Image: Weathered but Renewing Birch & Barley
Last Updated: January 2023
Birch & Barley took a long hiatus during the pandemic, only reopening in late 2022. Its previous chef has moved on. With him went the more Mediterranean influenced menu, and now it is back to a hearty version of New American bordering on Old American. As before, beer is the sun around which this place revolves, sharing a huge list with ChurchKey upstairs, with dozens of choices on tap and many more in bottles on the “Reserve” list.
The new chef is Brian Stickel who previously worked in the Clyde’s group (1789, Hamilton, Clyde’s). The menu reflects that Americana background with anchors like lobster bisque (and lobster risotto), oysters with Tasso ham, steak frites, pork chop, and a burger. But there are also nods to New American influences. The salmon has a bacon and bread crust sprinkled on top but is served over lentils. Appetizers include octopus, brussels sprouts, and lamb carpaccio. The cod is served with tot soi and orange-miso butter. The staple of tuna tartare comes with thick crisp crackers and tonnato sauce, but the overwhelming taste is the fresh tuna. The dishes here seem to have just enough added to make them interesting but not so much that the main ingredient is lost. Even the dessert of chocolate lava cake is much more about the balance with the macerated fruit than rich molten chocolate versions of yore. The food may not surprise, but it might be a refreshingly better version than what you were expecting.
The balanced heartiness of the food works with the beers. It can withstand an IPA but also work with something lighter or sweeter. Don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations. With some 50 beers on tap, all but the nerdiest of the beer nerd will find something new to try – including maybe a whole new style of beer. It should also be noted that despite the focus on beer the spirits (especially whiskey) and wine lists are substantial and interesting.
The space got a bit of a spruce up, but largely looks the same as before with high ceilings, brown and blonde accents to a slightly-dimmed room. It still looks out through the big window onto 14th Street.
Other Guidance: It is neighborhood nice, no need to dress up but you can if you want. The heartiness of the menu makes it a bit tough for vegetarians – though there are few salads. GF can do better. The restaurant is located at street level, with a small step up at the door and a ramp to the bathrooms in the back.
Gift Cards (good for whole restaurant group).
Washington Post: Express preview in 2009. No recent reviews.
Eater: Discussing new menu in 2016.
Before Times Review:
Posted: May 2019
Birch & Barley recently overhauled its menu, from hearty New American to Mediterranean. It may be a good move in terms of going after what people want, but it is chasing a crowded field with Olivia, Zaytinya, Hazel, and others already doing their own versions. Of course, Birch & Barley has is an extra attraction: Beer. It shares the same huge selection of craft beers with ChurchKey located upstairs. While beer has always been the star here, the food has not always kept up over the years. Now a new menu gives reason to hope it is back on the upswing.
Several of the dishes tried on a recent visit were tasty, and none were duds. The rib-eye steak was very good with a sharp green chermoula sauce. The sea bass was swimming atop a bountiful bed of legumes and spring vegetables. The food is filling without being as heavy as it used to be. There are caveats to the thumbs up. Many plates had something that seemed just a little off that might be tweaked over time. The deviled eggs mixed multiple deep flavors (smoked yolk, crab, and uni), but I suspect that many will find such a strong umami element contrary to comfort-food expectations. The mushroom fricassee with bok choy and tahini was fine, but could use a little zing – some acid, herb, something to give it some pop. The charred sweet potatoes with the pistachio crust come with a smear of butter, but need something more to balance the dense starch of the wedges – the lemon yogurt tries, but is washed out. The menu is not short, with 10 or so small plates, 10 more medium plates and two-three large share plates. After some trial and error, it may be distilled to those that truly shine. You can also put yourself in their hands with a four-course tasting menus with beer pairings. There are three choices: one vegetarian, and one local & seasonal, one to match the beer’s hops ($45-55 plus $20 for beer). New chef Jarrad Silver, brought in to put the new menu in place, is pushing and there is reason to believe good things are coming even if it is still a work in progress.
The service and the kitchen are conscientious. When a diner said she was gluten-free and avoided dairy, they whipped up chick-pea bread with oil-based “butter.” One problem noticed over the years is the kitchen being slow with dishes, even on a less-than-busy night. The pace here matches the relaxing and beer-drinking vibe, not making a theater time. Paring down the menu might help with that, but it may just be something structural.
The room is tall, dark and handsomely lit by Edison lights. Outdoor seating is available weather permitting. For a beer-focused restaurant, the wine and cocktail list is decent and can match most needs, with nearly all the bottles coming in under $100. There is also a large whiskey selection.
Birch & Barley continues to do good work. It is worth giving it another try if it fell out of your rotation.
Other Guidance: The place is fine dining on the plate, but casual in the atmosphere. No need to dress up. As noted, Vegetarians, GF, and probably even Vegans, are well-accommodated.
Washingtonian: Made the Top 100 in 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012 (maybe 2011 too). Here is a 2010 joint review of Birch & Barley and Masa 14 – interesting that it is Birch and Barley that is trying to stay fresh on the food side, considering how hyped Masa 14 was.
Eater: Discussing new menu