Restaurant to the Rescue

Dining Scene Revitalizes Columbia Pike.

Dining Scene Revitalizes Columbia Pike.

By Stefanie Gans / Photos by Kate Bohler

A Prohibition-themed mural; an exquisite shrimp tapa.
A Prohibition-themed mural; an exquisite shrimp tapa.

Sam Adkins lived right next to the cut in the Capitol Hill section of Washington, D.C. “The cut being the bad part of town,” the chef clarifies. But late last year Adkins moved two blocks away from William Jeffery’s Tavern, where he now runs the kitchen on Columbia Pike.

After working in fine dining across the region (Cashion’s Eat Place and New Heights in the District, and Jackie’s in Silver Spring, Md.), Adkins bounced around kitchens for a year before learning about this opportunity from a fellow chef, from whom he rented an apartment.

The move from the city to the suburbs haunted Adkins at first. “It was tough,” he admits. “There’s just like this thing; It’s Virginia, you can’t do it.” Now—with William Jeffrey’s first insane few months over—Adkins embraces his new neighborhood of South Arlington, and he’s not alone.

All the hungry diners ... put an egg on it.
All the hungry diners ... put an egg on it.

The second iteration of Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper will open on Columbia Pike, and by the end of April, Del Ray favorite Taqueria Poblano will debut its third restaurant across from William Jeffrey’s.

“When we saw the Columbia Pike location,” says Taqueria Poblano owner Lindsay Michel, “we thought it would just be great because it’s a neighborhood that’s exciting, and it’s trying to become more of a community.”

Chris Lefbomb, Adam Lubar and Wilson Whitney, (also owners of Dogwood Tavern, Rhodeside Grill and Ragtime), thought about the location in the same way. In deciding to open William Jeffrey’s, they chose Columbia Pike because, as Lefbomb predicts, “It’s going to be a lot bigger, a lot trendier.”

With its new destination label, the team built its biggest and most ambitious restaurant on the pike.

“This is our first time working with a chef,” Lefbomb admits. It’s hard to understand a restaurant operating without a trained culinary talent; instead the owners implemented a system of kitchen managers lacking creative control of the menu. “We heard stories on what can happen,” Lefbomb says of chef-driven concepts, but quickly adds that their choice of Adkins has been positive.

Lefbomb, Lubar and Whitney insisted on a few bar classics, such as burgers (order it topped with pimento cheese and egg), nachos and a buffalo chicken wrap to ground the menu, but let Adkins bring his fine dining flair to a stunning Spanish tapa.

Browned garlic and chile de arbol flavor an addictive sauce, left chunky with broiled tomatoes and a ton of parsley. Tail-on shrimp float atop, but leave their essence behind in a brandy-spiked oil perfect for a bread-dunking session. Another starter from the sea, fried calamari, bests the average bar snack with a light breading and tender texture juxtaposed to a kicky and creamy aioli.

Lamb shoulder—studded with garlic and rubbed with oregano—slow roasts on a bed of onions for a tender filling playing against crusty ciabatta. As the high-ponytailed waitress promised, the roasted shallot dressing played nicely with the accompanying side salad, but also worked overtime as the sandwich’s spread.

A light touch of breading on calamari
A light touch of breading on calamari

The waitress also sported black chunky glasses—a signal of urban décor shifting down 395. The large restaurant also takes a few cues from the city: dropped lighting, with wire cages holding a slim, dim bulb, over communal tables. The bar displays its inventory of on-trend cocktail ingredients: fresh herbs, bizarre bitters.

But what city dining lacks in space (Room 11, Little Serow), this restaurant—designed to order—fits in roomy booths, a stage for live performances (pending permit) and a large back dining room.

All three together, William Jeffrey’s, Eamonn’s and Taqueria Poblano, constitute more movement than the pike has seen in decades. “For 30 years we have seen practically no new development,” says Takis Karantonis, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. He blames the lack of public transportation. “What didn’t happen?” he asks in response to the lame-duck living of Columbia Pike. “Metro didn’t happen.”

A garlicky lamb sandwich
A garlicky lamb sandwich

Instead, stations graced North Arlington, allowing for Ballston and Clarendon to shine with an enviable dining scene (Lyon Hall, Tallula) and city-sized cost-of-living. But for Columbia Pike, Karantonis says, “The consequence of that was stagnant economic development, or relative disinvestment.”

In 2000, zoning standards moved to a form-based code that supports mixed-retail, helping swing the area into a more urban enclave. Changes brought construction projects, one of which is Siena Park. The luxury building now houses apartments, XSport Fitness and William Jeffery’s.

Opened just this past December, William Jeffery’s is still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Adkins plans on, rightly, removing a lackluster breaded flounder and a half-assed “harvest vegetable plate.” Picking five sides does not an entrée make. Especially for $18. Instead, Adkins will introduce an Asian-inspired stir-fry of carrots, cabbage, soybeans and shiitake mushrooms with a quinoa-sushi rice cake.

With additional restaurants not joining William Jeffrey’s until later this spring, the tavern can take its time adjusting the menu. South Arlington is still a few-dozen restaurants away from the density of the Metro-enhanced North Arlington neighborhoods. And that’s fine with Adkins.

“Verse North Arlington,” jokes the chef, “I like it a lot more. North Arlington has so many shops and stuff, and I feel like I’m in a mall.”

Adkins though, already feels the movement. “Even in the past four months I’ve been here, I’ve noticed people are out on the streets more. I think there are a lot more people here who are willing to start a quote, unquote, scene, like a community.”

The former city boy’s voice rises. “I’m getting a South Arlington T-shirt,” says Adkins. “I’m just like, f#&% it. I’m happy where I am.”

 

William Jeffrey’s Tavern

2301 Columbia Pike, Suite 101, Arlington; 703-746-6333; williamjeffreystavern.com

Hours: Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$)

 

(April 2012)

 

 

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