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Posted at 2:42 PM ET, 08/15/2008

Cuisine From Across the Pond

By Julia Beizer

Take a seat at a communal table at the new Columbia Heights hotspot. (Eric Gronning)

CommonWealth, the buzzed-about Columbia Heights "gastropub," opened last week to a packed dining room and patio. The curiosity makes sense. After all, isn't British food supposed to be bad? Could chef Jamie Leeds really make it good?

Fritz and I were among the hundreds of Washingtonians who checked out the new restaurant last week. Note that I said restaurant. The space boasts a large bar and few bar tables for checkers- and chess-playing, but the focus here is clearly on the dining room. Beers can be ordered in English and U.S. pint sizes, and though the cask-conditioned ales aren't available yet (licensing delay), I'm told they'll be up and running next week. The wine list includes a hefty selection of sparklings, which was a nice surprise.

As far as food goes, CommonWealth provides precisely what it set out to: British comfort-food staples that are noticeably better than your average pub fare. Starters include plates of mostly-local cheeses and drapes of house-cured charcuterie. On the "Snack" (or appetizer) menu, the crab on toast dish was okay -- pretty much just how it sounds, enlivened slightly by peas and cauliflower. Scotch Eggs, on the other hand, were the highlight of our pre-meal. Artfully arranged on a wire tree, two hard-boiled eggs had been halved, wrapped in sausage, breaded in panko and flash fried and served with a trio of dipping sauces.

On the entree side, fish and chips were lightly battered and fried -- tasty without giving you the rock-in-the-stomach feeling you might get after a late night out in London. A caramelized-onion gravy added a delicious sweetness to bangers and mash, a traditional British entree of sausage and mashed potatoes. The most surprising item we sampled was an Earl Grey semifreddo, and while the British tea isn't known as a dessert drink, its characteristic flavor lended itself well to a creamy dessert.

Bar-menu prices? Not exactly ... unless you happen to be flush in pounds. Entrees here are $13-$19. Sides or "Trimmings" like Yorkshire pudding or green bean casserole are an additional $5, and while they looked tasty, you don't need to order them to get a full meal like you might at other restaurants. An entree platter is filling as it stands.

When I spoke to Leeds about this new venture last month, she seemed psyched about the restaurant being a gathering place for the neighborhood, as she herself lives nearby. Only time will tell if the restaurant becomes a neighborhood hangout or a place like the nearby Target, where people Metro in and then Metro out.

Have you been to CommonWealth? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

-- Julia

By Julia Beizer  | August 15, 2008; 2:42 PM ET
Categories:  Restaurants  
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I live in Columbia Heights and have been to CommonWealth four times since it's opening. I can definitely see it being a fun neighborhood spot in part due to the very friendly staff and great beer selection. Some of the food is good (smoked haddock cake, fish and chips, grilled fish, chicken pot pie) but other items I found lacking flavor (rocket and veg salads, gazpacho, veg tikka masala). Salt was definitely missing from some items and the salads need more acid. Overall, I think it's good and I'm sure will improve over time--it's just over a week old. CW is a welcome addition to the neighborhood since the Heights and Rumberos leave much to be desired in the way of food.

Posted by: living in the heights | August 17, 2008 11:01 PM | Report abuse

I went and had an amazing meal. Started with the Scotch eggs. What could be better than pork sausage, wrapped around an egg, and then deep fried? It is the perfect portable all-day breakfast that leaves one hand free to enjoy a cold British ale. Thank goodness they have a great variety of that on hand as well. Got a butcher plate with deviled sweetbreads, Surrey ham, and the pork belly. As the Brits would say, it was lovely. Beautiful plating and even more beautiful in my mouth. The bangers and mash could not be any tastier or comforting. My dining companion and I went the route of sharing the one main and getting multiple trimmings - mushy peas with mint, green bean casserole, and Welsh rarebit. Between these three trimmings, we had all the bases covered - crunchy, gooey, creamy, and the mint, refreshing. And now came the part of the evening that I usually dread in pubs - having to decide to keep drinking and make it one of those evenings or have dessert and go home. The answer: have a Young's Double Chocolate Stout Float! The perfect ending to a meal and the perfect start to an evening playing chess at their bar.

CommonWealth is not to be missed and is sure to become a new hangout for my friends and I.

Posted by: Tomo | August 18, 2008 5:04 AM | Report abuse

Pray tell, exactly what has to be "licensed" about cask-conditioned beers? Are they just not serving any beers yet? Or is someone cutting a phony excuse for delays in shipping or availability? (Most UK casks aren't shipped during the hot summer months.)

