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Columbia Firehouse, Old Town - Bustling Bar in the old Bookbinders Space on S. St Asaph Street


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Whenever I go to a restaurant, I'm usually drawn to the fatty, fried, sounds bad for you item on the menu. So I saw the reuben eggroll on the menu and decided to go try it this past weekend. This appetizer came with 3 rolls with Russian dressing drizzled on the plate. Each roll had a crispy spring roll like shell and was filled with sauerkraut, corned beef, and oozy melted cheese. It was a fun dish, and I enjoyed it. My only thoughts were that maybe the rolls could have used a little more corned beef and a rye component.

I also had the crabcake sandwich which came with french fries. The crabcake was good without much filler (though I added a little salt from the shaker at the table.) The fries were surprisingly good. They were crispy, and I could really taste the potato. I was pretty happy with my lunch here.

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The flower took root, coming up from the ground, inching along, slowly growing higher, upward, catching its tilt, wrapping around a branch, moving up quickly, gaining altitude, ascending past the treetops, rising into the clouds, soaring into the heavens ...

... looking from below, it is now gone.

--

Two more flowers are now growing, intertwined, and in their stigmas rest a single pedal, a pedal that came down from the sky, descending through the clouds, floating past the treetops, slowly falling back to earth, searching, softly, finding its home where it had once taken root.

-- written for Chris Mickey

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Just have to say that I have enjoyed Orlando's food at many places. Columbia Firehouse, Mark & Orlando's and even at 701 restaurant when he was sous chef under Trent Conry..... I know him, so this may be bias, but he does some really great dishes and it shocks me that a group, such as Neighborhood, would let such a talent go. I hope to see Orlando again soon.....!

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Dinner last night was OK, not great. It looks like the menu is trying to be a bistro, with a few steaks, including hanger steaks, 3 types of mussels, some sausage plates, including a sampler, and lots and lots of specialty beers. I had the sliders, which were one each of sausage, roast beef and burger -- not enough meat for too much bun -- and the coconut milk and curry mussels. Nothing particularly distinguishing about either dish. My two friends had the diver scallops and the hanger steak, and pronounced both of them good.

This is a handsome place and the menu needs to be explored more deeply. I can see this restaurant doing well over time. Last night may have just proven that the kitchen still has some unevenness to work out.

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They have a good deal on oysters at $18 per dozen. They were not as good as Hank's, which in my opinion has the best raw oysters anywhere, but still very satisfying. Other items were also decent. The food is a bit more adventurous than average American restaurants. Since this place is in the heart of downtown Alexandria, its a good place to take any visitors who are on the conservative side when it comes to food.

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Anyone been here recently? What should I not miss?

I've been here a few times. They serve mussels three different ways, and I was not all that impressed with the coconut milk curry version, but I definitely want to try the tomato-shallot-white wine version. Their daily entree specials are good, like bouillabaisse on Thursdays or BBQ pork ribs on Tuesdays.

Good luck and give us a report!

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Had a very interesting evening at Columbia Firehouse last night. I was there with a group of 8-10 girls for a bachelorette party dinner. We were seated and didn't have cocktail menus and then didn't have drink orders for a long time, and had to flag down another waiter to get them taken. Which, ok we are a big group, but obviously celebrating. The cocktail menu looked good I tried the sparkling wine cocktail with macerated strawberries which was very good. I went with wine as it was going to be a long night. They had a good selection of wine with at varying price points. Then we were given a set menu without being told we would have a set menu and not getting to have input on that set menu. That irked me. If you want to give us a set menu- fine- but give the person organizing it a heads up and let them help. We choose the restaurant because of the strength of appetizers and our bachelorette loves their mussels and that wasn't on the set menu. So we asked the server to inquire whether we could have things off the regular menu. The GM came to our table explained they had a small, busy kitchen and that he would allow appetizers off the main menu, but entrees needed to be from the set menu. GM, as a note, perhaps you should tell groups when making a reservation about this policy. And as a note when you build a restaurant the size of Columbia Firehouse, perhaps make sure your kitchen is sizeable enough to handle the seating you put in. This place is huge between upstairs and downstairs, a small kitchen was not smart, but I digress.

So I had wanted mussels as my main course, but I obliged and ordered mussels to start. I had them with tomatoes and capers. The mussels were a good size and fresh, the broth was good, although it was a little too capery. It came with a huge amount of bread, which would have been better plain, instead of with extra garlic and butter, because you are sopping up the juice, you shouldn't need anything else. We also had onion rings, which were good, light batter type, with nice sauces. The real highlight was the cornbread. We had to request bread, but when the cornbread came it was worth the wait. Nice texture, not too sweet, airy, but moist, this was really good cornbread.

