FOOD: Dogwood Tavern — Two Takes

Falls Church Times Staff

February 19, 2010

My brother and I are on our way to the City of Falls Church for a late lunch, and I’m throwing out as many ideas as I can.  He keeps shooting them down.

“How about Luzmila’s?” I say.  “I’ve never actually had a sit down meal there.”

“I don’t want Bolivian food,” he says.  “I want French fries.”

I ignore his plea for fries.  He always says that.

“Okay, what about the Lebanese Butcher?” I say.  “I want to try a 10 appetizer deal they have.”

“Nope,” he says.  “Lebanese food is too salty.”

Too tired to launch into argument about how ridiculous it is to call an entire cuisine “too salty,” I suggest a place I know he’ll like, even though I’m not thrilled about it.

“We can go to Dogwood Tavern; I haven’t been there and I know they’ll have French fries.” 

“Hmm, that could be good,” he says.

My brother is more adventurous than most people when it comes to eating out.  He likes Thai, Indian, Chinese, and plenty of other ethnic cuisines.  But he also fiercely defends American food any chance he can, especially when he’s around people that always want to eat something “weird and ethnic” like me.  Macaroni and cheese, steak and cheese, a burger with cheese, grilled cheese—these are some of his favorite things to eat.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Well-executed American food can be delicious.  I just don’t think you find a whole lot of inventive, top-notch American cooking around here.

I’ve avoided Dogwood Tavern for that reason, along with the fact that I don’t really drink beer (which, let’s be honest, is what most people go there for).

Before I have a chance to offer up another suggestion he turns into Dogwood’s parking lot.

“All right, we’re going here,” he says. 

Dogwood Tavern opened in April 2008, the third venture from the same group of owners behind Ragtime and Rhodeside Grill, two Arlington sports bars that draw steady happy hour crowds.   All three places have some overlap in their menus, but each also has unique items that go along with whatever “theme” the place is supposed to be driven by.  Dogwood is meant to be a celebration of Virginia.

That’s evident right as we walk in. The place is tastefully decorated with Virginia memorabilia, and, in general terms, is about as nice a sports bar as I’ve seen.  It’s clean and spacious.  The televisions are plentiful and not obnoxiously loud.  There are even some Mardi Gras decorations peppered throughout the place. I like the vibe.

The classy sign outside Dogwood Tavern is a good predictor for what's inside--a sleek but relaxing space.

The classy sign outside Dogwood Tavern is a good indicator of what's inside–a sleek but relaxing space.

When we sit down to look at the menus I’m a little discouraged.  The supposedly Virginia-centric menu appears to be pretty basic bar fare, with the occasional dish including Virginia ham and a few items involving quasi-regional foods like oysters and catfish.  Other than that there are gimmicky names for regular foods, like the “Shenandoah Slider” or “Potomac Pesto Chicken Wrap.”  I scan the entire menu and can’t find a single item that really peaks my interest.

“Ohhh, they have waffle fries,” my brother says, giddily flipping through the menu.

“You’re unbelievable,” I say.

“Oh man, look at this,” he says, pointing to the Sandwich section.  “I want to order everything on this page.”


But there is hope.  A one-day Mardi Gras menu, which includes a sampler of gumbo, red beans and rice, and jambalaya, is intriguing.  The food reviewer in me says that I should order something off the regular menu because it makes more sense to critique that.  But I convince myself that a sampler will be a good barometer for the type of cooking the restaurant is capable of, even if it includes items not regularly offered.  I order it.

My brother opts for the Hot Turkey and Cheddar sandwich (with waffle fries, of course) and we decide on the Honey Pepper wings as a starter.  I prepare myself for a mediocre meal.

Dogwood doesn't look like a sports bar, does it?

Dogwood doesn't look like a sports bar, does it?

The wings arrive in no time, flanked by the ubiquitous blue cheese dip and celery sticks.  Expecting some sort of sweet heat from a honey-pepper glaze, I don’t get much of anything after one bite.  They are faintly sweet, not at all peppery, and actually a little dry.

“These are good,” my brother says, morphing into his food critic mode.  “The first bite is really sweet, and it’s just a nice salty finish.”

