far out from the culinary mainstream. Not to paint with too broad a brush here, but show me a place that declares itself OPEN 24/7, and I’ll show you those same letters in neon outside the kind of glorified truck-stop where opting for the nigiri, chicken-liver mousse or seared octopus could well prove a fatal miscue.

So it’s with an understandable trepidation that D.C. diners might approach The Hamilton, the newest venture from Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which, in addition to boasting a space the size of a Macy’s, separates itself from the Metro Center herd by keeping its doors open around the clock. Wont as we are to associate the phrase “all-night” with “diner,” we can be forgiven for not knowing quite what to make of something like The Hamilton.

That’s especially true in view of the restaurant’s tony, upscale — not to mention cavernous — digs. A woodsy, warmly lit bar-cum-anteroom (not a far cry from the Clyde’s in Chinatown, come to think of it) gives way to a plush, red-carpeted dining hall, high-ceilinged, all cozy classic-modern elegance — which itself gives way to another bar, this one comparatively spartan, an unadorned banquette facing a liberally spaced set of tables arranged over the tile. Oh, and, at the rear of this no-frills tavern, a sushi counter.

And that’s only about half of the main level; The Hamilton has two other floors, including a subterranean event space that was roped off at the time of each of this reviewer’s visits. To describe the place as labyrinthine seems somehow inadequate; at one point, asked how to get to the bathroom, a server gestured down a blue-lit, club-like passageway, then jokingly directed, “The restroom, yes — over the hills and far away, past the enchanted woods, beyond the great valley … ”

All of which makes the question of what kind of food to expect quite a perplexing one indeed. Is this a sushi joint, as that counter would suggest? A purveyor of pub-grub, as the multiple bars might have it? The high-end boîte conjured by the large, luxe dining rooms? Or — being that it’s open all night — should we expect something of a greasy spoon?

The answer, as you may have guessed, is all of the above.

Think of The Hamilton as a refined alimentary analogue to a Walmart or mega-mall: a gargantuan one-stop shop for all your gastronomic/nightlife needs. Step one, then, is conquering your understandable fear of wildly exhaustive menus, inculcated after years of questionable decisions at those 24-hour diners, where you’ve got to figure anything you order starts out frostbitten, buried deep in some industrial refrigerator in the back.

Not so here. Equally at ease slinging comfort-food staples and hoity-toity high-end delicacies, The Hamilton’s M.O. seems to be to try to tackle just about everything under the culinary sun with equal aplomb; and in this mission, it’s a resounding success.

On one trip my dining companion and I settled on a starter course of District Wings and the King Kong Roll, an admittedly absurd-sounding combination of fried chicken and sushi. But, minor quibbles aside (the hand-roll’s mango tends to drown out the delicate shadings offered by its lobster and caviar components) we had a hard time deciding which we preferred. And for a place that does sushi well — which The Hamilton does — it’s no small feat that the wings are just about perfect, tantalizingly crispy without burying the poultry beneath mounds of breading, and served up with the restaurant’s unexpectedly tangy version of sweet-and-sour “Mumbo sauce.”

The Hamilton’s equal adroitness with cuisines high and low extends beyond the appetizers. On another visit, our main courses comprised a sort of northern-climes medley: a lobster roll that will remind anyone who’s spent time there of the simple, refreshing, ubiquitous Northern-New England concoction of juicy crustacean salad lumped generously into a buttered potato bun; plus a heaping bowlful of Prince Edward Island mussels tossed in a sauce of beer and fennel, then loaded up with hand-cut fries and savory chorizo and drizzled with a subtle, creamy saffron aioli; and the traditional Quebecois poutine, for which The Hamilton doubles the pleasure (and the cholesterol count) of the fries, short-rib gravy and cheese curd by adding — wait for it — a top layer of flat-iron steak. Like the previous meal, it was impossible to pick a winner here, among a slate of contestants both haute and nawt, but then again it’s not really a competition. 

Should you decide to cap the night off with one of The Hamilton’s specialty cocktails, a word of warning: Approach with caution. The mixologists here occasionally dole out with a heavy hand — or at least such was the case with the Loaded Martini. Coupling potato vodka with chive oil, a bacon “baton” and actual fresh chives, the cocktail smells and tastes like an honest-to-God baked potato — a touch of whimsy belying a tipple that, as the name suggests, will get you loaded.

A bit on the lighter side, plus fruitier and more refreshing, is the Green Thumb. Blending Corsair gin with lime juice and slices of fresh cucumber, it’s perhaps the perfect way to warm the veins before heading back out into the cold — or then again, maybe not. After all, with this kind of fine fare on offer at all hours, seven days a week, do you really ever need to leave?