If you’ve ever wanted to try District Commons but haven’t wanted to face the Colonials down in Foggy Bottom or open your wallet quite that far, here’s your chance. Penn Commons, a spinoff restaurant of the always-bustling District Commons (next to the perhaps better-known Burger, Tap & Shake that stands guard at the top of Foggy Bottom), is situated just blocks away from Verizon Center.
And you don’t want to wait too long. Everyone says that the first six months make or break a place in the restaurant industry, and while some prefer to wait and see if restaurants survive the incubation period, Penn Commons might not last that long. This cautionary note has nothing to do with the restaurant itself or my experience there, but rather with the fact that the doors, which first swung open Aug. 4, give way to an oversized dining room with an expansive, four-sided, over-stocked bar. And despite the dining room’s impressive size, only a handful of tables populated the space to usher in revenue from satisfied patrons.
While the emptiness left us hesitantly thumbing through the menu before ordering, any reservations that we had quickly vanished as its star appetizer — the hot pretzel baguette with beer mustard butter ($3) — arrived. It wasn’t one of those overcooked, slightly stale pretzels you can find at a sports arena or the mall, but a warm, crisp pretzel roll encasing an incredibly light center.
Everything continued uphill from there. We ordered an assortment of dishes: the pulled pork hand pies ($7), the big “o” rings ($7), the broccolini and pine nuts ($5) and Haight-Ashbury burger ($11). Each dish came with its own unique assortment of mustard-based sauces, eliminating any need for ketchup — although it is there if you want it. While many of the dishes, like the fries, burgers and onion rings, have fast food equivalents, Penn Commons places their dishes in a whole different class of culinary quality.
The big “o” rings, which definitely won for presentation, emerged as a tower of lightly breaded, thick-cut onion rings stacked as a single tower in the middle of the plate. Penn Commons also serves the good french fries, the ones where you can still taste the potato when you bite through the fries’ slightly crispy skin. And for those looking for a bit of a twist on the classic burger and fries meal, the Haight-Ashbury Burger is a crisp falafel burger served with pickled vegetables, melted feta cheese and topped with cilantro.
Be careful with how much you order, because the dessert menu really excelled. Regrettably, we didn’t save a lot of room to eat, but we couldn’t stop ourselves from ordering the oatmeal cookie pie — a homemade oatmeal crust stuffed with blueberry compote and served on a bed of lemon mousse, and the warm fudge cake, which was topped with melted passion fruit ice cream. The passion fruit offered just enough of a tang to balance out the rich chocolate of the cake.
Penn Commons has certainly accomplished that modern-tavern vibe that seems to be in fashion these days, and its success doesn’t end there. It’s got a fun menu with all the classic comfort foods — burgers, chowder, meatloaf, and shrimp and grits — and then a few classed-up dished for those in need of a finer dining experience — North Carolina mountain trout, blackened Atlantic salmon and pan-seared sea scallops. It’s great for a group who wants a variety of options, especially as the menu sports a number of vegetarian-friendly options, and it’s a convenient place to stop before or after a game at Verizon Center.
The emptiness did catch me off guard, but nonetheless with numerous wins on its record, the Passion Food Restaurant Group has as a good a chance as any of pulling through. With plenty of business at the bar, Penn Commons could be a home run if it can just get a few more tables through the door.