“No, they need more heat,” I say.  “They are fine, but they are a little bland.”

“I knew you would say that,” he says.  “All you ever eat is spicy ethnic food.”

Hmmm.  That’s true.  Then I ask him a question I often ask myself when I ponder a dish.

“Would you tell someone to come here and order these?”

“Yeah, I would,” he says.

He doesn’t say it with conviction, though.  I don’t believe him.

Our main dishes come out just as we finish off the wings.  I snag a waffle fry before my brother drowns his plate in ketchup.  Like the wings, they aren’t bad, but they’re certainly not a talking point.  Surprisingly, my brother agrees.

I already regret getting the Mardi Gras special because I haven’t eaten a ton of Creole food to compare it against.  I can count on one hand the number of time I’ve had red beans and rice, jambalaya, and gumbo.

Nevertheless, I dive into the red beans and rice, which are teeming with smoky andouille sausage.  The dish is mildly seasoned, but I like it for its rib-sticking heartiness and creamy-textured beans.  The jambalaya is not quite as good but I clean the bowl out because I’m hungry.  It lacks the punch I expected.

After one spoonful of the gumbo I almost gag it’s so bad.  I take a second taste just to confirm that it really is that bad and it’s somehow worse the second time around.  The stew is slimy (I think from improperly cooked okra) and off-putting in a way that’s hard to describe.  Something just isn’t right about it. 

A slow-cooked dish that tastes this bad is a problem at a restaurant.  It’s not an overcooked burger or a dried out piece of grilled chicken, which are merely execution issues that can happen from time to time.  It’s a flat-out nasty dish that the kitchen cooked ahead of time, tasted, and deemed good enough to serve at lunch and dinner.  Not good.

When I force my brother to have a taste he shudders after swallowing it down.

“That’s gross,” he says.

My brother’s sandwich is better, he says. 

“This is solid, man.”

I’m so fed up with my gumbo that I don’t even sneak a taste of his sandwich in, which I had planned to do.  Ah well.

For some reason we decide to order a five-layer chocolate cake, which our waitress assures us is “really good.”  It is good, especially if you like fudgy, not-too-sweet, chocolate-packed desserts.  Too bad it comes surrounded with cool whip—an unfortunate sign that a restaurant is content to take shortcuts (fresh whipped cream is embarrassingly easy to make).

I leave indifferent towards the meal and the restaurant.  My brother is more optimistic.

“Its solid bar food; there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says.  “I’d come here again.”

Yes, I see where my brother is coming from.  I get the appeal of decent food in a relaxing atmosphere with a good beer selection and plenty of HD TVs.  I get 50 cent wing nights and half price raw bar specials.  I get live music three times a week.  Dogwood fills a niche that I completely understand. 

I just don’t happen to fall into it.    

Dogwood Tavern is located at 132 West Broad Street, Falls Church, VA, 22046-4201.  Phone: (703) 237-8333 

February 19, 2010 


13 Responses to “FOOD: Dogwood Tavern — Two Takes”

  1. Manny Little on February 19th, 2010 10:35 am

    I also was at Dogwood this past “Fat Tuesday” with my better half and loved the food! We had a doz of oysters, crab legs, and the sampler of red beans- gumbo- jambalaya. We loved it! the spice in the jambalaya was mild, but we added a little Tabasco just as we do when in New Orleans at the Acme Restaurant. Thank you Dogwood for making Fat Tuesday fun. When we told the waitress how much we enjoyed the food,she said the cooks were working most of the night on the dishes.

  2. Chris Lefbom, FallsChurch on February 19th, 2010 11:41 am

    If you can count on one hand the amount of times you’ve had gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans, how can you accurately judge how a gumbo is supposed to taste? I also tried the New Orleans Sampler Platter that day and found it to be spot on…but maybe my palate is not as exquisite as yours. I guess mine and the majority of Falls Church is more similar to your brother’s tastes.

  3. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on February 19th, 2010 2:47 pm

    After reading your various reviews over the year, I know Dogwood isn’t a restaurant you’d get overly excited about. So, I knew I had to read your take. And, what I appreciate about your review is that you took your brother who you knew might be more appreciative of the place. So, I think you gave a pretty balanced review using the two of your opinions.

