I live in downtown DC in between Shaw and Chinatown. When going out, I usually opt for things more toward Shaw. Even though it’s building up at a rapid pace, there is a different vibe in Shaw – less ‘let’s pound shots and drink towers of beer’ and more ‘let’s have a nice craft cocktail and eat some cheese’.
But when I heard about Denson Liquor Bar, which opened last week across from the Verizon Center, I was intrigued. Brought to you by the people behind other popular DC restaurants Aqua al 2 and Ghibellina, Denson is inspired by hotel bars in the 1920s. This restaurant, although located in a basement in the middle of Chinatown/Penn Quarter, is as far away from the likes of Rocket Bar and Penn Social as you can get.
The space is small, cozy, sexy and most of all, focused. It’s a bit hidden, located around the corner and underneath Fuel Pizza, but when we arrived at around 7 pm last Friday night, it was already bustling.
We had to wait for a table, so we hung out in the bar for awhile. The space was very organized, offering ample space between the bar seats and the standing area behind it. We had a waiter come over to take our order within minutes of arriving, pouring filtered water (no funky Potomac taste here!) in crystal glasses that I thankfully did not drop.
The crowd was diverse and lively, and although I’ve read other reviews stating that the small space resulted in too much noise, Tom and I were able to maintain easy conversation the entire time we were there. This may change as the night goes on, but for us it was very pleasant.
Despite the restaurant’s name, we did not partake in any liquor, although the cocktails did look promising. Instead, we shared a bottle of reasonably priced Primitivo (medium bodied, perfectly balanced acidity, lots of fresh berry flavors) from the small but very well curated wine list. There are also several respectable beers on the list, so this place should please just about everyone’s taste.
After about a fifteen minute wait, we were transferred over to our table, a private round booth in the corner of the restaurant with tufted leather seats and candlelight.
I’ll take a pause here to say that while this place is perfect for a date night, with the dim lighting and intimate feel, I can see it being a great place for singles as well, because well, the staff is really, really attractive. I’m just saying. They’re also very attentive, informed and courteous. Both of our servers – at the bar and our table – asked how we liked the space, the concept and the food and actually listened to our responses.
But back to the food. The menu, like the wine list, is short but focused. They have fresh oysters, large cheese and meat plates (priced at $20 each), about a half dozen appetizers and a handful of entrees.
We started with the lamb meatballs (pictured above, right), served with a cucumber salad, which was a very solid dish. The meatballs, while not being overly flavorful, were cooked very well and the cucumber salad was nice and refreshing.
For our entrees, we shared the mozzarella panini (just okay) and the extraordinary, rave-worthy green curry chicken pie. Tom and I both agreed that the chicken dish blew everything we tried out of the water, and we will likely be returning to order it again soon.
This place really shows a lot of promise. While the cocktails are a bit expensive at $14 each, the food and wine is very reasonably priced and the atmosphere is a breath of fresh air for the area. A few tweaks might be needed to improve the menu, but for the most part, Denson Liquor Bar is a vast improvement over the generic and overcrowded chain restaurants most prominently featured around the Verizon Center. I’m hoping this becomes a trend, and doesn’t remain the exception.