- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

A comely brunette wearing large, white pearls and a fetching white sweater leans ever so slightly over the table to tell us the evening specials. We are leaning, too almost squinting over the print on a single-page menu, the barest illumination coming from tiny votive candles and small shaded lamps on the walls.

Local 16 is most definitely a romantic spot. Our smiling waitress even presented the check at the end of dinner with a little heart drawn at the top of the page.

Handsome metal chandeliers are bedecked with what looks like a beaded necklace. The walls are painted a warm red and decorated with large, wood-framed mirrors. No wonder the restaurant, just five months old, is a happening scene a more than worthy addition to the burgeoning U Street NW neighborhood.

Hence, the catchy name. Local 16 smacks of union tunes and blue-collar mind-sets, but don't be deceived. Casual dress is routine some of the waiters and waitresses are in navel-baring T-shirt comfort clothes but here "local" refers to its cachet as a magnet for residents who live in the area around 16th and U streets and beyond, which some optimists refer to as "Dupont Circle East." Dupont Circle and U Street Metro stops are only a few long blocks away.

The interior space is smartly realized and made for conviviality. An L-shaped bar stands just inside the door, dividing the dining area into two sections with smoking permitted in the smaller lounge. The building, which once housed a none-too-spectacular Julio's eatery, has been remodeled to perfection and looks full of character. The old tin ceiling has been retained in a black-green shade. Floors are bare oak. A community bulletin board the kind that seems to be disappearing in a Starbucks-saturated town is full of local ads and doings.

Upstairs is a cozy retreat often rented for private parties. Come spring, the doors will lead to a deck overlooking U Street. It's part bar, part spare dining room.

Fortunately, the food for the most part is on a par with the decor. Service can't be faulted, either, although owners still seem to be working out the kinks. Two phone messages asking information about hours and reservations went unreturned. Reservations are taken only for a party of six ideally, although it's possible to request a special table for two or four persons on the least busy days and hours.

While the newly introduced Sunday brunch menu is a little short on imagination, it is unpretentious, and prices are reasonable if not entirely in line with those at your less stylish corner neighborhood eatery. Plus, the homemade corned beef hash is a treat.

The kitchen doesn't mind improvising a bit to meet customer requests. (Please warm the croissant; make the omelet with smoked salmon, etc.) A jazz trio livens the mood even on the darkest, coldest day. The Bloody Mary, at $7, is properly spiced.

Our evening waitress coached us on the day's three specials, one of which was blackened catfish and another simply called "lamb stew." The latter was anything but ordinary. It was the most tender meat possible served with couscous and an appropriately fiery harissa sauce. One bowl held the stew, another the grains, a third smaller vessel the sauce.

Harissa also helped sharpen the taste of a grilled mahi-mahi. The flesh was moist and inviting beside a mix of roast baby red potatoes and tiny squash. Also on the plate was a jumble of fresh green salad. The dish was pleasant, if not outstanding. Certainly not as unusual as another entree listing curried coconut tofu.

The tofu is a rich dish, with possibly a bit too much sweetness from the coconut blended together in a bowl. The melange includes a goodly dose of fresh green spinach to add color and vitamins. Other entrees include grilled chicken with mashed potatoes; corn and parsnip risotto; a choice of salmon or trout with roasted red potatoes; fried oyster poor-boy; and a jerk chicken on penne pasta, plus the ubiquitous quality hamburger. Side selections of potatoes and vegetables are $4 each.

The few appetizers are entirely fishy, including fried ricepaper wrapped shrimp four small succulent pieces for $9.

White bowls seem to be Local 16's signature item. A good small loaf of French bread, pre-cut, surrounded by a white cotton cloth napkin sits in a bowl in the center of the table.

Desserts are simple to the point of coyness. Is the "milk and cookies" offering meant to be a touch of home or a reminder of your daily calcium requirement? We skipped over panna cotta and cheesecake in favor of a warm homemade brownie topped with a vanilla gelato a wonderfully creamy cold sweet.

A certain informality is the rule, although the usual gesture was made for the table's host to taste a portion of wine just after the bottle was opened. A well-meaning bus girl tried twice to extract my plate when she thought I had finished the entree. On the other hand, the water in our glasses was voluntarily replenished, as was the bread.

There are limited numbers of wine by the glass from $5 each to $10. Bottles range from $20 to $80. Dessert wines are limited to some ports and Muscat for $7 and $8.

One downer: When the dining room is full, the accumulated noise of several dozen voices mixed with the fast beat of background music defeats intimate conversation. Forget trying to convey sweet nothings into your companion's ears. Better give up trying and retreat to the second-floor lounge Thursday through Sunday when an upstairs bar is jumping and no one really expects to indulge in any serious talk.

RESTAURANT: Local 16, 1602 U St. NW; 202/265-2828.

HOURS: Dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

PRICES: Starters and salads, $5 (for soup) to $10 (Cobb salad with steak); entrees, $11 to $22; desserts $5; Sunday brunch, fruit $3 to $8, breads and cereal $4 and $5, eggs and omelets, $7 to $11, French toast, pancakes and waffles $8.

CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards


ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible, except restrooms are upstairs

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