Post’s Tom Sietsema Not Impressed with Food at Arsenal (in Bluejacket Brewery) Also Disappointed with “onetime trendsetter” Birch & Barley

300 Tingey Street, SE

From the Washington Post:

“You are likely to empty your glass but leave food, sometimes a lot, on your plate.

For the sake of comparison, I revisited Bailey’s Birch & Barley last month after a long time away and found the onetime trendsetter to be a shadow of the upscale tavern it was when it sprang on the scene four years ago. Although the service was genial, the cooking was muddled; even dishes I used to recommend are no longer their good old selves.”

Aresenal is located in the Bluejacket brewery at 300 Tingey Street, SE in the Boilermaker building. Birch & Barley is located at 1337 14th Street, NW in Logan Circle. Have others noticed a decline in the food at Birch & Barley?

74 Comment

  • Tom Sietsema is a joke. This is the guy who thinks Range is one of DC’s best restaurants, which is a laugh.

    • Yes, clearly someone who was a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and is now the restaurant critic for the Washington Post has no idea what he’s talking about.
      And he gave Range 2 1/2 stars out of 4, which is a “good” rating. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t say that’s “one of DC’s best restaurants.” And he’s admitted that he was recognized at Range when he first went, which led to him receiving better service and seating than the average customer.

      • You forget that everybody in DC is an expert on everything, and everybody else but them knows absolutely nothing.

      • He listed it on DC’s 40 best restaurants, right alongside other disappointments like Oyamel and Jaleo.

        • So, you disagree with 3 of his 40 recommendations? And as such he is a joke? Okay, yea… right.

          • justinbc

            Lots of people disagree regularly with Sietsema, such is a life of being a professional “critic” of anything. I think the bottom line for the Post is that people still read him, agreeable or not.

        • Agree on Jaleo, which hasn’t been good for a long time. I like Range, even though generally I shy away from the small plate restaurants that plague the city now.

        • No, he didn’t list it in the “40 best.” He put it in his most recent dining guide, which is his current “40 favorite.” He’s not saying those 40 are the best in DC, and if you read him every week and read his online chats, you would know he makes a clear distinction between what he thinks are the “best” – i.e. high star ratings – and what restaurants go into his semiannual dining guide. If you’re going to criticize him, that’s fine. But do it fairly and don’t distort his writing to fit your critique.

        • OK then, which three restaurants not on the list should have been there in place of Range, Oyame, and Jaleo?

    • I agree. Range is terrible

  • The beer at Bluejacket is mediocre, at best. If the food is worse than the beer…yikes.

    • The beer is great, though certainly it’s a bit too far on the adventurous side for some.

    • The beer is great, though clearly it’s a bit too far on the adventurous side for some.

    • While I didn’t personally order any food the one time I went, friends who did were utterly disappointed. I agree with you about the mediocrity of the beer as well.

    • I tend to agree – they go for the quantity over quality approach. That being said I have had some really tasty beers there.

    • justinbc

      I’m curious, which beers did you try?

      • The Expat, the Forbidden Planet, and the Black Eye, IIRC. [I went a few weeks ago, soon after it opened.] None were terrible, but none were good, either.

        • Lots of people who know beer will agree with you. Nothing with the exception of a couple of the cask offerings impressed me all that much. I appreciate the risks they are taking with some of these beers, and many of them are very good representations of their respective styles, but I wish they had focused their energy on a list half the size to start out and moved to expand offerings after they had a solid slate of core beers. Now that Right Proper is open down the street from me I see no reason to trek down to Navy Yard just for their beer (which is incredibly sad given how much excitement I had for BlueJacket). It’ll be a stop we make on game days once the summer rolls around. And the food really truly is nothing to write home about.

