By Mike Laws - 10/03/12 10:10 PM EDT
You know, it’s weird: The swath of Mass. Ave. bounded by Route 1 and 395 really should be hopping — it’s arguably the part of midtown D.C. that feels the most urban, what with the close-pressed high-rises and gargantuan corporate headquarters and such. But try proposing a night out to Sixth Engine, and you’d better be ready to field some befuddling questions. For example:
“Uh-huh, and where is that, exactly?”
To which, stumped, you might reply: “It’s down, uh, well … hmmm.”
Or, worse: “You know, right by the highway!”
It is, to be sure, a thorny issue: Not really Mt. Vernon Square, not really NoMa, next to but not a bona fide part of Chinatown, Sixth Engine’s locus can seem like a sort of soulless urban Bermuda Triangle — a place you only ever go to in order to get away from, by hopping onto the interstate.
But it’s the aim of the restaurant, only about eight months into its young life, to change all that. And given the preponderance of thirsty white-collared 20-somethings in the immediate vicinity, it looks a safe bet to become a neighborhood favorite — or, perhaps more to the point, to carry the banner for a neighborhood only just now forming.
To wit, the place seemed to be all the rage on a recent Friday — at around 8, by now sufficiently lubricated, a throng of business-attired revelers packed the outdoor patio area to the point you practically needed shoulder pads to get to the Sixth Engine front door.
Thankfully, the scene inside was a little more subdued — still thrumming with an urban busyness, but easier to maneuver through: While no means a big space, Sixth Engine’s pulled off a tidy trick in managing not to feel crowded even when it is, in fact, packed. It’s also pleasantly dark, all rich-brown walls and spare lighting, with the big “6”-inscribed insignia behind the bar a gentle reminder that toney as it’s become, this was once a firehouse.
Which is a fact Sixth Engine bears out in its food, where a workingman’s ethos is shown to underpin the restaurant’s well-appointed sheen. The place — the brainchild of the fine folks behind Capitol Hill’s Dubliner Irish Pub and Glover Park’s Town Hall — will do things like serve up a heaping plate of mussels atop a nest of, it turns out, potato noodles bathed in piquant gochujang, a Korean red chili sauce. But for the most part the menu hews closer to these shores, weaving its curveballs into a mix of the more familiar.
Like, to take another example, the roast chicken: a simple-enough-sounding item, until you read the fine print and discover it’s served alongside “dirty foie gras rice, sautéed spinach and truffle sauce.” (Oh and by the way: It was, predictably, really good.)
And other items held up their end of the whole American-with-just-a-slight-twist bargain. The “pork roll” — said on the menu, tantalizingly, to consist of “belly, tenderloin, cauliflower slaw, baked beans and blueberry barbecue” — exceeded whatever expectations its ambiguous name pointed up (we thought we might get sushi or something), arriving at the table in a portion fit for a lumberjack, the tenderloin ensconced within the surrounding portion of belly. Even the slaw — not normally a favorite — hit the mark, cutting the protein’s savory heft with just the right amount of watery sweetness.
Top marks, too, to the burger — a mammoth house-ground patty served with your standard-fare lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle, then slathered with mayo, mustard and melted cheddar, all of it housed in what Sixth Engine’s calling a brioche roll, but which reminded us, pleasantly, of a McDonald’s burger bun. If the nod to the golden arches is intentional — and we think it must be — it’s a perfect encapsulation of the elevating of tried-and-true Americana taking place within these walls.
And of course, if you’re only in the mood to drink and chat and maybe take in the ballgame (Sixth Engine has two TVs: one for the Orioles and one for the Nats — a nice touch), this is the best place in the neighborhood to do it — which is good, because it also might be the only place in the neighborhood. Either way, Sixth Engine slings a mean signature cocktail without skimping on the booze, doubtless appreciated by the fast-growing crowd of regulars, many of them residents of the Mass. Ave. apartment complexes in whose shadow Sixth Engine sits. Of particular note here is the Hemingway Rickey, a screwball twist on the D.C. classic that employs rum rather than the usual bourbon or gin and incorporates grapefruit juice.
And what a fitting name, at the end of the day. Tweaking American classics without crushing their very essence under the weight of unnecessary embellishment — that’s something we’ll bet ol’ Ernest could’ve gotten behind, and something that ought to ensure Sixth Engine remains a fixture for a good long while in its ripening neighborhood.
438 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Hours: Sunday – Dinner, Wednesday, 5 p.m. to midnight and Thursday – Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Brunch, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers range from $8.50 to $15, entrees range from $11 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Pork roll or roast chicken, Hemingway Rickey.