Then they brought out starters for people who had starters instead of appetizers, seemed a little odd to me, but ok. Entrees took a really long time to come out, but we bided our time with wine. I had salmon with gnocchi and broccoli rabe for dinner. The salmon was nicely cooked to medium it had nice spices on the skin. It came with a wonderful red wine sauce that sauced the broccoli rabe well. The gnocchi were good. They were light, but not pillowy. They weren't the best gnocchi I have ever had (Palena), but they weren't bad and they went well with the other components.

We had so much food we decided no dessert and headed to some bars for liquid dessert.

The food here was good, very solid. I would like to eat the food again, but the service... The server was really nice, he really tried, maybe he had too many tables, but the service was just slow. And it wasn't his fault that the kitchen took forever (and we stayed on the restricted menu for entrees and it took forever). But it's the type of place someone who really focuses on the whole experience of dining may not be whelmed with. Anyway I might go back to try some appetizers, but I won't be running back, especially with all the other options around. And I just thought the way the whole dinner was handled by management was improper.

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The GM came to our table explained they had a small, busy kitchen and that he would allow appetizers off the main menu, but entrees needed to be from the set menu. GM, as a note, perhaps you should tell groups when making a reservation about this policy. And as a note when you build a restaurant the size of Columbia Firehouse, perhaps make sure your kitchen is sizeable enough to handle the seating you put in. This place is huge between upstairs and downstairs, a small kitchen was not smart, but I digress

I agree with you on the set menu, you should have been notified when you made a reservation.

Just so you know, 'they' did not build Columbia Firehouse, nor the kitchen. Back in the day (I worked there late 80s), this space was Portner's - main level where the bar is, downstairs (small room), and upstairs (fine dining). Sunroom added ??

The kitchen (not tiny but not roomy) is located between the main floor and the upstairs, no space to expand. Pain in the ass for runners/wait staff who have to negotiate stairs in either direction to deliver food. Prep kitchen in the basement.

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Had a very interesting evening at Columbia Firehouse last night. I was there with a group of 8-10 girls for a bachelorette party dinner. We were seated and didn't have cocktail menus and then didn't have drink orders for a long time, and had to flag down another waiter to get them taken. Which, ok we are a big group, but obviously celebrating. The cocktail menu looked good I tried the sparkling wine cocktail with macerated strawberries which was very good. I went with wine as it was going to be a long night. They had a good selection of wine with at varying price points. Then we were given a set menu without being told we would have a set menu and not getting to have input on that set menu. That irked me. If you want to give us a set menu- fine- but give the person organizing it a heads up and let them help. We choose the restaurant because of the strength of appetizers and our bachelorette loves their mussels and that wasn't on the set menu. So we asked the server to inquire whether we could have things off the regular menu. The GM came to our table explained they had a small, busy kitchen and that he would allow appetizers off the main menu, but entrees needed to be from the set menu. GM, as a note, perhaps you should tell groups when making a reservation about this policy. And as a note when you build a restaurant the size of Columbia Firehouse, perhaps make sure your kitchen is sizeable enough to handle the seating you put in. This place is huge between upstairs and downstairs, a small kitchen was not smart, but I digress.

So I had wanted mussels as my main course, but I obliged and ordered mussels to start. I had them with tomatoes and capers. The mussels were a good size and fresh, the broth was good, although it was a little too capery. It came with a huge amount of bread, which would have been better plain, instead of with extra garlic and butter, because you are sopping up the juice, you shouldn't need anything else. We also had onion rings, which were good, light batter type, with nice sauces. The real highlight was the cornbread. We had to request bread, but when the cornbread came it was worth the wait. Nice texture, not too sweet, airy, but moist, this was really good cornbread.

Then they brought out starters for people who had starters instead of appetizers, seemed a little odd to me, but ok. Entrees took a really long time to come out, but we bided our time with wine. I had salmon with gnocchi and broccoli rabe for dinner. The salmon was nicely cooked to medium it had nice spices on the skin. It came with a wonderful red wine sauce that sauced the broccoli rabe well. The gnocchi were good. They were light, but not pillowy. They weren't the best gnocchi I have ever had (Palena), but they weren't bad and they went well with the other components.

We had so much food we decided no dessert and headed to some bars for liquid dessert.

