With the masses of dining options in Washington, it’s tough to decide on just one spot as your go-to establishment. If you live downtown, it’s even more difficult to find your place, as most of the restaurants are crowded and it’s difficult to develop a rapport with the staff, much less get a table.
Duke’s Grocery, which opened a few months ago on 17th Street, is rapidly becoming the neighborhood spot for twenty-somethings who live downtown.
I went to brunch at Duke’s with my close friend Christina, who truly has made it her neighborhood spot. She lives across the street and frequents the restaurant for brunch, happy hour, and dinner. She has also been known to cozy up in one of its Victorian style armchairs with coffee when she works from home.
Duke’s is built into a narrow, Victorian row house, and its décor and ambiance make you want to stay awhile. At brunch, the restaurant was busy yet not overwhelming. There was a friendly, convivial ambiance with servers and young professionals buzzing about. It seemed that several of the guests and servers were previously acquainted —Duke’s isn’t just Christina’s neighborhood spot, so it’s a good thing she knows how to share.
Downstairs, the space is a sparse and industrial—but in a good way. On the white-washed brick walls, chalkboards list the menu of the day by the doorway and the wine and beer selections above the bar. Edison light bulbs hang low from the ceiling, appearing almost haphazardly hung. The stools surrounding the square bar are metal, and French presses and bags of coffee adorn the wooden shelves in behind it.
The first level strikes me as a vintage garage turned coffee shop and bar, whereas the second floor is like a living room converted to a restaurant. There are mismatched armchairs strewn across the space, and framed, vintage photos hang on the walls. The space was designed by Robert Ransom, a local developer who just landed a reality tv show.
Despite how highly I think of my friends, I rarely trust their recommendations in full. Christina is one whose taste I trust implicitly. She was excited to bring me to brunch at Duke’s spot and, thus, I was excited to join her.
There was quite the wait when we arrived, and it was difficult to locate a hostess. When we did find her, she was utterly clueless. After being told there was a wait, we made our way to the corner of the bar, sharing one stool between us on which to pile our coats and handbags. My Mulberry tote is so jam-packed with cameras, wallets, phones, lipstick, and other whatnots that it’s incredibly heavy, and thus I need to set it down lest I get a backache. Grateful for the respite in the corner, we ordered drinks. I selected a mimosa, which was light and lovely but unmemorable, and Christina ordered a Bloody Mary, which was great. We were chatting away happily, out of the way of foot traffic, when the hostess asked us to move in order to seat a lone diner at our stool.
Christina and I raised our eyebrows at one another in unison, in mutual disdain at the rudeness of this request. From a business perspective, I’m sure some feel this is warranted if we weren’t spending money on drinks, but we were. (I, however, do not). From a hospitality and service perspective, I’m a guest at your restaurant, and about to spend money dining. I do not appreciate being shoved about.
Finally, we were seated upstairs, in Christina’s favorite cozy, cloth armchairs next to the window. Then, it took upwards of an eternity to receive waters or menus. We were both hungover, hungry, and thirsty, and thus in no mood to wait for water or sustenance for upwards of 20 minutes. I’m truly stunned by how poor the service was, as one of the owners is friendly with Christina– based on her frequenting the restaurant–and also recognized me as a Bitch Who Brunches. You have a regular and a food reviewer in your restaurant, for the love of all things holy, bring them some water. Or, how about, you have thirsty people in your restaurant, for the love of God, bring them some water.
As for the food, the menu at Duke’s changes daily, which I would imagine means they go through quite a bit of paper—and chalk. It’s fresh and local, whenever possible, and inspired by London pub fare.
Christina and I both ordered egg dishes. For her, the avocado tartine, with multigrain bread, radishes, cress, chili and runny eggs. For me, the ouefs norweigenne: soft scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, chives, toast, roasted tomatoes, and rocket.
Let’s talk about the eggs, which were runny. My picky boyfriend had previously brunched at Duke’s Grocery and vocally expressed his disdain at the establishment’s runny eggs. On our visit, both Christina and my egg dishes were on the less-than-solid side. However, the menu explicitly describes the dishes on the ouefs norweigienne as “soft scrambled” and on the avocado tartine as “runny egg.” Not willing to give up there, I took a poll of all of my British friends– of whom I have four– and they all said that the British take their eggs “slightly more moist or runny” than Americans. While this isn’t a Pew poll, I’m going to go ahead and say the style of eggs is deliberate.
More importantly, we both enjoyed our meals and devoured them entirely. The bread in both dishes was moist, hearty, and satisfying. The salmon was incredibly fresh, as was the rocket salad, and the roasted tomatoes were a nice, flavorful touch.
It’s worth mentioning, of course, that our resident regular, Christina, has loved all her meals at Duke’s, and gives the food an A.
As a side dish, I ordered the potato chive boxty, a latke made with extra virgin olive oil, fleur de sel, potatoes, and chives. The latkes, though they weren’t called latkes, were also quite moist. Though the center of the outside was crispy, the vast majority of the potato cakes were moist bordering on mushy.
The Bitches say: B. We love the ambiance at Duke’s, and the food was pretty good. The runny eggs are a draw, so it’s the service that drops the grade.
1513 17th St. N.W.
Duke’s serves brunch Saturday and Sunday.