When Linda Derschang opened Linda's Tavern, people were skeptical that Capitol Hill needed another bar—after all, there was the Comet, and a handful of gay bars, so...
Linda's just celebrated its 20th birthday. Its faux-western decor now looks almost old-school, especially in the context of all the new food-and-drink "concepts" up and down Pike and Pine Streets. Linda's still serves decent burgers (now "drug free, so you don't have to be") and still goes by its original motto: "A nice place for nice people." Those of us who've misspent lots of time at Linda's Tavern (and possibly paid for one of Derschang's cars along the way) regard the place as a reliable old friend.
And, of course, Derschang went on to open King's Hardware, Oddfellows, Smith, and Bait Shop. (Also, along the way, there was the Capitol Club, the Baltic Room, Chop Suey, and the Viceroy, all of which she moved on from. As Terry Radjaw wrote in an interview with Derschang on The Stranger's blog Line Out, "I'm also pretty sure she owns the Shell gas station, Cal Anderson park, and Bruce Lee's soul.") Her aesthetic—she designs her places herself—remained antique-oriented: the scarred wooden floors and tattered American flag of airy Oddfellows; the taxidermy and burlap of manly, comfortable Smith; the jokey wood paneling and nautical details of Bait Shop. Though both Smith and Oddfellows have had rocky periods depending on the chef, the food at Derschang's places has been generally neighborhood-spot good—the kinds of menus where you find the thing you really like and stick with it. At Linda's, my favorite is the cowboy taco at brunch; I like the burger at Smith, and also liked the brick chicken before it went away, sigh; Oddfellows' baked goods are good; Bait Shop makes a pretty great fried-chicken sandwich with tons of pickles.
Tallulah's—named after Derschang's daughter—opened in December in a condo building that instantly created a Capitol Hill micro-neighborhood near the Kingfish and Monsoon. Also new there: Cone & Steiner, which is a grocery for the "conscientious urban foodie," and Hello Robin, which is a nearly violently cute cookie-bakery. I grew up a few blocks from there, and I'd be lying if I said my feelings weren't mixed.
Tallulah's looks different from Derschang's other places—it's got a sleek, mid-century-chic aesthetic like (according to press materials, at least) "the feeling of Big Sur in the 1970s," with two full walls of windows, a concrete floor, a big square clock over the bar, and metal basket-weave Bertoia barstools. The only rococo-vintage touch is a giant painting of a white cat with an almost pornographic come-pet-me gaze and such terrifically fluffy fur that if you're allergic, you might start sneezing. Tallulah's feels spacious and understatedly interesting, and a large patio awaits, if and when it's ever nice here again. (One caveat: All the windows and concrete floor and simple mid-centuryness make for a lot of hard surfaces, and Tallulah's can get "What?... WHAT?!" loud.)
The chef is Walter Edward (Oddfellows, Crush), and his seasonal menu is "vegetable-driven without being vegetarian." Somewhat Mediterranean, with several vegan and lots of gluten-free dishes, the opening version is (as they now, regrettably, say) on-trend: stuff like grilled halloumi cheese, kale salad, four different flatbreads, farro with fennel and pomegranate seeds, beets and goat yogurt, escarole. Six mains cover the basics nicely, from a winter vegetable plate to roasted chicken to a grilled whole fish.
The gougères ($4)—which, if you haven't had the pleasure, are like little savory cream puffs with cheese baked in—are not quite as light and marvelous as the kind that make you want to eat 47 of them, but they are tasty. Plump pieces of skewered white-meat chicken ($9) are tender, not dry, and faintly lemony—you might wish for more of a marinated flavor or a dipping sauce, but crispy sage leaves scattered on the plate help you get over it. The lamb sausage flatbread ($9) is arguably slightly oversweet from lots of caramelized onions, but still tastes just fine, and the flatbread itself is a solid version—not too heavy or greasy. Slabs of cauliflower ($6) are cut across the whole head to include the usually wasted stem; they're caramelized but still pleasantly firm, and scattered with pine nuts and raisins. I did not enjoy the dry lentils served with the grilled sardine with preserved lemon, but at least it's only $6. The hanger steak ($18) was properly medium-rare, a little chewy as hanger steak is wont to be, and came with baby turnips with the greens still on and a brick-red, smoked-paprika-heavy charmoula sauce.
Grilled halloumi cheese is a great thing, and Tallulah's version ($10) is two inch-thick slabs served over a peppery frisée salad, with firm, sweet Comice pear slices to further contrast the bouncy-textured, salty cheese. I also really like Tallulah's lamb burger ($14), with its fat patty full of smoky-grill gamey-lamb taste, topped with a tangle of paper-thin lengths of zucchini for freshness (smart) and harissa for zing (yes!). A tomatoey, herby, smoked paprika seafood stew ($18) was excellent, even if the two peel-and-eat Kauai prawns wouldn't peel easily—lots of tender Taylor clams and mussels made up for it, along with the deeply flavored sauce and charred pieces of grilled broccoli.
Tallulah's is good—neighborhood-spot good, with the kind of menu where you'll find a thing or two you really like. It's a nicer place for nice people, in the new, grown-up world of Capitol Hill.