Since its move to Capitol Hill in the fall of 2006, Johnny’s Half Shell has been performing an admirable balancing act, trying to maintain the sort of neighborhood appeal it enjoyed in Dupont Circle while catering to the Capitol Hill crowds. Stop in on a weeknight, and you’ll find as many as four private events (read: political fundraisers) going on in rooms tucked away from the wood-paneled dining room and the tile-and-marble appointed bar area. There may be plenty of people sitting and enjoying seafood with a New Orleans sensibility inside and out on the patio, but the real action is likely to be at the bar.
For us, a big part of Johnny’s appeal lies in their “Three Happy Hours.” From 4:30 to 7:30 every weeknight, patrons in the bar area can enjoy oysters on the half shell, clams and roughly a dozen soups, salads and appetizers from their regular dinner menu at significantly reduced prices. Paired with the “Strong Drinks” Johnny’s proudly boasts, you can easily make a meal of these smaller plates without breaking the bank.
Tips on the best of the bunch and a first look at Chef and co-owner Johnny Fulchino’s new Absinthe fountain after the jump.
If you’re a fan of oysters and you haven’t been to Johnny’s, you’re definitely missing out. Served with a vinegary mignonette, a lemon half wrapped in cheesecloth and a cocktail sauce with a bit of spice, oysters get the kind of attention you would expect from a place with “Half Shell” in the name. Though they usually feature varieties from a number of North Atlantic sources, we have yet to find one that surpasses the Raspberry Point oysters from Prince Edward Island. They’re meaty and delicious, with a liquor that offers a briny punch without tasting like straight-up seawater. And for those in the know, the Three Happy Hours are the best way to enjoy them. Like everything else on the bar menu, they are offered at a significant discount ($20 per dozen) from their normal price ($27).
For those who would prefer their seafood a bit more on the cooked side, Johnny’s Happy Hours menu offers plenty of great choices. The barbecued shrimp and asiago cheese grits combine salty and sweet in a classic Southern combination, and the shrimp are generally cooked just right – plump and tender instead of dry and tough. Their $6 price tag represents a savings of almost $4 off of their price on the regular dinner menu. The grilled squid, served with arugula and crispy shallots and squirted with a generous shot of lemon juice, is five dollars well spent. The smoky flavor of the squid is offset nicely by the accompaniments and the lemon juice really wakes the dish up nicely. The sliders (a mini-burger topped with tangy cheese and an Asian-inspired tuna sandwich topped with a rich, buttery spread and peppery watercress) are a Happy Hour-only treat. At $2.50 each, you owe it to yourself to try one of each. And you’re really not getting the full Johnny’s experience if you overlook their New Orleans File Gumbo ($6 at happy hour, $8.50 at dinner). Chunks of seafood, okra, rice and a delicious roux make us request extra bread for dipping every time we order it.
But enough about food. If you’re going to hang out at the bar, you’ll probably want a beverage or two, as well. Johnny’s has that side of the equation covered nicely, with $5 draft beers, $8 premium cocktails and $9 “‘Ritas, ‘Tinis and Cosmos.” Made strong but not painfully so, the cocktails go down smooth. On more than one occasion we’ve made a meal of a dozen oysters and a cocktail to wash them down.
And now Johnny Fulchino has added another reason to check out the bar – absinthe. The misunderstood Green Fairy has landed in seven different forms, with prices ranging from $8 to $20 a glass. And this is the real deal: Fulchino recently brought back an authentic absinthe fountain (basically a dispenser with four spigots for dripping water over sugar cubes into glasses of the licorice-flavored liquor) from New Orleans and has set it up in a corner of the bar so guests can experience the drink for themselves.
On a visit last night, I decided I had to give it a try. On the bartender’s recommendation, I sampled the “Saint George,” one of the $8 offerings. He poured the absinthe into an ornate glass decorated with shells and handed it to me so I could perform the dripping ritual myself. I walked the glass over to the fountain and gently twisted the knob to open the spigot. A steady drip, drip, drip of water over the sugar cube assured me that I was minutes (okay, SEVERAL minutes) away from the cloudy beverage and its supposed hallucinogenic properties. I’ll spare you the minute-by-minute (seriously – this is a time-intensive process) and skip ahead to the outcome…a beverage with a milky appearance that tasted strongly of black licorice and packed a bit of a punch. I didn’t experience any hallucinations, but I definitely enjoyed the process of making the drink and can see myself doing it again with friends.
Johnny’s Happy Hours remain a favorite of ours for a number of reasons, not the least of which is proximity (a short walk from Union Station). With such a wide variety of dishes available at a substantial savings, it’s worth the added noise and crowds to enjoy the special which is only available in the bar area.
Johnny’s Half Shell
400 North Capitol Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001