What you need to know before we start...
The Hamilton is owned by the same folks who own Clyde's and Old Ebbitt. As you know, not a negative word can ever be uttered/written about either eatery and if you've read the reviews in the major locals lately, the trend continues with this juggernaut of a restaurant/bar/Wal-Mart/concert venue.
It doesn't matter that Clyde's has taken a serious turn for the worse and Old Ebbitt's regular gig is mugging sunburned tourists who relish in the fact they are masticating close to the White House. The Clyde's Restaurant group is finished with the quality stage of their life and has moved onto the more fruitful quantity stage as their latest effort proves. These sacrosanct DC institutions are above reproach and not a dirty word shall be cast toward them. Lucky for you, I'm a honey badger and honey badgers don't give a shit.
The Hamilton lives on the internet HERE. The Hamilton lives in the real world at 600 14th Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20005.
I've eaten at the Hamilton roughly 15 times since the first of the year. There are two reason for this:
1. It's close to my office.
2. It's new and everyone wants to try it.
Since I'm close and everyone wants to try the place, I'm stuck going all the time (remind me to tell you about the time I went to Fogo De Chao four times in one week). That's not all bad since I now know the place very well - much better than some star struck professional food critic who burns through the place because he or she knows you don't piss on a Clyde's establishment in DC and keep your job.
Here's the deal...
First of all, the name is misleading. The Mayflower, The Willard,The Jefferson and The Hamilton - which one does not belong? The Hamilton - it's a restaurant and the others are hotels. My lunch dates have been lost more than once because they were looking for a hotel with a restaurant inside, not a restaurant with a hotel's name. If you're meeting someone at the restaurant and they're late, you might ask them if they're standing a few blocks away in the lobby of the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel and then direct them to the other Hamilton down the street.
The place is big - really really really big. There are two large bar areas with a large dining room sandwiched between them and that's just the east wing of the place. The west wing is a gigantic dining room that feels more formal, but serves the same food. Of course they've got the obligatory private rooms and bars galore because it’s DC and private events are staple. And there’s a large basement music venue as well. The place is massive.
I always enter on the 14th street side and greeted by approximately six Hamilton employees milling around at a very awkwardly positioned host station. They've all got Secret Service-like wires in their ears and you're not sure if they're going to seat you or frisk you. Undoubtedly you will feel overwhelmed upon entering because there are simply way too many people standing near the door. I think they mob you for your own safety - the place is huge and you could get lost if you don't have a compass and a good map.
The decor is wood... lots and lots of wood and a very high ceiling. And more wood. It's new, nice and wooden - you'll love it. It's an entire forest shellacked and pinned to the giant walls for your enjoyment.
The menu is very Clyde's-esque: huge. You've got a lot to choose from and you fear that they do a lot of things, but none of them well. That's not true - they do a few things well. However, they don't do them consistently and we'll get to that.
You can't mess up charcuterie and cheese trays. They do both of them and offer a wide selection for those of you who like to pick and peck your way through over-priced drinks. Both the cheese and cold meats are exclusively American born and are diverse in flavor and form. I highly recommend you don't order cheese trays because it makes you look like an asshole, but if you have to... The Hamilton is a good place to do it.
The rest of the food is what you make of it. Nothing on the menu (and of their different menus -lunch, dinner, brunch, late night, last night or next week) stands out as a "signature dish" defining the place. Although a slice of a Southern Yellow Pine with some maple syrup for folks to gnaw on would fit. I truly believe they offer a little something for everybody so don't be afraid to invite your picky friends.
They offer sushi and are bold enough to have a little sushi bar right in the middle of the place. Oddly, it's pretty damn good for something so out of place in that restaurant atmosphere. Try the "fish and chips" sushi roll and let sweet potato flakes on sushi blow your mind.
Outside of the sushi, here's what I've had and what I thought:
The Hamilton Burger - It's a burger. It has cheddar cheese that is apparently from Vermont, which means something, but I'm not sure what. Comes with a fried egg. They will ask you what temperature you prefer, note it in their little book and then deliver you a burger cooked medium. I hope you like medium.
Sweet Potato Fries - I don't care for sweet potato fries anywhere, but my coworker does and she says The Hamilton's rank in her top five.
