On my first visit to Spanish Diner, a concept from chef José Andrés that replaced the Bethesda location of his tapas restaurant Jaleo in May, it’s 95 degrees outside. I order a pitcher of sangria made with rosé wine, gin, vermouth, orange slices and watermelon and bookend my meal, heavy on grandma-style stews and various iterations of fried eggs served with fried potatoes, with two refreshing, uncomplicated dishes. To start, gazpacho, the classic Spanish chilled soup of pureed tomatoes, green peppers and cucumbers thickened with bread and topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of tiny crouton cubes, and, for dessert, piña borracha—pineapple chunks “drunk” with flavor from having been vacuum-sealed with rum, lime juice and mint. The fruit arrives on a platter of crushed ice, arranged decoratively on the rind of a quartered pineapple.
Andrés has a lot on his plate. The Bethesda resident travels the globe to areas in crisis for World Central Kitchen, the food relief organization he and his wife, Patricia, started in 2010, but also continues to expand his restaurant empire through his parent company, ThinkFoodGroup, whose portfolio includes 28 restaurants nationwide.
At the onset of the pandemic in mid-March 2020, Andrés closed all of his D.C.-area restaurants (except for takeout), turning some of them into temporary community kitchens. The D.C. and Crystal City locations of Jaleo reopened in Phase Two, but Jaleo Bethesda went into “hibernation” in May 2020 and never reopened. “COVID made me rethink,” Andrés says. “The lease was ending. We were doing OK, but not great. Spanish Diner [which debuted in New York City’s Hudson Yards in 2019] is successful in New York. It’s a good concept that can grow.”
The decor at Spanish Diner in Bethesda is like Andrés: lively, colorful and kinetic. A wavy drop ceiling in neon yellow covers one section of the dining room; a neon orange wall accents another. Keith Haring-esque window decals depicting pintxos (bar snacks) as cartoon animals and curved banquettes upholstered with multicolored geometric fabric add to the whimsy. A foosball table in the middle of the room is a Jaleo holdover. The 108-seat restaurant also has a patio with 48 seats.
Spanish Diner’s chef de cuisine is Daniel Lugo, 30, who was Jaleo Bethesda’s chef. The Diner offers starters, soups and salads, but eggs, stews and sandwiches—the kinds of dishes Andrés grew up eating in his native Asturias in northwestern Spain—are its main focus. “When people think of Spanish food, they think of tapas, which we have, but [at Spanish Diner] we are highlighting dishes of our grandmothers or that friends make when they have you over,” Lugo says.
Like the gazpacho and pineapple, there are dishes reminiscent of Jaleo on the menu, such as croquetas (Jaleo made these fritters with chicken; the Diner’s are filled with chicken, beef, ham and chorizo); pan de cristal (a bread imported from Barcelona) topped with grated fresh tomatoes, olive oil and sea salt; and bikini mixto, a wonderfully toasty, gooey, pressed ham and Manchego cheese sandwich.
New to Bethesdans are a delightful salad of avocado cubes tossed in a verdant mojo sauce of cumin, garlic, cilantro, sherry vinegar and olive oil and specked with goat cheese, and the Diner’s version of tortilla, the classic Spanish potato omelet. Using José Andrés brand potato chips that are rehydrated (instead of raw potatoes) to prepare the dish proves an innovation better in idea than in reality. My tortilla is runny and undercooked rather than custardy, as it should be.
The star of the Spanish Diner menu is huevos rotos (broken eggs) served the same way Casa Lucio, a Madrid restaurant, has been serving them since 1974. Over-easy eggs are placed on top of a pile of pale french-fried potatoes and come with, if you choose, morcilla (blood sausage), ham, chistorra (a chorizo-like Basque sausage) or smoked salmon. Cooking the potatoes is quite the process: They are peeled, cut, steamed, cooled, fried in 300-degree oil, refrigerated and then fried at 375 degrees to order. “We don’t fry them crispy. We want them to be a little soggy so when you cut them up with the eggs and mix it all together, the potatoes absorb the yolks,” Lugo says.
There are seven other egg dishes on the menu, such as one with seared squid, caramelized onions and fried potatoes and another with a stew of eggplant, peppers and zucchini. The eggs for these items, says Lugo, are prepared as abuela (grandmother) would make them: fried sunny-side up in olive oil in a very hot pan so the edges become crisped and brown. The egg dish that wins my heart is the pressed breakfast sandwich with ham, Manchego cheese, sliced avocado and a fried egg inside, its yolk exposed through a hole removed from the top slice of toasted bread.
The menu section “La Cocina de la Abuela ‘Our Grandma’s Cuisine’ ” features dishes to warm a soul in cool weather, among them fricando de ternera (Catalan beef and mushroom stew thickened with a paste of almonds, bread and garlic) and chicken fricasseed with caramelized onions and sherry. Canelones (pasta cylinders) stuffed with chicken, pork and duck foie gras and baked to bubbly brown goodness with Manchego cheese and nutmeg-laced bechamel sauce are a knockout. The ultrarich dish is a Spanish specialty usually served at Christmastime, but I wipe my plate clean in the middle of a summer heat wave.
Spanish Diner is fun, but I have some quibbles. I get that it’s meant to be diner food, but I wish there were more vegetables other than salad on the menu to balance the menu’s carb- and meat-heavy heartiness. Another beef: a wine list with no bottles under $40.
I have no qualms with the restaurant’s desserts, though, especially the flan, made according to Andrés’ mother’s recipe. Flan can sometimes be rubbery, but Andrés’ rests on a pool of caramel and is silken and creamy, perhaps the best I’ve ever had. Rice-and-milk pudding, topped with a creme brulee-like layer of caramelized sugar, also satisfies, but I still maintain that piña borracha is the perfect way to end a meal, or, now that I think of it, to begin one. I may do just that on my next visit to Spanish Diner.
7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-284-3700; spanishdiner.com
Overall rating: B
Favorite dishes: Rosé sangria; gazpacho; avocado salad with mojo verde; bikini mixto (grilled ham and cheese sandwich); breakfast ham, egg, cheese and avocado sandwich; Casa Lucio-style fried egg plate with fried potatoes with ham, sausage and blood sausage; chicken, pork and duck foie gras-stuffed canelones with cheese sauce; compressed pineapple with rum, lime and mint.
Prices: Appetizers: $6 to $19; Sandwiches: $11 to $14; Two-egg platters: $12 to $21; “Grandma’s” dishes: $12 to $20; Desserts: $8.
Libations: Andrés’ company, ThinkFoodGroup, has a team of beverage experts who travel the world for ideas and resources, so it’s no surprise that the beverages at Spanish Diner are superlative. You’ll find colorful sangrias by the glass/half pitcher/full pitcher (about $10/$30/$52); bountiful gin and tonics ($15); craft cocktails (a Cuba Libre is $12); four draft and three bottled Spanish beers; ciders; sherries; espresso drinks; and non-alcoholic beverages. An all-Spanish wine list includes four sparklers, 12 whites, two rosés and 17 reds. Bottles cost $40 to $80; glasses go for $10 to $15.
Service: Attentive, knowledgeable, pleasant.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.