The food here was good, very solid. I would like to eat the food again, but the service... The server was really nice, he really tried, maybe he had too many tables, but the service was just slow. And it wasn't his fault that the kitchen took forever (and we stayed on the restricted menu for entrees and it took forever). But it's the type of place someone who really focuses on the whole experience of dining may not be whelmed with. Anyway I might go back to try some appetizers, but I won't be running back, especially with all the other options around. And I just thought the way the whole dinner was handled by management was improper.

ktmoomau

First of all sorry for the delayed response, I did not have a Rockwell account for my current position. My name is Chris Mickey, and I am the General Manager of the Columbia Firehouse. I read your post last week, and would like to apologize for the experience that you and your friends had 2 Saturdays ago. I regret that I did not get a chance to speak with you when you dined with us, you actually spoke to one of my assistant managers. The part of your post that troubles me the most was that you were not informed when you called that it would be a limited menu for a party of your size. I spoke with the manager that took your reservation, and she assures me that the person that called and made the reservation was informed about the policy. Either way, if there was confusion you should have been given full dinner menus. I agree with you that we handled the situation improperly, and the managers involved have been counseled on how to handle situations like this in the future.

In response to your post we have also changed our policy when it comes to taking large parties. Now parties over 8 that call at least 48 hours before their reservation will be able to choose their own limited menus. The limited menu policy does help the kitchen serve the food in a timely and precise manor on larger parties. That being said, letting guests choose their own menus should avoid similar experiences as yours. This will also give us a chance to print personalized menus for each one of the parties.

As for the service you were given the night of your party, it was clearly not up to our standards. The server you had that evening usually provides great service. I believe it was a case of him not asking for assistance from the managers when he needed to. The manager supervising that dining should have had a better sense of the floor and the fact that your server was overwhelmed. Again both have been spoken to and I assure you that neither will let an experience like yours happen again. Thank you for your detailed post, forums like this give us a great chance to evaluate our policies and to hopefully correct bad experiences.

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ktmoomau

First of all sorry for the delayed response, I did not have a Rockwell account for my current position. My name is Chris Mickey, and I am the General Manager of the Columbia Firehouse. I read your post last week, and would like to apologize for the experience that you and your friends had 2 Saturdays ago. I regret that I did not get a chance to speak with you when you dined with us, you actually spoke to one of my assistant managers. The part of your post that troubles me the most was that you were not informed when you called that it would be a limited menu for a party of your size. I spoke with the manager that took your reservation, and she assures me that the person that called and made the reservation was informed about the policy. Either way, if there was confusion you should have been given full dinner menus. I agree with you that we handled the situation improperly, and the managers involved have been counseled on how to handle situations like this in the future.

In response to your post we have also changed our policy when it comes to taking large parties. Now parties over 8 that call at least 48 hours before their reservation will be able to choose their own limited menus. The limited menu policy does help the kitchen serve the food in a timely and precise manor on larger parties. That being said, letting guests choose their own menus should avoid similar experiences as yours. This will also give us a chance to print personalized menus for each one of the parties.

As for the service you were given the night of your party, it was clearly not up to our standards. The server you had that evening usually provides great service. I believe it was a case of him not asking for assistance from the managers when he needed to. The manager supervising that dining should have had a better sense of the floor and the fact that your server was overwhelmed. Again both have been spoken to and I assure you that neither will let an experience like yours happen again. Thank you for your detailed post, forums like this give us a great chance to evaluate our policies and to hopefully correct bad experiences.

Thank you so much for not only responding to my post, but taking affirmative steps to alleviate the problems for the future. And congratulations on becoming a Donrockwell member.

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I have to admit, this place is growing on me. I've always liked the interior -- nice Old Town mahogany bar area, and the dining area is the best in Old Town with a soaring glass ceiling and rustic brick walls. I can happily enjoy hours on end in this kind of establishment. Of course, the interior was nice under Portner's and Bookbinder's ownership, but the food wasn't as good.

[On top of that, Old Town itself is the anti-Town Center, with a look and feel that is not Disney-esque, but that is a rant for another time.]

Dinner tonight was a hit all around. Three of us began with mussels, two of us with the arugula/bacon/dried tomatoes and one with the wine/garlic/tomatoes. These were impeccable mussels, nicely cleaned, big and meaty, and giving off a generous broth for sopping up with crusty baguette. If I were to plan a progressive meal in Old Town, these mussels dishes would be on the front end of the menu. In fact, on a rainy day, and accompanied by a computer screen full of good reading and a nice glass of beer, this is where I would settle in for a pleasant passage of time.

By the way, the beer list is very good here, and the wine list isn't bad either. Both are well thought out.

We went with lighter main courses because of highly caloric lunches earlier in the day. Mine was the roasted chicken wings off the appetizer menu, with two dipping sauces, celery sticks including the underrated feathery tops, and six juicy, meaty and perfectly cooked wings -- 3 mid sections and 3 drummettes. Delicious. Companions had the grilled salmon salad and the fried chicken breast, and declared both to be worth ordering again.

This is good food served by a considerate kitchen, with a friendly wait staff and an excellent interior. Like I said at the beginning this place is growing on me.