Posted by: Alexander | August 18, 2008 7:15 AM | Report abuse

Friend and I stopped by for a drink and fries at the bar, and we loved it. Great atmosphere and friendly, helpful bartenders. Looking forward to eating a meal there later. Extensive menu of beers, ales, lagers and all that, plus wines.

Alexander: Sweethear, they aren't serving "cask-conditioned beers" apparently, but that's a small part of what they offer. The majority of what they have is draft, bottles and cans.

Posted by: Bottoms up! | August 18, 2008 9:00 AM | Report abuse

I have to say that their beer selection is not that fantastic, at least the British stuff. Disappointing to say the least, considering how many fine ales are to be had in Britain.
Oh, and British ale should not be cold, it doesn't allow the flavors to come out.

Posted by: Aleficionado | August 18, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

14 degrees C is hardly warm Aleficionado

Posted by: Anonymous | August 18, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Aleficionado, please do not judge the place by your dislike of my use of the adjective cold. Notice I did not say ice cold. Coming from 90 degree weather, trust me that a beer even at about 55 degrees is and feels cold and refreshing. They know what they are doing. CommonWealth serves their beers and wines at proper temperature.

Posted by: Tomo | August 18, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Re: "Posted by Tomo"...I smell a propoganda machine- This is exactly something that a restauranteur or PR person would write. Though I'm a fan of Jamie Leeds' cooking, and look forward to trying CommonWealth out- I'm weary of reviews like the one "Tomo" posted- too detailed, too much knowledge of menu- Exactly the thing all the DC restaurants I used to work at would do- post annonymous GLOWING reviews of their restaurant in blogs and chats to influence readers!! Spare us the partisian-posed-as-annonymous kudos and let us decide for ourselves!!!

Posted by: JRB | August 18, 2008 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Would it help if I said that the place was a little loud and crowded and filled with the sort of crowd I am not too fond of? You are right in thinking that I took care in writing my post and I wanted to focus on the positive because I am sick of reading the negative when, in fact, I am thrilled to have new hangout in the neighborhood. I would be happy to share what I did not like, but you can figure that out for yourself by going. I enjoyed my night there and plan on enjoying many more nights there.

Posted by: Tomo | August 18, 2008 12:01 PM | Report abuse

And look online JRB, the menu is posted with the names of the dishes. My review is hardly detailed. Look on some other blogs where people are actually naming some of the ingredients in the dishes. Excuse me for seeing no purpose in posting a negative review when I had a great time there and want them to stick around in my neighborhood. As for the ale temp, it is pretty common knowledge and nothing only an 'insider' knows.

Posted by: Tomo | August 18, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Have yet to try this place myself, but I don't see how "Tomo" was trying to tell you to like this place. It is all an opinion, after all. Go to some other sites and you will find plenty of negative reviews if that is what you are hankering for. I will make up my own mind regardless of what I read. Please, isn't the whole conspiracy theory a bit much?

Posted by: CH Resident | August 18, 2008 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Ha. Hilarious. So by that reasoning, we can safely assume that all negative reviews we read were posted by a rival restaurant.

Posted by: Heights | August 18, 2008 3:57 PM | Report abuse

as a vegetarian, id suggest not going. really nothing to eat there, and what there was was pretty tasteless. sort of sad, as they will have that cask conditioned ale soon.

Posted by: columbia heights denizen | August 18, 2008 9:09 PM | Report abuse

well, sadly, it is a meat centered place, as many gastropubs tend to be. i enjoyed it as a carnivore, but i would never take my veggie friends. how was the tofu shepard's pie? any try it? it sounds like it has potential to at least be interesting.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 18, 2008 9:28 PM | Report abuse

I concur with the dismay at the beer selection. Considering the wealth of British beers available on draught in Washington, it is stunning and disappointing to see such a haphazard and overpriced selection.

I mean, it's no longer rare to find Bombardier, Speckled Hen, Boddington's (shame about Strangeways...), or Fuller's beers on cold tap. As for bottles, with Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase and Cairo Liquors at hand, why would I pay 4-pack prices for a single beer (e.g., 4-pack of Tetley's delivered for less than any pint on the menu?) Besides, where's the Wychwoods, the Pedigrees, the Spitfire - hell, anything out of the ordinary?

And what's with the prices, anyway? I know the price of kegs in this town. The prices at Commonwealth are nothing short of staggering. You'd think you were in a crumbing Oxford Street tourista-pub rather than an out-of-the-way, Columbia Heights restaurant. Hell, the Wharf Rat still brews two of their own cask ales at, what, $2 a half-pint all day? That's what I call a good neighbor policy.

Commonwealth, take note. We're thirsty, not stupid.

Posted by: william | August 21, 2008 7:12 PM | Report abuse

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