For a lot of reasons, I feel extra grateful this season. Part of it has to do with the scene I’m lucky to cover. When times are tough, with gloomy headlines and life trickier to navigate, restaurants can play the role of a cherished friend. For some of us, there’s nothing like leaving the cares of the day and stepping into the warm embrace of a favorite place to eat.
Recent weeks have found me eating in some promising newcomers but also looking back. Returning to a few veteran restaurants, I was thrilled to see one of them celebrate a decade in business, another offer food that looked like art, and a third give diners a taste of its formal self with a more accessible bar menu. Think of this little collection as an early holiday gift. Better yet, go forth and treat yourself. Self-care is just a restaurant away.
My strategy for getting into this Bloomingdale fixture without a reservation is hardly a secret. Just look at the line that forms in front of the Italian-inspired restaurant well before the doors open for dinner. Insiders know the prize spot is the central bar, and they race there, like Dash in “The Incredibles,” once their foot is in the door. Sitting a little taller on a stool gives occupants a better view of the cozy setting, including the honeyed lighting and wood-burning fire over which so much of the food is cooked.
Some green olives land, along with a flask of water. The welcome is immediate. Thoughtfully, the Red Hen lets you order a few dishes at a time. Braised octopus is creamy and crisp from a light char. Slices of raw tuna, artfully staged with tomatoes, plums and split mouse melons, also known as Mexican gherkins, shimmer like rubies. Dredge the fish in some of the red sauce fueled with anchovies and chiles, and enjoy the sting. The waiter only has to say “fritters made from head cheese,” and we jump at a special coaxed from bits of shredded pig parts and perched on a nest of shaved fennel. Herbs in the crisp fritter balance the funk of the offal.
Chef-owner Mike Friedman launched the place 10 years ago and credits consistency and quality for its long run. Sure enough, the pastas, approved by the Bidens and portioned as if we were in Italy, are as reliable as ever. Beef cheeks with pappardelle or squid ink linguine with calamari? Order both. The winey braised beef is sweet with caramelized onions and elevated with fresh oregano, while lemon juice and fresh ginger lift the dark pasta and tender seafood.
The menu is just three main courses long, and that’s fine by me, because one of the choices is pork chop Milanese heaped with a bitter radicchio salad and offered with mustard crema, a combination I’m drawn to like Elon Musk is to mistakes. No way can we skip dessert, not when our attendant tells us the fruit in the gelato was plucked from his own trees, and its leaves were caramelized before being steeped in milk. You’ll want the mysterious fig gelato.
Around us, I feel the eyes of dozens of anglers for our seat. Okay, I think to myself, we’re calling Lyft. Friedman thinks customers see the Red Hen as comfortable and familiar, like “a warm blanket,” he says. He’s onto something the competition should emulate.
1822 First St. NW, Washington. 202-525-3021. theredhendc.com. $24 to $38 for entrees.