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I've been twice and it felt like I was cheating on my husband with his brother. (I live two blocks from Rustico and Buzz). As with all illicit rendezvous, it seemed more exciting and decadent than my favorite old hangout. The first time was for brunch and we sat outside in the lovely courtyard. I had the hanger steak and eggs and both were cooked to my request. Service was a little off; I never got the steak sauce I requested, nor was the coffee refilled and I was never asked if I wanted another cup. My partner had the eggs benedict which was fine, nothing spectacular but not bad. The standout item was the homefries that came with my steak. Every single piece was extra crispy, gbd, and searing hot. Yes! After suffering through how many plates of horrible, mushy, anemic homefries in my life, to get a expertly done, crusty, seared excellent plate of homefries was an absolute pleasure. This talent for frying was also evident for dinner the next time we ate here. My guest ordered the fries and we were strongly tempted by the reuben eggrolls too, but resisted. The fries came out a rich, crispy, deeply browned mess, a tangle of greatness in the little paper cone. The assorted dipping sauces were all so good it was hard to find a favorite, though the smoky mayo and house-made red-pepper pimento cheese were in the lead. We had the mussels with arugula, ovendried tomato, parm, and bacon to start. It was sublime, and soaked the bread (which seemed partially saturated with melted butter already for good measure) down to the last drop of liquor in the pot. Her grilled steak and waldorf salad was really good, and huge. The best version of a waldorf I've had. (Fresh walnuts, ripe apples...good job) My diver's scallops that came so highly recommended were tiny and unevenly cooked. I got four itty bitty pieces that look like the chef split two medium-sized scallops in half. Although they tasted fine, i don't think that this starter-sized portion was worth the entree price. My partner had the opposite problem. His prime rib special was way way more than the 10 oz version he requested. It was perfectly rosy and delicious so no complaints. The service this time was much better. Again, sitting outside was lovely. The odd light-"pods" they bring out as it gets dark are a little unwieldy...most of our fellow patrons just stuck them on the ground next to their feet, and we also tucked our light pod out of the way. Overall, I can't wait to go back, maybe for lunch, another brunch, or any meal, really. Then I'll try the reuben eggrolls. :lol:

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I finally went back to Columbia Firehouse, just for an Alexandria Bar Association networking lunch. I have to say we had drink refills very quickly and attentive service by the waiters. We had 3-4 lunch options. I got Ceasar salad with hanger steak there was also the option of chicken. The salad was good, the dressing was really good. You could tell there was an anchovy in it. I was a little disappointed with the steak. It was really small, not sure on the size, but not what I was expecting and definitely looked like a much smaller plate than the other entrees, if the steak had been incorporated into the salad I probably wouldn't have noticed. But sitting there by itself it just looked a little puny. Now I know, I know, it is a Bar lunch... but last time I was there the food was good. The shaved parmesan on the salad was really good though. I think they just need to rethink the plating and presentation of the salad.

Next time I will ask to order as soon as we get there as a colleague and I had to get back to a meeting and I think they put all our orders in at once because the food was really slow coming out. We got there at 12:15 and didn't get back to the office until 1:40 which is just too long for lunch.

But it is nice that they agreed to host us.

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I have to admit, I had a perfectly forgettable meal at Columbia Firehouse last night. For one of the nicest looking restaurants in the entire metropolitan area, the kitchen is not hitting all of the notes right now.

First observation by me and my two colleagues -- there wasn't much to the menu. Nothing jumped out and said "order me." Each of my two colleagues had the hanger steak and I had the oyster po' boy sandwich. The hanger steaks were declared to be okay, but not enough. My po' boy was forgettable -- a bun with all the indifference of a banh mi bun, with three lightly fried oysters still giving off oil from the fryer. The accompanying fries were not good at all -- a few were fried to being burnt, and a few were flaccid and dripping with oil.

What a waste of a beautiful dining space. Can Cathal Armstrong be looking at this location and thinking about putting a real restaurant here?

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I have been going to CFH since shortly after it opened. Their food has always been solid and the service never less than fair, and usually good. I hesitate to make any judgement based on service to a bachelorette or bachelor party. More than once I've seen these kind of groups cause headaches for staff and dinners.

My father hosted an outing for his out of town staff during a convention at National Harbor (took the boat over). The group totaled 13 people and was setup in the intimate (and a bit dark) downstairs room. Service was very good. Food was very good. CFH also has some very nice cocktail creations on the menu, no doubt to compete with the other restaurant group powerhouse in OT. CFH made it a fine outing and I would recommend CFH for a similar sized group or smaller dinner.

Regarding Kibbee Nayee's experience, your I would only suggest that the Neighborhood Restaurant Group properties sometimes seem to overwhelm the management across the board. Since they just opened a new Rustico in Balston they may bey poaching the staff at other places. The bar at Vermillion declined considerably back when the original Vermillion opened.

