By Jeff Dufour - 11/03/05 12:00 AM EST
At Teatro Goldoni, one of the top Italian kitchens in the city, patrons sometimes line up at 11:30 a.m. to make sure they get a spot at the bar. Why? Because here during lunch hours, Chef Fabrizio Aielli offers one of the best deals in the city.
For bar diners only, he prepares eight different entrees — think pork scaloppini with mushroom sauce or grilled salmon with cherry tomato and arugula salad — for $12.50 each, including a glass of house wine.
At dinner, the fixed price disappears, but you can still get a rigatoni Bolognese for $16.50, baked cannelloni for $14.50 or pizza for $12.50.
It’s a far cry from the regular menu, where entrees typically run $25-$35.
Aielli’s successful gambit is only one example of a new trend among the city’s top chefs: providing delicious, dedicated menus for their bar or lounge areas that still come prepared with the same level of skill and innovation for which patrons pay twice as much in the dining room.
After all, dining at the city’s ever-more-numerous three- and four-star restaurants isn’t just a question of taste. It’s also about status and means. The aspiring D.C. gourmet, no matter how sophisticated her palette, must often weigh $16 appetizers and $90 tasting menus against government salaries and inflexible budgets.
While often smaller and simpler than the main menus, items on area bar menus typically demonstrate a good bit of flair.
Take the “brasserie” bar menu at the acclaimed Marcel’s in the West End. Here, Chef Robert Wiedmaier goes back to his Belgian roots with “Flemish-style cooking.”
“There’s more show in the dining room,” he says. The bar, on the other hand, features more “rustic, approachable” items that hover around $10 — steamed mussels with Belgian fries, pistachio crusted duck p�t� or cured Kodiak salmon, to name a few.
Personal taste also influenced Chef Cathal Armstrong’s bar menu at Restaurant Eve, arguably Alexandria’s top dining room.
“I like to go for a late lunch in the afternoon,” he said. “Afternoon pick food — these are the kinds of things we put on the menu.”
He said he drew up the menu with a nod to Spanish tapas. Patrons in the cozy, inviting lounge can sample Hawaiian blue prawns with Serrano aioli, olive-oil-poached tuna, homemade sausage or a grilled ham and cheese with gourmet mustard.
At such Hill-friendly haunts as Charlie Palmer Steak and Signatures, the kitchen often needs to be all things to all people, catering at once to expense-account lobbyists and happy-hour-bound staffers alike.
At Charlie Palmer’s, a $62 Wagyu sirloin is still available, but so are miniburgers ($8), lobster corn dogs ($9) and steak tartare ($10).
“With our proximity to Capitol Hill, we found that groups of lobbyists, staffers, et cetera liked to come down for cocktails and light fare,” said Chef Bryan Voltaggio. “Most of our clientele are in business attire, so we offer easy-to-eat items like chicken wings that are frenched, a way of cutting the meat with a knife before it is served that allows the meat to easily pull away from the bone and is not as messy to eat as a typical chicken wing.”
The bar menu at Signatures, particularly the Tuesday-night sushi specials, should come in an orientation packet for new Hill staffers. And with good reason. Chef Morou, who just bested two other local chefs to represent D.C. on “Iron Chef America” next year, takes his “Nosh” menu quite seriously.
Among the 20 items, none tops $12.95. And you can get some high-flyin’ grub, too, such as Kobe beef pot stickers and a Kobe steak and cheese (both $8.95). On Friday evenings, most nosh items drop down to $4.
On some nights, the bar at the underappreciated Palena in Cleveland Park seems to double the restaurant’s clientele. Known by most patrons as the $10 bar menu (although some items are a bit more), White House kitchen alumnus Frank Ruta preps budget-friendly fare for those patient enough to brave the deep crowds waiting for that next coveted barstool to open.
Among the stellar deals here are a cheeseburger with truffle-studded cheese, roasted organic chicken and a tapas-sized portion of seasonal fish.
Another bonus: while Palena’s dining room is pre fixe only, ranging from $52-$66, items from the dinner menu may be ordered � la carte, allowing more flexibility and less of a hit on the wallet.
The same benefit applies at other establishments as well, chief among them Equinox downtown and Citronelle in Georgetown.
At Citronelle, Michel Richard’s bar menu doesn’t come cheap, but the $15-$20 that its items set you back doesn’t approach his $85 or $150 tasting menus. The crowd-pleasing lobster burger looks to be a thing of the past, but the $18 tuna burger — an original creation of Richard’s that’s found its way onto several local menus — remains.
Other standouts are the mushroom cigars with ginger sauce ($12), the goat-cheese Caesar salad ($14) and, for those who wanted to sit in the dining room, the chateaubriand with chanterelles and syrah sauce ($35).
Speaking of storied Washington chefs, Roberto Donna keeps reinventing his 20-year-old Galileo by adding new restaurants — well, dining concepts, actually — under one roof.
First, he launched the Laboratorio, a high-end chef’s kitchen geared toward chef’s tastings and cooking classes. Then, last summer, he unveiled the Osteria del Galileo, a small collection of tables in the bar area. Its dinner-only menu is a full collection of appetizers, pastas, main courses and desserts, none of which tops $12.
Recent items have included preserved fresh anchovies with lemon and olive oil, pappardelle with venison ragu, braised Moulard duck legs with red-wine cherry sauce and slow-cooked beef short ribs.
“The main dining room caters to business travelers; he wanted something for the neighborhood,” a restaurant spokeswoman said.
He doesn’t stop there. A separate bar menu at lunch presents sandwiches, pizza and pasta for $8-$10. And finally, inspired by a cooking class he taught on grilling, Donna began last spring to grill meats for sandwiches on the outdoor patio during lunch. The $5-$6 sandwiches often inspired lines that ran around the corner nearly every day when the weather was anywhere close to temperate.