<<EDIT, 12/8 @ 3:30 PM: On Friday, several sources reported that Chef Jamie Stachowski’s with Thirsty Bernie was not renewed when it expired on November 30th. Even more disturbing, Washingtonian’s Best Bites blog quotes Stachowski as saying that owner Steve Sadeghian is planning to focus on “convenience cooking” and will be buying much of his food pre-made.
Sounds like the things that made Thirsty Bernie stand out among sports bars is now gone, so please do not consider this review reflective of the current restaurant when deciding whether or not to visit.>>
Sports bar. Strip mall. Northern Virginia. Sounds awesome, right? Generally speaking, this is not a combination that screams “destination dining.” But if you haven’t heard by now, Thirsty Bernie is no run-of-the-mill sports bar. It’s a showcase for a chef who made a name for himself downtown and who now has carte blanche to indulge his creativity in an unlikely venue.
I never did make it to Restaurant Kolumbia, so I can’t wax rhapsodic about the way Chef Jamie Stachowski used to impress upscale diners with his charcuterie and his novel takes on classics. Having experienced Thirsty Bernie with my father recently, however, I can definitely see what everyone is talking about.
This is a place that takes meat, beer and sports seriously. And since there are very few places that simultaneously do all three well, it warrants a visit from even the most NoVAphobic Washingtonian.
So what the heck is a ‘weck? Find out after the jump.
It takes a certain constitution to seek out a place best known for its cured meats and sausages. I have it. My father has it. Elizabeth, however, does not. When I told her I was interested in checking out Thirsty Bernie, she encouraged me to do so without her. So I pitched it to my father, whose job regularly brings him to DC. He read a few reviews online and was sold.
Thirsty Bernie can be found in a strip mall at the intersection of Lee Highway (Route 29) and Glebe Road. Next door to a Rite Aid and across the street from an Exxon station, it doesn’t do a lot to advertise its presence. But once you park and walk up, you know you’ve found the right place. If the menu and specials boards beside the door don’t give it away, the large-screen plasma TV that faces into the parking lot definitely will.
We went on a Wednesday night and the place was packed (which may have had something to do with the fact that the final game of the World Series would be played later that night). Even so, we were able to secure a table in the far back corner of the dining area. The sightlines to half of the TVs were compromised, but we still had clear views of half a dozen or more. If your visit is about watching the game AND sampling the food, it doesn’t seem like there’s a bad seat in the house.
There’s a decent out of space inside, allowing Thirsty Bernie to seat more than 80 people without feeling cramped. A triangular communal table in the middle of the room was a unique touch, allowing three small groups of friends to gather around the angles instead of sitting across from each other or side by side. The copper-topped tables in the dining area had a slight shine in the dim light, a nice touch that helped elevate the overall tone of the experience beyond that of a typical sports bar.
We got our menus and were immediately impressed with the selection of beers – both on tap and in bottles. Like the food, their brews go beyond standard sports bar fare without overwhelming. My father ordered a Warsteiner, pleased to see more than one imported pilsner on the list. I opted for the dunkel, as if our meal wasn’t going to be heavy enough as it was. Once we had our beers in hand, we settled down to the task of figuring out just what to eat.
The menu is printed on two sides, but we only spent a moment lingering over some of the more composed entrees on the back (especially the housemade St. Moritz Bratwurst and the Wiener Schnitzel) before turning our attention back to the front. You see, the front of the menu is dedicated to appetizers and sandwiches – the kind of stuff you crave while watching a game. Meatball sliders, mussels, sausage, and full-scale burgers are well-represented, but the buzz around Stachowski’s menu is all about the cured meats. House-made charcuterie – like pickling and classic cocktails – is definitely a point of pride in many restaurants these days. Here you can find it on a butcher’s board appetizer, a classic corned beef sandwich, and on Buffalo’s second most famous contribution to bar cuisine: roast beef on a ‘weck.
Weck is short for kummelweck, a kaiser roll (Weckt) topped with generous sprinklings of caraway seeds (Kummel) and pretzel salt. Apparently they’re hard to come by outside of Buffalo, but you can find them at Thirsty Bernie and they make an amazing roast beef delivery system. The salt and the caraway add a real depth of flavor to their meaty single-note filling. The beef on ‘weck combo is then topped off with a generous helping of horseradish, adding sweet, pungent heat to the mix. It’s a mess, but a delicious mess.
Stachowski’s is served at a rosy pink medium-rare, apparently fresh-sliced and still dripping juices into the bun as it’s delivered to the table. It came with a ramekin of horseradish that I eagerly emptied onto the sandwich before taking the first bite. Simply put, this is roast beef as it’s meant to be enjoyed.
I paired it with onion rings, mainly because I had read that they suffered a bit in comparison to the fries. I can safely say that the rings were spot-on when we visited. They were crispy and hot, each ring independent of its fellows and with just a hint of saltiness in the batter. I have to admit, the fries were still superior (my father choose them to go with his pastrami), but the rings definitely held their own.
And that pastrami? Positive reviews across the board from Dad. The cured meat was salty without being dry. The swiss cheese was melted without being runny. Even the pumpernickel bread got a thumbs up. And the grainy mustard – which sold him on the sandwich in the first place – earned comparisons to some of his favorite dining experiences in Germany. I have to take his word for all of it…he was enjoying it so much that I didn’t even ask for a taste!
One hiccup: we ordered the meatball sliders as an appetizer, but they didn’t show up. Thankfully, our sandwiches came out pretty quickly, so we didn’t miss them. When a floor manager happened to ask how everything was going, we alerted him to the missing meatballs and he apologized profusely. He returned from the kitchen almost immediately, carrying a plate of sliders that had apparently been waiting for us and apologizing profusely (and removing them from our bill). The cheesy sauce had stiffened up a bit and came on strong, but the meatballs themselves were still delicious and tender. I may have to give them another try on a future visit, to see if the sauce is less overpowering when the dish comes out as scheduled.
Overall, we were definitely impressed by the quality of food, service and decor, all of which go at least a few steps beyond your average sports bar. I wouldn’t recommend Thirsty Bernie as an ideal third date spot (unless your date is a real sports fan), but I can’t think of too many places to get better bar food while enjoying a game with friends.
Thirsty Bernie (no website)
2163 North Glebe Road (corner of Glebe and Lee Highway)
Arlington, VA 22207
Open from 4 PM “until the game ends” Monday through Friday
Open for brunch beginning at 10 AM Saturdays and Sundays