    I have to say I’m happy that Dogwood has done so well, considering how poorly the previous two places ventures did. The place gets pretty crowded on weekends. I enjoy it mainly for happy hour – nothing beats a good American type restaurant for that and the ethnic places fall flat in this department (although Hoang’s has a decent happy hour).

  4. Dreamingin22046 on February 19th, 2010 4:19 pm

    I like your brother, is he single?

    I also like the shrimp and grits at Dogwood Tavern.

  5. Brian Williams (The Little City of Falls Church) on February 19th, 2010 5:00 pm

    I’m a big Dogwood fan — the drinks, food, atmosphere, staff, ownership … I go there often, recommend it often, host happy hours often. I’d love for there to be more places like Dogwood in Falls Church.

  6. Laurel on February 19th, 2010 5:55 pm

    I enjoy ethnic food, especially Vietnamese and Thai, and I’m always happy to read your reviews. That said, I think you should give Dogwood another chance and order something off the regular menu, preferably without okra. (In my experience, people either like okra or think it’s gross. I think it’s gross.)

    I’ve enjoyed many lowkey meals at Dogwood, and I don’t drink beer either. (I’m happy they have hard cider, even if it is limited to one bottled brand.) I’ve had good luck with their salads, including Apple & Chicken and Steak, and I’ve enjoyed their Herb Roasted Chicken. The Baked Sweet Potato can be a treat instead of fries or a regular baked loaded with butter or sourcream. My parents, who are not very adventurous eaters, liked the Flat Iron Steak when they visited me last year.

    Granted, none of these are gourmet dishes and this isn’t a foodie’s paradise or some fantastic whole-in-the-wall treasure, but I’d say the options are much better than “basic bar fare.” I’ve enjoyed the food options at Dogwood much more than at her sister establishment, Rhodeside Grill. And now that it’s smoke-free, I’ll be heading over much more often.

    Another “non-ethnic” Falls Church place you might try is Dogfish Head Alehouse. The food is quite good, despite the impression that it’s just another brewpub and won’t have anything to offer us non-beer drinkers. I love the Ahi Tuna (good quality, so order it barely seared if you like sushi).

  7. Jimmy Scarano, Arlington on February 19th, 2010 10:17 pm

    Chris: I hear where you’re coming from. But let me clarify a few things. I don’t have an “exquisite palate.” I like all types of food, and, to be honest, I rarely eat anything “fancy.” I prefer cheap divey places nine times out of ten. And yeah, I haven’t had a ton of gumbo, but if a food tastes bad to me what am I supposed to say? I can only call it as I see it. And, for the record, my brother-who’s tastes are “more similar” to yours, as you say- hated it just as much as I did.

    Other Commenters: I would have loved to have had three or four visits to Dogwood under my belt before writing a review. I’m sure I would’ve run into some dishes that I liked. Alas, I am not a professional critic and cannot afford multiple visits to places. Ideally I get in two visits, but sometimes one is all I’m able to fit in. When that’s the case, it’s very difficult to write a story that can paint a full picture of a restaurant, so I try to take a different approach to the story (or, if a place is so bad, I don’t even write a story….which has happened multiple times in the past few months-I really try to avoid writing too many negative reviews).

    My story is not meant to be a final judgement on Dogwood, but more of a story about two types of eaters at a restaurant. I wanted to show people that food reviewing is nothing special-its just me eating at a restaurant and thinking about what I’m eating and whether or not I would recommend it. My opinion isnt any more valid than my brothers’ or anyone else’s. That’s what I hope you got out of it. Dogwood’s not bad. It’s just not the kind of place I gravitate towards.

  8. Jimmy Scarano, Arlington on February 19th, 2010 10:37 pm

    And Laurel….Thanks for the recs. I’ve heard some pretty good things about Dogfish from many people. I don’t hate okra. I’ve had it in Indian curries and other dishes and it’s been delicious.

