Anyone who has ever dreamed of a career in the paint-color-naming industry might also consider working for restaurateur Chris Hyndman—it takes similar brands of creativity to make wall paint and restaurant concepts stand out among so many similar shades. And anyone who has the panache to describe yellow paint as "jonquil" or brown paint as "Rio Grande" must surely appreciate Hyndman's description of his new sports bar, Whiskey Kitchen, as "tavern chic."
While Hyndman might not have invented the expression, which is applied to a handful of contemporary restaurants across the country, his newest venture at the top of the Gulch has quickly become synonymous with the phrase locally. Indeed, the unlikely juxtaposition of "tavern" and "chic" expresses Whiskey Kitchen's successful blending of Old West and New South.
A study in contrasts, Whiskey Kitchen draws much of its appeal from unlikely pairings in food, appointments and vibe. In rehabbing the former Agave space—aka the former Pie Wagon—Hyndman & Co. created a clubby establishment that is simultaneously urban and rustic, blending into the surrounding landscape of brick-built industrial warehouses. Walls are clad in both sumptuous chocolate alligator leather and rough-hewn wooden planks. The dining room has both dark cozy corners and bright airy spaces. Sports and music videos are broadcast on sleek flat-screen TVs, while condiments arrive in miniature rustic whiskey crates. Among so many contradictions, perhaps the most glaring oxymoron at Whiskey Kitchen is really good bar food.
Culinary director Scott Alderson, an alumnus of the bygone Gulch pioneer restaurant 6º, oversees the food at Whiskey Kitchen. He will also shepherd the menus at neighboring ventures—Kayne Prime steak house and a relocated Virago—when they open in the next few months as part of Hyndman's M Street dining district.
At Whiskey Kitchen, Alderson brings his signature flair and attention to detail to an updated roster of hearty pub classics. Fish-and-chips, pizza and sliders are no strangers to a bar menu, but Alderson pairs these staples with unexpected accessories that elevate the repertoire far above standard sports bar fare.
The most memorable dish we encountered was fried green tomatoes. Piled in a wooden bowl, the low-key starter certainly didn't set out to impress with a lofty presentation. But after one forkful of firm tomato laced with sweet apple butter and creamy goat cheese and balanced with a chewy hunk of country ham and a tangy sprig of arugula, we knew we were in for a different sort of nosh.
Fish tacos made a strong play for favorite status, with three generous planks of snapper cloaked in puffy bronzed breading and served in soft grilled tortillas with pickled jalapeños and a citrus slaw. A side of pineapple ranch accompanied the plate, unifying the zesty and piquant elements with a cooling cream.
A close cousin of the fish tacos, the Dublin pub fish-and-chips delivered generous portions of sweet, flaky cod deep-fried in thick jackets of batter. The one shortcoming was the thin fries, which had been overcooked and were not nearly as satisfying as the side of candied yam fries with Jack Daniel's mustard dip, available on the late-night menu.
Another headliner was the platter of Southern sliders, served with a basket of five fresh biscuits and a meaty array of steak, grilled chicken, smoked ham and fried green tomatoes. A pretty trio of sauces—blackberry-peppercorn, peach-horseradish jam and honey-pecan goat cheese—gave this enormous carnivore's delight a surprising polish.
A small window in the back of the room offers a glimpse into the brick pizza oven, where thick hand-tossed crusts emerge laden with combinations such as barbecue chicken, apple butter and onions; spinach, artichokes, red peppers and basil; and pepperoni, goat cheese and spinach. The 12-inch pies range from $8 to $15 and were large enough to share among two or more diners.
On one visit, desserts failed to live up to entrées, but on a second trip, we cracked the code by ordering the homemade Oreo dessert. (Talk about culinary oxymorons.) Four chewy chocolate-cake cookies stuffed with thick icing and served with vanilla whipped cream and strawberries more than made up for an oddly disappointing sweet potato crème brûlée and a lackluster banana pudding. The playful confection prompted one of our tinier dining companions to ask, "Mommy, why are there no words on the cookies?"
And yes, you read correctly: I took children to the Whiskey Kitchen. Twice. This urban boozy haven, with a roster of 50 whiskeys, welcomed a booth full of preschoolers—both in the early evening and at a pre-game Sunday lunch. That's not to say every patron gearing up for the Titans game was thrilled to see my tiny team coming in the door, but the Whiskey Kitchen—from its attentive staff to its accessible and affordable menu—delivered a surprisingly family-friendly experience. With broad appeal for kids, sports fans, cocktailers and a lunch crowd, Whiskey Kitchen bodes well for the coming attractions on M Street.
Whiskey Kitchen serves lunch, dinner and a late-night menu daily.