There are a lot of good places around; the problem is finding the exceptional ones. I've had 2 so so experiences at Eve.

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I went to Steve Warner's cocktail class yesterday at Columbia Firehouse and it was a lot of fun. This one was definitely for beginner's but that was good. I am definitely a cocktail beginner. I can follow a standard recipe but I just haven't tasted a lot of liquors so I never know what to buy to make and what I will like, other than what I have tried. This series we learned about some different brands, how to mix a drink and a lot of trivia in between. On the list for this class was a classic martini, daquiri, ramos gin fizz and mint julep. If you are a beginner or someone who has an interest in cocktails but is a little weary this was a great class. He is having a whole series and some of the next look like they would be good for both beginners and persons with more experience. Surveying the crowd I wondered if there were any other DRs there. I thought about walking around and under my breath saying Don Rockwell, Don Rockwell, Don Rockwell.

The Martini was perhaps a little too easy, it also hit hard as it was the first drink. The Gin Fizz is one of my personal favorites and that was a fun one, the julep I think is a big hit in Alexandria as I know Alexandrians love them in the summer at parties. But it definitely has me looking forward to more.

We also had a few snacks in between- notable was the italian meatball with fried cornmeal with peppers and onions mixed into it, the tuna tartare taco was good too, I liked the slaw with it.

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I was at the bar last week and had a cocktail with Maker's Mark, Calvados, Passionfruit and Cointreau? Looking at the ingredient list I thought it would be a little questionable, but in fact it was really nicely balanced and quite tasty.

I also talked with some very interesting persons at the bar who thought I was actually funny and who were a joy to drink with. I can't think of much more that could have made it a more enjoyable place to sit for a drink or two after a long week. Go Steve!

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I was at the bar last week and had a cocktail with Maker's Mark, Calvados, Passionfruit and Cointreau? Looking at the ingredient list I thought it would be a little questionable, but in fact it was really nicely balanced and quite tasty.

I was wondering about that one...The Avenue, I believe it's called.

We stopped in on Sunday evening for a drink and were quite happy to find Steve behind the bar. He quite happily concocted a drink for me based on what I remembered about Cochon's Swinekiller (gin, rhubarb bitters, limeade, etc). The +1 thoroughly enjoyed his Bloody Mary, and liked the fact that there was a lot of ingredients added to the glass, rather than it just being a pre-made mix. The Spiced Sausage Corndog and Tuna Tartare Tacos were pleasant little nibbles to tide us over until dinner (at home). Somehow we resisted the urge to order the crispy house fries, which are quite good. Even if they weren't good, they serve as a delivery device for the highly addictive smoked mayo dip that accompanies them.

Perhaps Steve is on his way to becoming an Old Town institution like Harry was in the Portner's days! With no disrespect to the other friendly and hardworking bar staff, I think he has upped the game at Columbia Firehouse and finally does justice to their classic cocktail menu.

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Had dinner here with an old beau tonight. We met at Portner's back in the late '90s, each grabbing a quick lunch at the bar and struck up a conversation re: the house dressing -- a raspberry vinagrette, which was something fairly new and different then. Tonight's meal was very pleasant and the food was solid, the service was very very good. We started with an arugula salad (that was a sub for the butter wedge salad that had been sold through) with a creamy buttermilk dressing. They have 15-18 or so beers on tap. I got the Port City One, so dark that light didn't penetrate. It was less a libation and more another course to the meal. I can't remember what beer he got but it was a medium orange-y amber and had a bit of a cherry note to it. I preferred mine. He got the diver scallops with risotto and I got the mussels in white wine. Everything was cooked well and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Exciting and innovative? No, but it's not that place. Good, solid, friendly, comfortable? Absolutely.

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I have had many reasonably good meals here in the past. Tonight I had, by far, the most wretched meal I have had in recent memory, anywhere. This was Red Lobster bad, if Red Lobster served inedible marrow.

I started with the bone marrow, a dish that is not all that difficult to make. This version was gross -- a bit undercooked, tasteless and pure grease, No sea slat to be sprinkled over it nor enough toast to enjoy it with. A horrible rendition of an otherwise simple dish.

For the main course, the Thursday special was the crab stuffed lobster. All three of us at our table ordered it, and all three of us regretted it. For $26, there was a dried lobster the size of a prawn, with a dry bread stuffing that had barely a hint of crab, and with no flavor anywhere. There wasn't even a wedge of lemon or a bowl of drawn butter to attempt to ameliorate the dryness. This dish was a bad idea, executed even worse.

When the waitress returned to ask how everything was, I told her direclty that the dish was bad. None of us enjoyed it. I asked if the chef had been taken hostage and tied up in the back of the kitchen. She didn't laugh.