          • justinbc

            The styles are a hindrance to many. In fact the biggest problem I’ve found in talking to people about the beers at Bluejacket is that they simply don’t understand what it is they’re ordering, and what it’s actually supposed to taste like. And this is in talking to many people who think they “know” beer (ironically because they’ve likely been to ChurchKey and sampled different things). That’s not to say that all of the beers at Bluejacket are brewed perfectly to fit the described style, but rather than often the audience isn’t fully of aware of what to expect and some of the descriptors can be a bit misleading when you’re wholly unfamiliar. I think if anything, to expound upon your “too many” theory, they overestimated the beer knowledge of the DC crowd that would show up, and bombarded them with too many options, so much so that people wind up receiving things that aren’t really what they would want were they forced into a narrower decision pool. For someone who genuinely nerds out over beer (we tasted through the whole lineup on our first visit) it’s a nice shrine to what can be in DC.

          • I too tasted all but a 2-3 of their beers the first time I went. I can (and do) appreciate many different types of beer, but I was simply not at all impressed with any single one. Were they fine? Sure they were. It’s just that nothing really stood out as phenomenal. I too think that they would be helped by first developing a solid core and then branching out from there.

          • This in reply to justinbc above:

            I genuinely nerd out to beer, and I left BlueJacket underwhelmed. You can’t pin their failure to live up to expectations entirely on misjudging the audience. Some of the beers on their very ambitious list just fall flat, unique style or not. Two of the cask IPAs I sampled at the same time (one was the Lost Weekend, the other I forget) were so similar as to be interchangeable. I had to ask the server politely if the bartender hadn’t poured one of them twice by accident. They were redundant. Good beers, but they both didn’t need to be on the list. That’s what I mean about focus.

          • justinbc

            I never said it was entirely due to the audience. There were definitely a few I did not care for, but I can’t name a brewery where that’s not the case (even heavyweights like Stone, 3 Floyds, Lost Abbey, etc). I think in terms of what else is coming out of DC at the time it’s hard not to be impressed. Right Proper makes great stuff too, but not nearly on this scale. Nobody should be comparing a brewery that opened just a few months ago to Founders, Bells, etc which have been solidly producing for much longer periods.

          • I think these comments along with the general chatter out there proves that it’s easy not to be impressed 🙂 My point was that if they focused their energy on a smaller set of brews like Right Proper they might be received more like, well, Right Proper. Variety for variety’s sake does not a great beer list make (hey, it rhymes!)

          • justinbc

            Right Proper is not striving for the same goal as Bluejacket though, so styling their business model after them would not be effective. I’m certainly not one to question the decision making of a restaurant group with a dozen locations to their credit (whether or not you care for all of them is really not relevant to the success).

          • I’m not questioning the decision making, I’m questioning the RESULTS. BlueJacket is putting out a lot of mediocre beer according to the subjective taste of many people who are knowledgeable on the subject. I think that’s pretty relevant given the expectations those same people had of the team that brought us ChurchKey. Let’s put it this way: if Right Proper and BlueJacket were to magically swap locations I would travel across town often to visit the former even though the latter would now be in my backyard. My experience at Right Proper has shown that I can order practically blindly off the list and be served something interesting. My track record at BlueJacket would run 50/50. And I’m clearly not alone in this thinking.

          • I must be the only one who didn’t come here to blow smoke up Right Proper’s ass. I found their stuff average at best and yes I have a lot of experience brewing at home. I wonder how many of the fan boys here are just Shaw lovers worshipping in their own backyard?

    • +1000. Actually, I’d characterize the beer as awful. The food was mediocre. I’m a rabid localvore and craft beer lover so I’ll probably give them another chance, but… very disappointed. And it’s a waste of a beautiful space in a prime location. Maybe DC Brau will take it over!

      • justinbc

        You do realize that part of the reason it’s a “beautiful space” is because they transformed it into that, right?

      • Most of the styles of beer they’ve rolled out so far are far from typical, and are not going to satisfy the unadventurous palate. Like their sour beer, for example. Almost everyone I know hates the currently-trendy sour beers that are out right now, and I’d count among them some serious beer aficionados.

  • Bluejacket Brewery (and Arsenal) are so 2013.

  • Good, I was beginning to think that I’m the only person in the world who isn’t gushing over the food at Bluejacket. My meal there was entirely mediocre, and everything that I or my dining companions have tried there has seemed a bit overambitious and under-executed. The same can be said for Birch and Barley/Churchkey: The beer was and still is incredible, but the food is really nothing special.

