Review: The Brickskeller, Washington DC

I’m generally an easy going sort of diner, and never really understood the motivations of complaining restaurant reviewers who don’t have anything positive to say about the places they ate, but would rather nit-pick at the tiniest flaws they can find. Half of me wants to say “…Until Now,” but the other half is holding on to the notion that this post isn’t going to be a typical annoying restaurant review.

The Brickskeller (“Brick Cellar”) is an old beer bar in Washington DC. They’re proud of having been in business since October 7, 1957: long before there were any major national beer festivals, before home brewing was made legal, and before Michael Jackson (no, not that one) had his first sip of beer.

Well, I wasn’t born until 1971, and didn’t make it to the Brickskeller until 37 years later. While I appreciate everything The Brickskeller may have done to promote the cause of good beer in America over the years, they’re no longer the only game in town(s). Unfortunately, being the first is not the same as being the best, and I don’t think the Brickskeller is the best anymore. That said, they do have a great selection of beer, and it’s definitely worth going if you want to try something you’ve never had before.

The Brickskeller has decades more character than the beer bars I’m used to going to in Pittsburgh, in both the good and the bad sense. The overall feeling was, as you might expect, of a brick cellar. It seemed to have several smaller separate rooms. Apparently there is also an upstairs, where the taps are: it wasn’t open until 7:30pm, so we were limited to their large selection of bottles.

They have a large collection of beer cans on display, from the days when even good beer came in cans. Some of them looked like old oil cans: metal quarts with a screw-off cap. There was a nice model sailing ship behind glass next to our table.

Unfortunately the chairs and tippy tables also looked like they were circa 1957, but hadn’t been reupholstered frequently enough. A speaker from some remote juke box over our table was too loud for conversation, but only played music sporadically. The menus were flimsy photocopied paper, but far messier and more worn out than their disposable nature should suggest. There were many pages dedicated to their list of beer in bottles, but the list was not updated recently. Several more pages were dedicated to the history of the bar and their importance in the American beer scene. My overall impression was of a place heavy on character but light on charm.

Their beer list was impressive, numbering around a thousand different bottles. I limited my time to the Belgian selections, because they had several choices I haven’t found in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, it took me four tries before I found a beer on the list they actually had: Caracole’s Saxo. I enjoyed it, I’d get it again. Marla wasn’t driving either, so she had a Kasteel Rouge. For my second beer, I gave him a first and second choice of two more Belgians I hadn’t had before, and ended up with my second choice: Floreffe Triple. This one was also good, with a curiously different sweetness. The beer was slightly but not exceedingly more expensive than bottles in my normal haunts in Pittsburgh, which wasn’t entirely unexpected.

The menu was mostly very basic bar food. It wasn’t very expensive, but our meals also weren’t spectacular. The pizza was quite bad, actually. My sandwich and the fries were fine, and the cheese board and bread were very good.

Part of my problem might be my high expectations. Pittsburgh is a only small city: bigger cities like DC and Chicago must have better places than we do, right? I expected the Brickskeller to be better than Sharp Edge’s selection of taps, food and decor, and better than D’s selection of bottles. Unfortunately I was wrong. The beer selection was comparable to D’s, but you weren’t allowed to go pick up your own bottle. The food was worse than D’s, the decor was worse than Sharp Edge, and I never even got to see a tap list.

I’m sure I sound nit-picky and unhappy with my experience, but I’m glad I went, and I’d consider going back again (for the beer, but not for the food). I think I would’ve liked it better with more beer and fewer kids. But the biggest reason I enjoyed it was to remind me of what I have back home. I’m glad I enjoy my regular haunts better than a place I can’t go very often, and I’m glad I no longer have to wonder whether that’s the case or not.