UPDATE: This restaurant has closed.
The U Street Corridor has undergone an incredible transformation over the last four years. There was a time when Busboys and Poets was the best food you could find in the area. Now, however, this area is bustling with tons of great restaurants offering vegan options. I watched for many months as they built a restaurant next to the ever-popular Marvin and as soon as they constructed the outside facade, I knew it was owned by brothers Eric and Ian Hilton -- the same guys that brought us Marvin, Patty Boom Boom, and American Ice Co., to name a few.
Blackbyrd, named after Donald "Black" Byrd, a musician
who taught at Howard University in the 1970s, opened on July 14, 2011 with no formal announcement and no website. In fact, at the time I wrote this review, there was still no website. It is as if they are trying to be mysterious, which, of course, attracts inquisitive foodies. I had heard that it was an oyster bar with a limited seafood menu so I figured I'd never go there for dinner, but then I discovered that the chef, James Claudio, created a vegan gyro and that seemed like a good enough reason to give this place a try. With the assumption that all the hottest places on 14th Street had happy hours, I invited friends for happy hour and dinner at Blackbyrd.
At 6 p.m. on any Friday, Masa 14, another restaurant on 14th Street, is wall-to-wall packed so I figured it would be similar at Blackbyrd -- boy, was I wrong. When I walked in, there were only two people sitting at the bar and all of the booths and high-top tables were available. I quickly realized, they do not have happy hour drink specials. Oh, well.
The restaurant has a warehouse feel to it with exposed brick walls, bare lightbulbs, and mismatched furniture. The downstairs is for dining and drinking as it features a large bar along with booths and other tables; and the upstairs is more of a loungy-feel with couches and another bar. From what I understand, the second floor gets pretty crowded later in the night when they feature local bands.
Once my friends arrived, we took a look at the menu. There were many special drinks along with a wine list. I decided to start with their signature drink, the Blackbyrd, which had Absolut vodka, Manzanilla sherry, Dolin dry vermouth, and orange bitters. Unfortunately, I found it to be heavy on the alcohol and light on the taste. I didn't think it was very good -- certainly nothing to write home about. Zach wasn't that happy with his cocktail either.
For the next round, we ordered glasses of wine. The list of wines available by the glass was short and unimpressive, but we decided to give it a go. I ordered a Malbec, which was eh. No one else was impressed with their wines either. One of my friends had a Tempranillo a few weeks ago, but when she went to order it, they told her they were out of it at the moment. For my third drink, I ordered another glass of wine that was so bad, I actually sent it back and requested another Malbec.
After a while, we ordered some food. I ordered the only item on the menu that was vegetarian -- the veggie gyro. The waitress said that to veganize it, they'd just substitute the feta for vegan soy cheese. That sounded good to me. Upon first bite, I really enjoyed the soft pita bread and the housemade seitan, which was fried perfectly, but soon realized that it was very dry. What the waitress didn't tell me was that they would just take the non-vegan
tzatziki sauce off of it without replacing it with a vegan version of the
same. The lettuce and pickled onions helped a bit, but they didn't disguise the fact that the sauce was missing. I ate it, reluctantly, but was definitely disappointed. It was paired with baby spinach with a light olive oil sauce, which was nice, but not very creative.
Overall, the wine selection left much to be desired and the food was just okay. I think the drinks and sandwich were quite pricey for what they were. The service was pretty good -- the waitress was very attentive, but, then again, the place was pretty empty. I really appreciate that the chef is trying to accommodate his vegan patrons and am hoping that as the menu develops, there will be more options in the future. For now, they need to improve the wine selection and add some sauce to that gyro -- and that will be a good start. I look forward to seeing how this place and its menu develops over time.
2005 14th Street NW
Washington, DC 20009