    • that’s kind of how i felt. the two meals we’ve had have been perfectly fine and certainly passable, but no “wow” factor. as a big beer drinker, the beer more than made up for that, which is why i’m a repeat customer.

  • I thought Bluejackets beer was great (but a little expensive), but the food was disappointing. And almost all fried. I haven’t been back to Birch and Barley since one lovely dinner just after it opened. Maybe I should preserve the memory and not return.

  • Navy Yard pro-tip: Eat at Agua 301, THEN go to Bluejacket to continue drinking.

  • I haven’t had much of their food (my burger was pretty excellent and fairly priced), but I’m surprised at the comments about the beer. As an insufferable beer snob who also isn’t afraid of drinkability, I found several of Bluejacket’s offerings superb, and nearly all of them at least solid. I found the Bitterschön, Lost Weekend (newer), Trouble (retired already), Figure 8, Stowaway, and Butcher to be their standouts.

    I was blown away by the fact that, right out of the gate, they can put up so many excellent offerings. It’s a real contrast to DC Brau and Chocolate City, which have been around for a while now and still can’t seem to make a decent brew.

    As for price, several can be had for $6 for 16 oz. By what standard is that expensive?

    • justinbc

      The Butcher is the best DC produced beer I’ve had to date. I think most of the beers from Chocolate City have verged on outright amateur efforts, Three Stars makes some good stuff, and DC Brau is just rather middle of the road.

      • Definitely concur (except about The Butcher, which I haven’t tried). I would also lump Atlas Brew Works into the mediocre category. I can’t wait to try Blue Jacket and Right Proper, though.

        • Right Proper is making, hands down, the best beer in DC. It’s not even close.

          • justinbc

            Different strokes for different folks I guess, and I’m definitely not knocking Right Proper.

          • I’d agree in saying that 3 Stars and Right Proper are the best in the city at this point.

          • 3 Stars needs to focus on a few of their beers. They seem to be going crazy with out there styles when they havent nailed a nice core selection. I used to like them more, but now ive realized a lot of management are pretty smug and jerkish

      • Came here to say this. The Butcher really is a world-class beer. I’m so excited to see what comes out of their wild room as well.

        • I will echo that and say The Butcher is quite tasty. I was very impressed with BlueJackets beers, regardless of the fact they are quite new.

          • Listening people geek out about beer is like listening to an argument about who’s mom makes the best meatloaf.

    • em

      I agree with dcloafer. I thought that the beer was great (I’ve had Figure 8, Expat, and Mexican Radio; friends’ beers also met with their approval). Since I’m a vegetarian, there wasn’t a lot on the menu that I could eat, but their veggie burger was tasty, and the gingerbread ice cream was superb.

  • Sietsema is also the worst. The Post needs new blood as food critic. He reminds me a bit of Anton Ego from Ratatouille

  • So what if you’re not a beer snob at all (i.e. hardly ever drink beer except lite ones when at a dive bar)? Are the beers still worth trying?

    • Sure, if you’re adventurous and like trying new things, why not?

    • Absolutely. Drink the Bitterschön (fairly classic crisp German lager, very quaffable), the Cut & Dry (Czech-like pilsner, similar to Pilsner Urquel/Czechvar – slightly creamier than the German variety but still light and drinkable), and also try the Forbidden Planet (which has some hop to it but is still dry and light and clocks in at 4.2% ABV).

      This is one of the things that impressed me about the brewery: They cover the whole spectrum, from the sort of in-your-face beers preferred by Three Stars to light, appealing session beers, which I think are underappreciated by my fellow American beer nerds (though that’s been changing – I can’t wait to try Right Proper).

      • Absolutely, they are doing some wildly different things with some of their brews and I think that’s what makes them great, instead of trying to out-hop everybody else, like some local brewers are doing.

    • justinbc

      I would say yes, to a degree, but there will obviously be a lot that you’ll likely find too hoppy/bitter/sour/etc. But please advise your bartender of your preferences so that they can actually help guide you along. They’re also always willing to pour little gratis tasters so you can decide if you want to order something specific.

