Where Neighbors Meet
[from May 2006 issue]

Despite its very serious name, Town Hall restaurant is anything but businesslike and somber. Instead, Town Hall -- replacing Saveur on Wisconsin -- looks vaguely like Boston's Cheers and has an atmosphere of neighborliness to match. You get the feeling that folks who live nearby use this place as their nightly watering hole.

As it turns out, a quick Google search turns up other Town Hall restaurants, and perhaps this brand is the new guy in town -- and one to reckon with. Dark-paneled, with comfy booths, overhead TVs, and a long, dark wood and well-stocked bar beckon patrons, which recently included several business suits, a couple of lunching ladies, and a few casual sporty types.

Management has crafted a menu to suit this mix-and-match crowd: For starters at lunch, you can go big and wild with spicy jerk chicken wings, two duck confit enchiladas with green chile cream, and what turns out to be two whole quesadillas filled with melted manchego cheese and slices of spicy andouille sausage -- a drizzle of chile cream adds a final touch. That's a lot of grub, and amazingly, the quesadillas -- a most sensible choice for lunch, skip the appetizers -- cost a mere $8, a bargain at that.

But the quesadillas were an afterthought, ordered after a circumspect entrée salad -- why not count calories, even in a restaurant with such a well-designed menu? It was either a big salad, or maybe turkey potpie, not a bad idea if the weather is a bit chill. Or maybe the open-face seven-ounce rib eye, or for an over-the-top treat, the traditional Guinness braised shepherd's pie, a sturdy dish that would solve all the midday hunger complaints.

But the salad won out, and not a bad choice, after all. Of the five listed, this had the added advantage of getting its kick from Tex-Mex flavors: carne asada, black bean salsa, sliced avocado, and strips of tender and rare steak at the bottom of a mountain of greens. And, oh yes, you know it's all fresh: The corn kernels are still in strips, cut right off the cob and not broken into single niblets.

Calorie guilt prevented a dessert bask, more's the pity. But I will need to return for a portion of Executive Chef Paul Madrid's doozies: how about a chocolate and vanilla crème brûlé, or a tidy serving of the cinnamon apple empanadas. Or (sigh), a scoop of bread pudding whopped with Maker's Mark caramel. Such wickedness deserves some exploration, but not with guilt at the edge of consciousness.

As it turns out, the dinner menu, an expanded version of what's on tap for lunch, includes in addition to the sandwiches and salads, crab cakes on roasted corn cream with egg and spinach capellini or pan-roasted port chops with goat mac and cheese. I love that concept, though without any argument, I'd toss for the 13-ounce rib-eye steak with a Gorgonzola crust. Wow.

It's hard to say what would be more appealing -- the casual lunch with its heaped-up salad and quesadillas on the side, or the dinnertime rib-eye. Either way, management has a winning ticket here, and this makes a welcome addition to Wisconsin. Well, to Washington, actually.

Back to Google. Well, it looks as if Town Hall is an entity unto itself and no relation to the San Francisco place, or to anything else, for that matter. In a way, that's very good, because there's no corporate line to toe, and besides, don't we all want the entrepreneur to succeed? With this food, the place is a shoo-in.

Town Hall (2218 Wisc. Ave., NW; tel., 333-5640). Open: Lunch, Tue.-Fri.; dinner nightly; brunch weekends. Entreé price range: $14-$25.

Copyright (c) 2006 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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