To its credit, the restaurant took $39 off our bill -- not sure how that was calculated -- so the pain was lessened....but not by much.

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I have had many reasonably good meals here in the past. Tonight I had, by far, the most wretched meal I have had in recent memory, anywhere. This was Red Lobster bad, if Red Lobster served inedible marrow.

I started with the bone marrow, a dish that is not all that difficult to make. This version was gross -- a bit undercooked, tasteless and pure grease, No sea slat to be sprinkled over it nor enough toast to enjoy it with. A horrible rendition of an otherwise simple dish.

For the main course, the Thursday special was the crab stuffed lobster. All three of us at our table ordered it, and all three of us regretted it. For $26, there was a dried lobster the size of a prawn, with a dry bread stuffing that had barely a hint of crab, and with no flavor anywhere. There wasn't even a wedge of lemon or a bowl of drawn butter to attempt to ameliorate the dryness. This dish was a bad idea, executed even worse.

When the waitress returned to ask how everything was, I told her direclty that the dish was bad. None of us enjoyed it. I asked if the chef had been taken hostage and tied up in the back of the kitchen. She didn't laugh.

To its credit, the restaurant took $39 off our bill -- not sure how that was calculated -- so the pain was lessened....but not by much.

Looks like discounted 50% off each of the three entrees.

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Not really surprised at this review.  I always wish they could get their act together at Columbia Firehouse.  I would love for it to be a really good place, even if the service was stellar and the food just good it would be better than many places on King Street.  And since Steve left there just isn't a cocktail problem.  These days I mainly only go for the Bar networking lunches.  But it would be great if they could get their act together.

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I read the headline and was psyched.  Then I read the article and was completely confused.  Did the headline writer not actually read the article?!?!?

For those who don't want to read the review, the headline was:

Columbia Firehouse review: A new chef comes to the rescue

The next thing you see is a graphic of a 1 star / Satisfactory rating, and then you read paragraph after paragraph savaging every aspect of the place.  Am I misreading the headline somehow?!?!  What did the chef rescue?!?!

Me no understand

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What's really sad is that the location and probably the most beautiful dining venue in Old Town is being squandered by the indifference of the staff. The menu needs a re-do -- and hopefully, that's on Johnny Miele's priority list -- and the front of the house staff can use a refresh. It would really be a shame to waste some of the finest restaurant real estate in Old Town.

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Just went here for brunch yesterday (really appreciate my friends in Old Town picking this weekend to persuade me to come down, with half of the area closed off for the Art Festival - it made parking a breeze, haha). I wasn't particularly impressed. The food was okay - I had the "ribeye hash", and it was tasty, but it wasn't particularly filling (not a lot of meat in it), and it came out lukewarm as well.

More annoying was the service, overall. We sat in the courtyard area, and my friends got there a couple of minutes before me (didn't order, but sat down) - I was given a place setting, but no water. I asked THREE SEPARATE TIMES (when the waiter came to bring menus, to take our order, and when the food was brought out) before someone finally brought a glass of water. And then after the food was brought out, we basically never saw the waiter again - so there were no opportunities to discuss any issues we had (no one was sending anything back anyway) and all of our water glasses remained unfilled after a certain point.

I'm not usually one who harps on service because it's generally a pretty low-bar - keep my drink filled (especially if it's something easy like water) and make sure I'm still alive somewhere between being served and paying the check. And it just didn't happen. I think the next time they suggest brunch in Alexandria, I will suggest that there may be other options to explore.

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Columbia Firehouse had fallen out of our rotation, food and service started lacking, but a few weeks ago a chef we got to be friends with at Magnolias (Brian Rowe) let me know he was there now and making some changes so we checked it out tonight.  

One of the things we always enjoyed was their respect for classic cocktails - our drinks were good but not great, still needs some work there.

Onion rings as a starter - nice and fluffy how I like them, though hubby prefers more crunchy. 

I had the Steak Frite - nicely done with well seasoned fries and yummy bérnaise sauce.  Hubby had the ribs - potato salad was spot on! The cole slaw had great texture but was a bit bland in taste and he liked the ribs (though not smokehouse quality).  Dessert was the cookie skillet which was to crumbly.  

I'm given to understand menu changes tomorrow and Brian is still working thru changes.  It is back in our rotation and I'm looking forward to seeing how things improve.  

Overall neighborhood gem with comfort food and cocktails. 

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On 5/4/2010 at 10:32 PM, Kibbee Nayee said:

I have to admit, this place is growing on me. I've always liked the interior -- nice Old Town mahogany bar area, and the dining area is the best in Old Town with a soaring glass ceiling and rustic brick walls. I can happily enjoy hours on end in this kind of establishment. Of course, the interior was nice under Portner's and Bookbinder's ownership, but the food wasn't as good.

