On any given day, you can walk into Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill and see a dolled-up drag queen, a Howard University poetry professor and a young mom bouncing a baby on her knee, all sitting at the bar chatting with bartender Cheryl about her daughter’s wedding while munching on Old Bay-dusted buffalo wings and cheesy patty melts.
Forever compared to “Cheers,” Mr. Henry’s (601 Pennsylvania Ave., S.E.) has been much more than that, for nearly five decades, for many, a place that is convivial but not saccharin, where you can come in and be exactly whom you are and no one will raise an eyebrow.
However, the times they are a-changin,’ even at Mr. Henry’s (mrhenrysrestaurant.com) as it faces the inevitable challenges of mid-life: beloved bartender Rudi Appl, who worked his last shift in early summer to celebrate his 80th birthday, died in July after a lengthy illness, and longtime manager Alvin Ross retired just a month later. And then the new menu appeared, sending ripples of uneasiness across Capitol Hill, a once seedy but tight-knit community now home to Rose’s Luxury, named 2014‘s Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit, and where the old-time dives like Sherrill’s, Lil’ Pub and Hawk ‘n’ Dove have either been run out of town or renovated to a shadow of their former selves.
Change, however, does not necessarily have to be bad, and Mr. Henry’s has made changes before — some fondly remember when Tuesdays were all-you-can-eat spaghetti night, and when former manager Alvin delightedly introduced hot dogs to the menu. Hot dogs are conspicuously absent from the new regime, while “sage aioli” and “red onion jam” are suddenly in vogue. These are the changes that strike fear into the hearts of those seeking honest pub food, in a world where even Mr. Henry’s charges $24 for a plate of crab cakes. Pricing is clearly an issue on the new menu, either a reflection of trying to beef up the bottom line or in response to recent demographics that suggest an influx of wealthier locals — prices are up across the board, including a plate of cheese nachos with guacamole that clocked in at a hefty $12.50. And if you love the Rudi roll, the glorious deep-fried dinner roll named for Mr. Henry’s late bartender, be sure to ask for it, because it doesn’t come automatically with your cup of soup or side salad anymore.
Luckily, the well-proportioned burgers — still a tasty mainstay at Mr. Henry’s — are largely unchanged, despite the fancy new condiments and the fact that the former all-purpose veggie burger has been swapped out for a black bean burger (with their distinct flavor, black bean burgers tend to taste best only with certain types of toppings, like pepperjack cheese and avocado, while a simple grain-based burger works with everything). If you like roasted red peppers, you’re in luck, because there appears to be an explosion of the little darlings on the new menu, popping up in hummus, bruschetta and grilled cheese (more on that later). Patrons won’t be disappointed by the fried clams and fish and chips, or the various weeknight specials, like Monday half-priced burger night or the Friday night fried chicken dinner, which still provide generous portions and a packed house.
But, back to the grilled cheese. Sometimes you just want a classic grilled cheese sandwich, and Mr. Henry’s had a good one — gooey American cheese melted to perfection inside a crisp golden crust of white bread, with creamy coleslaw and those crunchy house potato chips on the side. The new version, Roasted Pepper Grilled Cheese, billed as goat cheese, provolone, spinach, roasted red peppers and pesto on sourdough bread, arrived, inexplicably, on rye bread, toasted outside but cold in the center and with the provolone barely melted along the edges. It’s a small thing, but indicative of the vagaries of change: some things don’t need to be tampered with while others can be improved with tinkering. The new menu at Mr. Henry’s has a solid foundation created from almost 50 years of such tinkering, and will undoubtedly continue to explore, and discard, new ideas along the way. Just bring back the old grilled cheese, please.
Kristen Hartke is managing editor of Edible DC and writes about cocktails at goodbooze.wordpress.com.