Baked Fish & Chips - It's flounder in the middle, buttered breadcrumbs on the outside and $20 on the bill - total rip-off.
Ramen - A restaurant brave enough to name their dish within proximity of the supermarket sodium noodle bash must knock it out of the park. It's good. Has pulled pork, noodles, nori (strips of seaweed), hoity toity bacon, poached egg and mushrooms - not necessarily in that order or ever all at the same time... more on that in a minute because it's a part of a bigger picture here.
Swanky Grilled Cheese - Probably the easiest thing they do and one of the best. Sweet meets salty and creamy and they lived happily ever after. It's $9 and comes with a pickle spear - that's it.
There are two main problems I have with the food - it's not always on time and it's almost never consistent.
Sit at the end of the middle bar where the servers fill out drink orders during the lunch rush and you'll get a sense things are quite chaotic. I have yet to eat there and not witness someone get angry about the time it has taken to bring out their food. In fact - just last week two guys at the bar walked out because they had to go and their food was nowhere in sight. I had arrived with a friend after them and was served my food roughly ten minutes before they decided to cut their losses and head back to the office hungry. This is something that happens all of the time at the Hamilton and it hasn't gotten better as they've gotten older and more experienced.
The second problem is the consistency in the food. I almost always order the Ramen these days because I like the general taste and it's exciting to see what they put in, or leave out of it each visit. Sometimes it comes with a poached egg, sometimes not. Same goes with the Nori and the scallions. The mushrooms vary in make, model and quantity. Infrequently the top of the noodle soup sports a dressy edible coral reef looking thing that really ties the whole dish together. Order the Ramen at the middle bar and the man in the apron will offer you some "red rooster" hot sauce that really improves an already pretty good dish. In any other part of the place they'll tell you that they don't have that hot sauce anywhere. Chopsticks and the big boat spoon you'd expect with the dish are present half of the time. They ought call it the "box of chocolates" instead of Ramen because you never know what you are going to get.
Both problems I'm sure are products of the sheer number of asses in seats in the various dining rooms and the overwhelmed kitchen that has to try to keep up with all of them. I've always wanted to describe something as a "Herculean task," so I'll do so right now. Feeding all those people in a consistent, timely manner is a Herculean task. Too bad the owners can't find anyone with a Hercules-like resume to help them out.
The truth about the food - one out of four times it's not going to be up to your standards or it's going to be very long wait to receive it.
If you'd like to get an idea of the size and scope of the place - go to the bathroom. The revelation of just how big of an operation they've got going there will hit you about the time you step into the long hallway where the bathrooms are located. Besides being a path to relief for diners, it's the main artery from the kitchen and busing stations to everywhere else. It's busier than a New York City sidewalk. Waiters, bus boys and flocks of people with earpieces fly up and down the hall at a break neck pace. Trays of new food fly past bins of discarded food in the opposite direction - you have to wonder if there are ever fantastic accidents that look like they're right out of a Hollywood film. My advice to you - stay out of the way and if you're with children, tell them to hold it.
I didn't want to have to talk about the bathrooms, but since I brought them up, why not? The bathrooms are odd. Kinda big, kinda laid out counter intuitively and there's a part-time bathroom attendent who kind of twits about doing nothing more than making sure nothing truly disgusting is left behind. The biggest problem is that they don't have paper towels to dry your hands off with. They have those stupid blow dryers that just push the water around on your hands.
If you're going to charge me $12 for a burger that is 70 percent bun and doesn't come with a side, you can spring for paper towels. Hell, if you've got a guy whose only job is to stand around and watch me pee, you can probably afford paper towels.
(FYI - if you want a "burger and fries" at The Hamilton, it's going to set you back $17. Bobby Van's behemoth burger is $15 and that includes a pile of fries that will make your cardiologist piss his pants.)
My overall grade for the place isn't high. If The Hamilton was someone you went to high school with, it would be that charismatic "C student" who had flash, style and nothing of substance to offer. If I were you, I'd go at least once to see what all the fuss is about.
Quick note on the concert venue
The guests list reads like a "who's who" of the "nobody I've ever heard of network." I might be enticed to go hear the music if it was free and the beer was heavily discounted. Hell, I might pay full price for the beer if there was a guarantee of paper towels in the bathroom