I was initially skeptical about Againn (1099 New York Avenue, NW), a new Irish “gastro-pub” just a few blocks west of Mount Vernon Square. The label left me perplexed: was it a dive bar with good food? Or just a restaurant serving Irish cuisine? Againn purports itself to be a “contemporary British Isles bistro,” but what does that mean? I figured these two terms – gastronomy and a public house – were incompatible. Eventually my skepticism and perplexity turned to curiosity, which led me to Againn’s door to meet a friend on a frigid and windy Thursday night. I wanted to discover firsthand what it meant to be a gastro-pub.
To me, a pub conveys imagines of a dim, ramshackle, broken-in bar, where one might take a pint or two of Guinness (or Harp or Smithwicks, if lucky); maybe something similar to Kelly’s Irish Times or Pat Troy’s Pub in Old Town Alexandria. Yet the medium sized bar at Againn is open and lit more like a lounge. An oyster bar near the front door provides transition to the restaurant, which flows easily – no dim lights, ripped booths, or torn and trampled carpet.
The bar offers traditional pub brews on tap, as well as an interesting mix of American craft brews, Belgian and German specials, and even a number of barley wines. But I am a sucker for Boddingtons on draft, by no means exotic. Although it has an impressive beer list, Againn is clearly a house of scotch, with one full half its bar dedicated to both single malts and blends. But don’t be fooled, bartenders here don’t just pull taps and pour drams; cocktails are crafted with such care and specificity as to necessitate an eyedropper.
As my second beer settled, I still considered: what gave the restaurant its gastro-pub distinction? Perhaps dinner would bring clarity. I chose the Guinness soaked pretzels, simple pub fare. Further consultation of their pub grub and dinner menus presented a bevy of seafood and traditional Irish staples described with words such as organic, free range, house made, and grass fed. Is a gastro-pub then simply an ordinary pub serving sustainable and eco-friendly food? Or should Againn’s extensive single malt scotch selection – never mind the for-rent scotch lockers lining the wall of an adjacent private room – influence my search for definition?
No doubt substantial effort was put into each menu – food, beer, and whisky. And each is able to qualitatively stand alone. Might a gastro-pub therefore imply a higher quality pub, both in terms of food and atmosphere? Perhaps my friend, who joined me in the midst of a cold, put it best: “Maybe Againn is like Dubliner’s rich older brother. Sleeker, smarter, and a bit more refined.” A fine distinction in my opinion.
THF is a Penn Quarter resident who blogs about the culture of drinking at thehipflask.wordpress.com.