    On the “ethnic” front. I guess from my reviews people get the sense that I only like “out there” ethnic food. As I’ve tried to say over and over — I just think that ethnic food is what this area does well. There is just a dearth of good, affordable American cooking in the area in my opinion. You’ve got to go to yuppy places in Clarendon or D.C. to get seasonal, local, simple American food that tastes great. And those places are expensive. A food-focused, well-priced American restaurant would get a rave review from me as much as any other place. I just haven’t found one.

  9. Jose, Falls Church on February 20th, 2010 7:31 am

    Dogwood is sometimes a miss for me on food and one thing always bothers me about this place. I drink hard cider. They serve a bottled hard cider and it costs $6 a bottle. It is not a micro cider or even a good one and I have no clue how they can justify such a premium. In stores this same cider costs the same as Sierra Nevada or other quality domestic beers. $6 for a bottle of the cider they offer is overpriced by at very least, $2 a bottle.

    That aside I like walking there for lunch in nice weather and eating a sandwich and waffle fries on the back patio. I find that very nice. If you can get a seat, NFL game days are a fun time at Dogwood.

  10. William Holtz, City of Falls Church on February 20th, 2010 9:05 pm

    Lately I have become an avid reader of the Falls Church Times and think you guys are doing a great job covering local issues that I never paid attention to – you got me so interested that I am following the local election and attended the CBC convention today for the first time. That said, I find it hard to understand why these food reviews appear on the “P.1” home page while a reader has to search for stories like the reporting on a developer’s request for city equity and city leasing commitments for a proposed new building and the subsequent City response. That’s the inside stuff I come to the FCT for, not food reviews.
    By the way, Dogwood is an awesome neighborhood bar with great food. We need more local gathering places like it in the City of Falls Church.

  11. George Southern on February 20th, 2010 10:21 pm

    @ William Holtz: Delighted that you’re a new and supportive reader of the Falls Church Times. The stories you mentioned in fact were featured at the top of page 1 when they first came out, but they must have “rolled” off the page before you saw them. The best way to avoid missing any news is to subscribe to our email service (see the box at the top of the page). Every night you’ll get a email with all the headlines for the day. Just click on any one that interests you and you will be taken straight to the story. As for Jimmy’s food reviews, Google Analytics tells us that they are among the most-read stories in the paper. For example, looking at Friday/Saturday page view totals, the Dogwood review was the top-read story, and comments on the Dogwood review came in #2. Third place was a political report. So to paraphrase Upton Sinclair — “We aim for their hearts but we hit their stomachs.”

  12. Elisa Aronica, Falls Church City on February 21st, 2010 3:41 pm

    As strange as it may seem, I agree with Chris Lefbom. Also, you obviously did not take the time to taste and enjoy the chocolate cake. You claim that it was “surrounded by cool whip”, an obvious sign that not only are you an AWFUL food critic, but you also don’t do your research. I know Dogwood Tavern and I can confidently say that they do not use cool whip, therefore they are not “content to take shortcuts” Maybe next time you should ask some questions, get to know the restaurant a little better, before bad mouthing the business.

    God Bless Dogwood Tavern.

  13. Jimmy Scarano, Arlington on February 21st, 2010 5:11 pm


    Thanks for your comment. It doesn’t seem “strange” that you agree with Chris Lefbom. Everyone is entitled to their opinion about a restaurant. I’m glad you shared yours with Falls Church Times readers. This is an open forum.

    “I didn’t take the time to taste and enjoy the chocolate cake”…yes I did. I liked it. Did you read the story?

    About the cool whip. Well, the waitress said they used cool whip and the white stuff around the chocolate cake sure wasn’t real whipped cream, so what can I say? Where are you getting your information from?

    And, actually, when it comes to the desserts Dogwood IS content to take shortcuts. The waitress herself said of all the desserts they have only the cherry cobbler is made in-house. The rest are brought in from the outside-including that chocolate cake. That, to me, is taking shortcuts. I asked our waitress where the cake came from and she left to ask the kitchen but came back with no answer. Nobody in the kitchen knew where it was from. She said “it probably comes from Sysco, we get a lot of stuff from there.”

    I don’t mean to bash Dogwood — I’m just telling you how it happened. I am a tireless researcher and I always ask questions.

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