The Bread Line
[from January 1999 issue]

For people who like to eat on the run, and that may include half of Washington, downtown's soup/salad and sandwich place, The Bread Line, fills a gastronomic void. Not, of course, that there aren't loads or sandwich shops around. Surely none, however, can compete with the creativity and flair put into each of this restaurant's offerings.

For less than $10, customers can pick up a hearty--and unusual--pre-made sandwich and dash along. Spending maybe five minutes longer, they can order one of the restaurant's more inventive sandwiches or pizza-like creations before heading out. And with even more time to spend, they can eat in relative comfort at one of the tables (outdoors also in good weather)--provided, of course, anyone can find a free table at lunchtime. The Bread Line apparently is always jammed.

Lunchtime last week was no different, even though holiday travels must have cut into business. But a newcomer would never have known that, for every table was taken, and the line for placing orders was about 12 people long. You can cut through all that by picking up a take-out sandwich and paying at a separate station. But then you'd miss the fun of picking this or choosing that.

What makes this place so special is its breads, made fresh daily--and available for sale as loaves, too--and the spectacular-looking salads that are served up in enormous portions. Soups, too, smell and look inviting (and also come in small and larger-sized containers). But the breads are what make matters count here.

As with many good places, you learn about them by word of mouth, and this time my sister takes the credit. Often enough she has spoken about taking out the grilled vegetable sandwich--with peppers, eggplant, and an olive spread--that makes a robust midday meal. "I love it," she keeps saying. "It's more than a meal." And, she reports, The Bread Line does a booming breakfast business. More than once she has stopped by for their toasted English muffin on the way to her nearby office. Yes, The Bread Line opens early, 7 a.m. during the week (closed weekends), and you may want to check out what else is on tap at that early hour.

Luncheon fare--or at least, cheese-, meat-, and/or vegetable-filled or layered breads--is really what this place is about. Check the board behind the counter; you may have to push your way up to read it. Choices include: grilled sandwiches; stuffed sandwiches; topped breads and pizza; tartines; specialty sandwiches; and standard sandwiches (egg salad, tuna salad, grilled vegetables). You can also pair a soup and a sandwich; select a salad (one choice looked like a hearty bean and pasta bowl), or just settle for a cup or bowl of soup. That day: Peanut soup was simmering in the kettle.

But for all that, I would not order again their empanadas, meat-filled turnovers that are popular Latino snacks. Since anything Mexican has a certain appeal to me, these seemed like the obvious choice; too small and overly heated (probably in a microwave), these really only whet one's appetite, not satisfy it. In their favor, the seasonings were true to taste.

Better choice? The tartine of fried cheese and greens, or Mediterranean with grilled zucchini, or perhaps best of all, the potato-and-pancetta combination. Too, a bowl of salad would have been sustaining, but in the end, it was easy to justify snacking on two of their Oreo-like dessert sandwiches: moist and crumbly chocolate wafers encasing a sweetened mascarpone cheese filling. At $1.25 each, these can help pay to put dieting on hold for a few hours. Other desserts, such as the bread pudding, looked equally as tempting.

Ask for a takeout menu--these apparently are in stock, though not something I found. With a menu in hand, you can mull over your choice in peace ahead of time, then simply step up and order. Despite the crowds, however, the line moves fast, and since this is help-yourself service, you get your own drinks from the refrigerator case. Find a table, if you can, and enjoy the photos of other bread bakers, other bread ovens, other breads, from other points in history. These make for good viewing. And read through the restaurant's own newsletter--the holiday issue reviewed cookbooks and listed the specialty holiday breads, dishes, and desserts available.

The Bread Line, 1751 Pa. Ave., NW. 822-8900. Hours: Mon.-Fri., 7am-6pm.

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