Thanks for the reference above.  I sort of have the same feeling as KN as he described above and several other times.

The interior of Columbia Firehouse is so attractive I would spend a lot of time there regardless of the food quality.

In fact I did, when it was Portners and first converted into a beautiful restaurant.  I found it to be great at the bar and invariably good at dinner.  I can’t recall the food.  In fact I bet it was never memorable.    Geez I always loved dinning there though.  Go figure.

If this place gets a serious uptick on food it should do gangbusters.  Good luck

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On 11/15/2017 at 3:22 PM, DaveO said:

Thanks for the reference above.  I sort of have the same feeling as KN as he described above and several other times.

The interior of Columbia Firehouse is so attractive I would spend a lot of time there regardless of the food quality.

In fact I did, when it was Portners and first converted into a beautiful restaurant.  I found it to be great at the bar and invariably good at dinner.  I can’t recall the food.  In fact I bet it was never memorable.    Geez I always loved dinning there though.  Go figure.

If this place gets a serious uptick on food it should do gangbusters.  Good luck

Wow! Portners! Was that 30 or 35 years ago? Am I getting old?

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2 hours ago, Finatic said:

Wow! Portners! Was that 30 or 35 years ago? Am I getting old?

Yeah.  Portners opened in either the late 70’s or early 80’s so it is that old. But it operated into the early 2000’s.

Portners was a renovation of an abandoned firehouse.  It created the handsome look that @Kibbee Nayee has referenced above.  I agree with KN.  That look is very appealing for dining or drinks.  If Columbia Firehouse had food that matched the quality of the look, it would be a “killer”

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2 hours ago, Mark Slater said:

That address was the Old Town Hamburger Hamlet.

I went to Hamburger Hamlet in Bethesda (now a Giant Food) before seeing The Jacksons in concert - I sat directly behind the Jackson family, and this was right after "Off the Wall" (*) came out. It was an awesome evening, and Michael Jackson was perhaps the greatest stage performer I've ever seen.

(*) Yeah, I know, it should have probably been called "Off the Hook," but he was still one hell of a talent.

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On 11/22/2017 at 6:55 PM, Mark Slater said:

That address was the Old Town Hamburger Hamlet.

I respectfully disagree.  Of course this is about an entity long long gone and only those long in the tooth might have even the vaguest of interest. 😜

Portners was designed built and operated by Hamburger Hamlet (HH) But was simply a different restaurant.  I knew the local HH head person quite well around the time Portners went up.  Different place.  Very good bar.  I thought it tried to be a Clyde’s kind of place for Olde Towne. It was never an HH 

Maybe some menu overlap with HH, but the HH’s in this area were all a bit different.  There was a short lived Georgetown place on M just off Wisconsin.  Just couldn’t compete I guess and probably had monstrously high rents.  The Chevy Chase and Bethesda places were more family based and Crystal City underground was primarily a lunch place

Anyhow I went back to  thebPortner’s thread here and re read about the closing of Portner’s and the anticipated opening of a steakhouse in its stead operated by 2 local  Alexandria restaurateurs (about 2006).  Didn’t occur and Bookbinders moved in instead.  Specifically this post from September 2006

Quote

Portner's is now closed. The next incarnation of that old firehouse will be a "high end steakhouse." Portner's first opened in 1981 and was operated by the Hamburger Hamlet people. The owners of the real estate, also restauranteuers (Union Street Pub, King Street Blues) will now take over as the operators of the establishment. 26 years is a good long run for any restaurant and I will miss it. The bar was always reliable.

I know what occurred.  One of the two operators got terribly ill.  he would have been the driving force, and that killed the plan.  Hence Bookbinders and now Columbia Firehouse

In fact it was a “small world” re that proposed partnership between the owner of King Street Blues (ksb) and Union Street Pub.  The KSB Guy was the former head of HH and initially developed Portners.  He left HH to go out on his own and he and the Union Street Pub Guy had previously partnered.  

Anyway all that and $2 bucks will get you a small coffee at Starbucks. 🤓

(frankly I’m drowsy after overeating for Thanksgiving and watching the Redskins is dreadful so this gossip is more interesting)

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On 11/23/2017 at 10:04 PM, DaveO said:

Portners was designed built and operated by Hamburger Hamlet (HH) But was simply a different restaurant.  I knew the local HH head person quite well around the time Portners went up.  Different place.  Very good bar.  I thought it tried to be a Clyde’s kind of place for Olde Towne. It was never an HH 

Sorry, the Google machine told me the old address of Old Town Hamburger Hamlet was 109 S Asaph St. I forgot the connection with Portners.