  • I have not been to arsenel but my friends have and they were not raving about or suggesting that i should go. I have been to ChurchKey recently and i was dissapointed with the food. I remember going two years ago and tried the rabbit pot pie and a few other apps, they were delicious! I tried a pork belly sandwhich and the portion size was tiny for the price….basically 15 for bread with a peice of fat between it. I went to birch and barley once and i thought the food was good…but obviously not worth the price (was about 60$ a person for food and a few drinks). Also they were so over the top about how ‘sustainable’ they were, be a little more humble.

  • Terrible, overpriced DC food is still terrible and overpriced. Save a very few restaurants, it’s better to eat at home.

    • justinbc

      You must be a brilliantly talented chef!

      • You don’t have to be a chef to make good food. I prefer my cooking to restaurants too– much more variety, and of course it’s healthier too.

        • Healthier? Do you use some magical ingredients like special veggies or olive oil or poultry that is healthier than what I can get a decent restaurant in DC like Red Hen or Boundary Stone? Do share with us this magical spell you cast over your food that makes it so much healthier than good restaurants.

          • Umm, I’m willing to bet I use a lot less salt and butter than the restaurants do. What rock do you live under that makes you think restaurant food is just as healthy as home-cooked?

          • The fact anonymous thinks butter is bad for you shows he really doesn’t know much about eating right.

            All the latest research is debunking the high-carb low-fat “healthy” diet we were raised on.

          • Anonymous apparently doesn’t know shit about good restaurant food.

  • I never understood the fervor for the food at Birch and Barley. I live close and will drink at Churchkey sometimes, but I am always disappointed by the food at either place.

  • I work nearby, so I’ve had their lunch a handful of times. Each of the lunch entrees has been OK, but certainly not great. However, happy hour is always great. I rather like the beer and the space is fantastic.

  • Why do food critics still exist? No one uses them. We rely on customer-responses like yelp and google… that way we can weed through the uppity people such as the newspaper critics. How can you have a job complaining about food? I don’t get it.

    • justinbc

      Yelp is full of significantly more idiotic nonsense than Sietsema can ever hope to produce (and I say this as a former steady contributor). The problem with Yelp is that most users don’t actually READ the reviews, they just look at the aggregate score. So people with baseless, ignorant reviews can completely sway a rating one way or the other. Think about it, if you use that site, how many times do you just look at two places and say one is rated 3.5 stars and one is rated 4 and you pick the 4 based on that? The reason people pay to read a foot critic’s opinion is that he at least has some experience and supposed knowledge in the field (even if you regularly disagree with him, as I do).

    • saf


      I FAR prefer an informed critique from a known quantity than a bunch of random people’s opinions.

  • No surprise here. Bluejacket is mediocre at best. The problem is the overall diminished quality of food in this town elevates this place to something skewed. Eaten twice there; both dishes of mine were poor renditions of something that I could have done exponentially better at home. My gf concurred. Couple that with the absurd, overambitious selection of tasteless beers, and you have a weak product. My problem with this, and similarly trendy establishments (e.g. Le Diplomate…which is at least a step up comparatively) is that they succeed on décor, the thrill of trying to land a table, and the fact that almost nobody has truly good dining palettes. I feel that most people in DC except average and absurdly are willing to pay for it. Too often places strive to be too much, offering two many entrees, too many brews (in the case of Bluejacket), and this weird fascination with trying to push the boundaries. There’s a place for experimenting with food, but only so many people can really pull it off. Consider the insane menu prices for a place like Bluejacket for a sorry product, and you epitomize what is wrong with the dining scene in DC.

    • I’ve got hope though, at least in the price department. More affordable places have been opening up recently, at least when it comes to bars and alcohol (Right Proper, All Saints, Ivy & Coney). Perhaps the same will follow with restaurants. Maybe? Donburi in Adams Morgan is certainly a step in the right direction IMO.

    • You must be pretty broke if you catagorize entrees in the late teens to early 20’s as “insane”. Definitely don’t check out the also awesome Osteria Morini right in front of Bluejacket. Might have to take out a 30 year mortgage.

    • Sounds like you should open your own restaurant Mr Pro Palate. (FYI a palette is what an artist paints with)

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