It's the Doughnuts!
[from April 2003 issue]

Forget Krispy Kreme. Sidestep Dunkin' Doughnuts. Head straight to Washington's Tabard Inn restaurant and gather up a day's supply of their very sugary doughnuts. Of course, these are best eaten hot, fresh from the kitchen and dipped into café au lait. An analogy? Think puffs of air--well, heated air--and a crunchy sprinkling of sugar. That about sums up each decadent mouthful, stolen when the waiter is not watching a solo patron consuming six hot doughnuts with vanilla whipped cream in almost a single breath.

And that's at brunch on weekends. What about other times, other meals, at DC's beloved Tabard Inn restaurant, which offers many charms, and some really first-class food? The menu changes regularly, but a recent Friday night turned up a conch chowder or tuna tartare as a starter, followed by braised veal cheeks with mustard-crusted veal liver (read calves' liver), a tempura soft shell crab, or grilled rabbit loin as entrée choices--and check out the wines, too.

Surely lunches and dinners rate a second glance, but Sunday brunch here is a special occasion, an eventful meal that assures a packed living room, where the very hungry wait patiently for a table. The wait may be long, indeed. At a recent Sunday, the glum host predicted at least one hour--should have made reservations--unless someone were lucky enough to snag a stool at the diminutive bar at the restaurant's entrance. There's never a wait for that, he said, but it is "first come, first served" and you'd better be ready to pounce.

So what's the weekend fuss? Besides the doughnuts, people apparently love the twenty-something scene, though plenty of older folks came in groups or as families, Sunday newspaper in hand. There's also something beguiling about the noisy, casual dining room--a hub of activity and conversation that swirl around the plates of poached eggs with black bean chili con carne, toasted pecan waffles with vanilla pear compote, or a Brazilian seafood stew headed to tables.

If you can detect a flaw, it might be that the service ebbs and flows in no particular pattern. A disgruntled couple got up from their barstools and stormed out after waiting for service, while their neighbors got coffee and a menu much more quickly. My basket of muffins--yes, in addition to doughnuts, you can also fuel up on small, sweet muffins, loads of softened butter, and slices of sweet bread--came right away with the coffee, but the waiter, after taking my order, disappeared for a long stretch.

When it came, it was easy to think that my order of the eggs with chili might easily have been bested by the quiche with crab, leeks and roasted red peppers, or even the pricier lump crab cakes with crawfish succotash. Even though the beans were flavorful, poached eggs don't really showcase the kitchen's skills. And for another brunch, I'd surely set aside some appetite for the sweets: recently, these included a real stunner, the vanilla gingersnap mascarpone cheesecake, and regretfully, I declined, having already consumed a week's worth of doughnut calories. But cheesecake fanciers may not be able to say "no" to a wedge--what a combination.

But if a Saturday or Sunday brunch simply does not work into your schedule, don't worry about missing out on doughnut heaven. The reassuring telephone voice declared that fresh doughnuts are available every morning for breakfast. And yes, make a reservation for brunch.

Tabard Inn, 1739 N St. NW; tel., 833-2668. Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Sat. & Sun. brunch. Brunch entrée prices: $9-$15; doughnuts, $6 per half-dozen. Major credit cards.

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