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I really, really want to like this place. It's gorgeous, has a great patio, kind bartenders, good service, close to me, but alas ... 

Sat at bar to get happy hour deals. It was so nice out, but the Lady is very rigid when it comes to 'deals' and thus we took advantage of that. $5 house wines, so I got the PG and she got the Cab. She didn't love hers (but funny girl, she got another, "I don't care if I didn't love it, it's $5"), I thought mine was refreshing. We ordered the pork cheeks on polenta (also $5) and oyster on the half shell ($1 a piece at the bar at HH). These were pretty good, they had 3 varieties, small to big, briny to mild. For $1/each, better than the offerings at Copperwood Tavern (tiny and bland) and comparable to Hank's Old Town. 

Trying to drop a little weight, so all I got was a wedge. She got the Steak Frites with a Hanger, subbed the Frites for mashed (not really Steak Frites, any more then, is it?). The wedge was just blasted with dressing, like a Jackson Pollock. Soaked, to the point the lettuce wasn't crisp. Crappy diced supermarket tomatoes and very little tang of blue cheese (probably grocery store crumbles). Her steak looked awesome. She had never had Hangar, and said it wasn't that tender, except for the middle portion. I don't eat steak, so I don't know how it should be.

They upcharged us on the Frites substitution without telling us ($4!!), I didn't say anything, because the guy was nice. 

I wish this place was better. I'll keep coming back for oysters at happy hour, though.  

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Had an office lunch here yesterday.  The food was merely passable but what was telling was the lack of staff. One person was hostess and waiting tables, with the bartender doubling as runner/busser/water guy.  That was the full FOH staff.  The food did come out together, although my chili was lukewarm, but others got salads or sandwiches, so it wasn't so obvious that the BOH was understaffed.  Also, the heat was turned down so low that almost all the guests kept their coats or at least their scarves on, pulled over their shoulders.   I expect we'll be hearing of its demise in the not-distant future.    

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2 hours ago, weezy said:

Had an office lunch here yesterday.  The food was merely passable but what was telling was the lack of staff. One person was hostess and waiting tables, with the bartender doubling as runner/busser/water guy.  That was the full FOH staff.  The food did come out together, although my chili was lukewarm, but others got salads or sandwiches, so it wasn't so obvious that the BOH was understaffed.  Also, the heat was turned down so low that almost all the guests kept their coats or at least their scarves on, pulled over their shoulders.   I expect we'll be hearing of its demise in the not-distant future.    

Simply on the basis of its attractiveness that would be a loss, although it is so attractive I'm sure another group would replace it.  Also it will also always resonate with me as Portners where the location had its greatest popularity and success and it morphed into the basic look that generally still prevails.

I don't measure staffing but through the bar school we get a sizable number of requests for bartenders from the entire DMV.  It is every type of place imaginable.  Some you wouldn't send your worst enemy to and others are the recipients of rave reviews on this forum.

What we have seen is a rising demand for FOH staff.  Also BOH staff, food runners, every kind of staffer you can imagine.    We've also seen poorly prepared people become managers.  While I don't monitor it closely there are tons of ads on the web for F and B staff.  

You could have been there on a day when they had an extreme labor crisis or it could be what you imagined above.

There is a significant shortage of people working in the industry.

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4 hours ago, DaveO said:

Simply on the basis of its attractiveness that would be a loss, although it is so attractive I'm sure another group would replace it.  Also it will also always resonate with me as Portners where the location had its greatest popularity and success and it morphed into the basic look that generally still prevails.

I don't measure staffing but through the bar school we get a sizable number of requests for bartenders from the entire DMV.  It is every type of place imaginable.  Some you wouldn't send your worst enemy to and others are the recipients of rave reviews on this forum.

What we have seen is a rising demand for FOH staff.  Also BOH staff, food runners, every kind of staffer you can imagine.    We've also seen poorly prepared people become managers.  While I don't monitor it closely there are tons of ads on the web for F and B staff.  

You could have been there on a day when they had an extreme labor crisis or it could be what you imagined above.

There is a significant shortage of people working in the industry.

Dave, the problem is, they are only looking for staff "of a certain age (under 40)". At my age, I had zero luck this past year looking for work FOH. 

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44 minutes ago, Mark Slater said:

Dave, the problem is, they are only looking for staff "of a certain age (under 40)". At my age, I had zero luck this past year looking for work FOH. 

I'll forward some tips I have learned, but ageism is a real issue and attractiveness clearly rules.  One common thought is that uber, Lyft and similar types of work have sucked about 50,000 or more into their employ consequently reducing  the number that might go into F&B foh.  We see it every day.   The 50,000 number is huge but I've seen data that suggests it is at that number or larger.

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