“Variety is the very spice of life, which gives it all its flavor,” or so goes William Cowper’s 1789 poem “The Task.” I feel this strongly when it comes to food and drink. I’d jump off a cliff if I had to eat and drink the same thing every day. Luckily, we’re somewhat spoiled in a city like D.C. where there’s always someplace new to go for a drink or for dinner.
I admit I’ve passed by Chicken + Whiskey probably a hundred times. I never really gave it a thought, to my discredit. It was close to the end of my usual northbound, after-work stroll up 14th. Despite the attractive name, I passed it by — until now.
The name is straightforward and fun. One can be forgiven for thinking the two are meant to be consumed together — a plate of fried chicken, perhaps, and a Seagram’s and soda on a paper cocktail napkin — but in fact this place has two discrete concepts under one roof.
The first half of this double-sided coin of deliciousness is the restaurant, a fast-casual spot directed by head chef Enrique Limardo. Trained at tony establishments in Spain, Venezuela and Barbados, Limardo is the co-owner of Seven Reasons and developed both Immigrant Food and Imperfecto.
His culinary resume is extensive and he’s described as a “chicken god.” He and his team have assembled a menu that picks, chooses and melds styles from around the South American continent: Peruvian chicken, yucca fries, wraps with various ingredients, plantains and roasted corn, Colombian spices or Venezuelan arepas. Anyone unfamiliar with an arepa needs to correct this oversight immediately.
One of my favorites is this season’s special, the comadre: a delicious and savory arepa packed with pulled pork, plantains, jalapeno peppers and drenched in warm aji amarillo. Their chicken, made fresh, is brined for 12 to 24 hours and seasoned with a secret blend of spices and peppers, then cooked over mesquite charcoal. A modestly-sized steel rotisserie spins denuded birds “pollo a la brasa” which you can buy in halves or whole to go.
In Chicken + Whiskey’s compact, open kitchen, the team sets to work preparing made-to-order dinner orders. It’s like Cava or Chipotle in the sense you “follow” your order as it’s built, watching as tortillas, multicolored veggies, peppers and sauces are combined to make magic. After your meal is prepared and you’re ready to check out, you can peruse a galvanized tub in front of the register from which South American beverages are sold: Jarritos, Cusqueña and Inca Kola, to name a few. I grabbed a Cusqueña, a light and malty beer from Peru.
I purposefully sat facing the cook, watching him use big metal shears and bear claws to methodically disassemble various cooked chickens. It’s almost mesmerizing watching the deft movements practiced a thousand times. This easygoing, casual place has the clockwork of fine dining but the charm of a paper napkin, plastic cups kind of place. There’s a spot to stack your trays on the way out and Cusqueña is right out of the bottle.
A short walk past the bustling, lively kitchen leads to the end of a short hall to a freezer door. Without the small window, one might be hesitant to open up lest they find themselves in a walk-in fridge. There’s nothing cold about what’s beyond — this stainless steel portal leads into a rustic, concrete-floored cocktail bar. A few high-tops occupy the space immediately to the left, with vintage ceramic light fixtures and exposed-filament Edison bulbs providing gentle mood lighting.
The entire back half of the space is a long, double-shelved bar bookended with industrial metal cages. Spirits line these walls, illuminated from below by lights. There’s seating both at the bar and in the surrounding walls and a small DJ booth where guest jockeys can draw from a house library of vintage vinyl. Classic masters like the Commodores and Def Jam to funky releases I’ve never heard of fill boxes and wall sconces, all provided by DJ Dirty Hands — a 20-year veteran of the D.C. music scene.
Seated at the bar, I scan the offerings, recognizing familiar bottle shapes. Beyond the usual stuff — Bulleit, Tito’s, Jameson, Jim Beam, spirits the industry refer to as “call brands” — they’ve got some unusual options. I’m noticing the djinn bottle of a pot still Willett, the tall slender bottles of Stranahan’s and plenty I’ve never heard of. They’re the only place that brings in 291 Colorado Whiskey and they’ve partnered with Catoctin Creek to make their own unique bottling. Beverage director Tony Burke has really put forth great effort to bring in unique and interesting libations.
What surprised me in my usual visual survey of the bar was a placard announcing a “whiskey of the week” — in this case Craigellachie, a single malt Speyside Scotch. This is certainly an unusual suggestion, and in a good way. Made on the banks of the River Spey 40 miles from Inverness, Scotland, Craigellachie is a smaller brand of Scotch with a limited bottling each year. I admit I’m surprised to see Craigellachie listed as “whiskey of the week” in the back room of a chicken joint.
The cocktail program is small, but fun: They offer a PB&J cocktail; a highball using the delicate Suntory Toki whiskey paired with a guest’s choice of citrus; and South American riffs on familiar classics, some using local spirits like Dan Ziegler’s famed Chacho aguardiente. They make a few prebatched cocktail kits for purchase to go and have a few more secret projects on deck I’m not allowed to disclose.
Chicken + Whiskey has been described as having multiple personalities with the back bar vibe changing from day-to-day depending on who’s spinning vinyl and what’s being slung. Intense effort is put into the presentation here, but it’s natural. Organic.
Big corporate outfits spend a ton of time and money figuring out their identity and working to perfect it. Chicken + Whiskey is unapologetically itself. Some nights it’s a college basement dance party, other nights happy hour. Nothing here feels forced or overwrought.
Patrons can enjoy one or both experiences. The food up front, served until late at night, hovers around $12 for wraps and $10 for arepas — decently affordable, especially in comparison to some of the pricier places on 14th. They’ll be opening two new locations, one near Nationals Park and another in Columbia, Maryland.
If you’re in the mood for vintage vinyl, affordable eats and a broad spectrum of whiskey, you’ve got some options.