An informative menu and knowledgeable staff make it easier to decide which of the 150 bottled and 50 draft brews to drink. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
If you love, or even like, beer, Owen’s Ordinary is the place for you. Opened by Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG) in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development in mid-October, the restaurant serves American fare alongside 50 brews on draft, half from Maryland, and 150 canned and bottled offerings, one-third of which hail from Maryland breweries. The beer selection is so impressive, in fact, that it may inspire you to overlook the food.
Owen’s Ordinary is named after a tavern that operated on Rockville Pike in the 18th century. (An ordinary was an inn that offered a complete meal at a fixed price.) The restaurant is the first in Maryland for NRG, which owns and operates 13 others in Virginia and D.C., including Bluejacket, an actual brewery.
Designer Catherine Hailey created a beautiful environment to showcase the beer. The style is steampunk, which mixes Victorian romantic elements with industrial ones. In the 114-seat dining room, English manor house bookcases and walls covered with quaintly patterned honey-colored or maroon wallpaper commingle with large pendant chandeliers that resemble 19th-century surgical lamps. The 50-seat bar is outfitted with booths and communal tables, the latter lit by long, amber, test tube-like bulbs in fixtures that could be mistaken for semicircular bug zappers. Eight large televisions are tuned to various sports channels; four of them are visible from the 60-seat outdoor beer garden. Enormous copper chutes house beer lines that feed into multi-tap receptacles that look like potbelly stoves covered with white porcelain bathroom tiles.
NRG’s beer director, Greg Engert, didn’t have an issue with Montgomery County’s much-maligned Department of Liquor Control (DLC). The county does act as an extra middleman between the producer and retailer, therefore adding cost, Engert says, but a law passed in 2014 allows small craft brewers to self-distribute up to 3,000 barrels of beer annually, so he buys directly from producers such as Maryland brewers Denizens Brewing Co., Brewer’s Art, RAR and Manor Hill. “That guarantees freshness and a better price for the consumer,” Engert says. “The county allowed this to happen.”
Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Engert encourages exploration by dividing beers into flavor categories on the menu (malt; fruit and spice; crisp; tart and funky; hop; and roast) and offering draft beers in 4-ounce tasting pours ($2.50 to $7.50) and full portions that range from 10 to 16 ounces ($6 to $15). The wealth of information Engert supplies—down to the temperature (42, 48 or 54 degrees) at which various drafts are stored—is helpful for choosing flights, as is advice from the well-versed staff. (I loved spicy RAR Habanero Nectar, bold Evolution Rise Up stout and fruity Union Anthem.)
As remarkable as the beer offerings are, the food puts the “ordinary” in Owen’s. The chef is 40-year-old Rockville resident Anthony Piscioneri, whose résumé includes eight years as chef with Passion Food Hospitality and five with Matchbox Food Group.
Anything with Red Apron in the description, referring to NRG-owned Red Apron butcher shops, is a safe bet. The Red Apron half-beef, half-pork half-smoke is nicely spiced, its whole-grain mustard and turnip kraut accompaniments perfect foils for the sausage’s richness. A charcuterie plate—say with chunky pork paté, slices of beef summer sausage, soppressata (a spicy salami) and a luscious chicken liver mousse (Piscioneri makes that)—goes perfectly with beer. (The offerings change.) Other good starters include plump cornmeal-crusted fried oysters with celery root remoulade and chipotle mayo, and fried chicken wings. The drumettes and wingettes have a hint of sweetness thanks to sugar in their brine, which also creates lacquering when they hit the fryer. They come with a choice of three sauces. All are tasty, but go for the piquant serrano garlic sauce unless you think you can handle the three-alarm habanero cilantro sauce.
The fare at Owen’s Ordinary includes, clockwise from top, flatbread, a charcuterie plate and fish-and-chips. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Owen’s puts out a decent 8-ounce Angus cheeseburger and a Big Mac-ish double stack. Fries could benefit from double instead of single frying to make them crispier. Flatbreads have a nice chewy, crisp crust; the one with cheese and zesty pepperoni (actually Red Apron soppressata) is a winner.
For entrées, go for the fish-and-chips, the cod sealed within a crisp beer batter and therefore moist. From there, it’s downhill. Coffee-rubbed brisket doesn’t taste like coffee, and if there is any coffee in the red-eye gravy, a crucial ingredient, I can’t discern it. With wan mashed potatoes and kale, the dish looks, and tastes, like hospital food. Braised pork shank also lacks flavor, though its bed of farro, cubed root vegetables and roasted Brussels sprouts is delicious. Arctic char fillet is nicely cooked, but gets no help from lifeless spiraled zucchini noodles and scant smoked tomato sauce. Bistro steak, made with a flavorful cut called teres major, looks like it was sliced with a stiletto heel. Its accompaniments of overcooked smashed-then-fried roasted Butterball potatoes and dreary delicata squash slices turn a misdemeanor into a felony.
Service at Owen’s betrays management issues. The servers know their beer, but you sometimes have to flag them down. One course might arrive at the table before a previous one is cleared. And I’m willing to overlook stacking when removing plates, but in the server’s hand, not on the table right in front of my place setting. The manager is often dawdling while staff runs about.
Desserts are better on paper than in reality. Giant chocolate cake doughnuts, served with grainy chocolate pudding, look like—and are as hard as—musket ammo. A skillet of underbaked chocolate chip cookie dough, topped with dulce de leche ice cream and Nutella sauce, is a sugar overload.
The best plan of attack at Owen’s is to sit at the bar, order a flight, and stick to the basics food-wise. Then, have a beer.
11820 Trade St. (Pike & Rose), North Bethesda, 301-245-1226; www.owensordinarymd.com
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.