Starbucks Has Nothing on Northside Social Clarendon coffee shop's charms go way beyond the cup

Saucer Full of Secrets: Northside Social’s charms go way beyond the cup.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

In the land of the over-stimulated mermaid, the landscape is always the same: the tiny tables crowded with laptap squatters, lost in their ear buds and their private worlds, and the fresh-brewed coffee and eye-candy pastries. You’ll find a similar wireless, caffeine-and-sugar fueled culture at Northside Social—until, that is, your eyes start to focus in on the finer details. Like the in-house sommelier. Or the chef-driven sandwiches. Or the house-made charcuterie.

Northside Social is Starbucks with a culinary degree. It’s Starbucks with a drinking problem. It is Starbucks with a palate.

It is, in other words, nothing like Starbucks at all—except perhaps for the fact that the Northside owners had hoped to build a Clarendon replacement for their beloved Murky Coffee, which closed last year when the hapless Nick Cho suffered yet another insult. His new landlord raised the rent beyond his means. Goodbye Murky. Hello historic building for rent.

Stephen Fedorchak and his business partners had spent many an hour building a vision—and a staff—for their Liberty Tavern over cups of coffee at Murky. They were determined to continue the gourmet bean tradition set by Cho—but with their own twist: They’d introduce a menu worthy of their nearby Liberty, where chef Liam LaCivita combines American and Italian influences with his own seasonal sensibilities to redefine neighborhood eating in Clarendon. Well, hold on. I guess I should say the owners were determined to continue the gourmet coffee tradition once they realized their first option, the southern-minded Bayou Bakery with pastry chef David Guas, wasn’t going to work out (which is another story for another day).

And yet, once they set a revised, Guas-less course, the owners never realized how far their new direction would take them. Northside’s ambitions grew exponentially with each piece of the puzzle the principals snapped into place. They lured sommelier Alison Christ away from Willow. They hired a pastry chef Rob Valencia from New York City. They found a way to double up the duties of LaCivita and Liberty baker, G. David King, without overwhelming their prized culinary team.

Before they knew it, Fedorchak and his partners had created the damnedest little coffee shop you’ve ever seen. It’s a place where you can get a hand-pour of single-origin coffee, a glass of Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany, a pork belly sandwich on house-made Italian feather loaf, or a trio of miniature cupcakes almost too cute to eat. It’s a community space, renovated farmhouse-style, for those who don’t mind mixing their depressants with their stimulants—or grilled cheese with smoked salmon rillettes.

Northside’s multi-personality is most apparent in the evening, after 5 p.m., when the communal table upstairs and a smattering of surrounding two-tops becomes a full-service wine bar, under Christ’s smart and unassuming direction. Her internationally focused wine list can stand up to scrutiny from even the snobbiest of air-pinkie drinkers; its priciest labels, a Stags Leap cab or a Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf du Pape, are relegated to the half-bottle section where the sticker shock is less cardiac-inducing.

The contrast between the two floors can be striking during evening hours. Downstairs, the music is loud enough to be felt a floor above and yet the vibe at ground level remains subdued, the vast majority of customers still tethered to their laptops or buried deep within the binding of their books (remember those?). Meanwhile, upstairs there’s nary a note of artificial sound. The soundtrack is provided exclusively by the drinkers, whose own volume can increase as the night wears on.

It’s all too easy, as you knock back one glass after another, to forget to use your indoor voice at the wine bar. Christ suggested the half bottle of Anton Bauer Grüner Veltliner, a once trendy white grape from Austria, to pair with our three-cheese plate; out of fashion or not, that reserve Grüner’s tart, acidic, somewhat spicy quality was the perfect palate cleanser between bites of runny and ripe Bonne Bouche goat, semi-firm truffled Sotto Cenere from Italy, and our fresh triple-milk La Tur from Piedmont. If only the Grüner could have scrubbed away the memory of the house-made cotechino sausage, that Northern Italian staple typically served for good luck during New Year’s. The sweet, cinnamon-laced pork link had only one flaw, but it was fatal—chewy, almost cartilage-like bits buried within the casing. It was likely undercooked pieces of pork skin.

The misses, fortunately, are few, whether upstairs or down. The grilled cheese is all about the crunch of the buttery country loaf, given how the mozzarella, gruyere, and cheddar inexplicably fade into nothingness, as if someone in the kitchen forgot to add the cheddar. The smoked salmon rillettes is rich and creamy enough without the thick layer of butter that seals the silky spread into its jam jar. Even when the kitchen makes a technical mistake or makes an unannounced substitution, the dish often remains strong enough to compensate. I’m thinking specifically of LaCivita’s sensational dried Alsatian-style sausage, these meaty and caraway-studded ovals that, when dipped ever so slightly in spicy mustard, don’t need any bread to accompany them. Which is fortunate, because for my order, the kitchen laid out slices of soft and spongy white bread instead of the advertised marble rye.

The kitchen also displays a heavy hand on the panini press, often scorching its breads black, but the char never seems to mar the sandwiches. In fact, I couldn’t even taste the burn marks on my Westphalian ham sandwich, this complex bite stuffed with gruyere and sauerkraut, its textures and flavors so plentiful your brain isn’t sure which pleasure to focus on. I wolfed through similar scorch marks on my crisped pork belly sandwich, whose salsa verde, smoky mozzarella, and olive oil provided plenty of moisture to balance out the dry bread.

I must admit that I’ve taken advantage of Northside’s alcoholic charms far more than its caffeinated ones, which does a disservice to Marianne Tolosa’s considerable Counter Culture coffee program, a sort of carryover from her days as general manager at Murky. This is a function of the simple fact that Northside is located far from my Takoma Park home; reaching Clarendon during the caffeine hour runs counter to my usual morning ritual of feeding a different beast: the paper’s blog. Still, I’ve stopped in for a mug of sweet and cirtrusy Kiryama from Burundi, which the Northside crew hand-pours at the counter. If you’re appetite runs large in the a.m., I’d suggest pairing that Joe with a bacon-and-egg sandwich on thin, crunchy feather loaf. The bacon’s so smoky it’s like that first cigarette you used to suck on in the morning. Or try Valencia’s moist and crumbly coffee cake—in muffin form.

For chrissake, now I realize I’ve essentially overlooked Valencia’s work, too, even though I’ve sampled a number of his cookies, brownies, and cupcakes. My favorite has to be his thick pistachio-studded brownie, a treat whose rich chocolate is cut with a lingering, tongue-tickling blast of ancho powder. This must be the unintentional consequence of creating a new-style coffee shop: No one can catalog its many charms in one review, just as no one can grasp its multiple personalities in one visit.

Northside Social, 3211 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 465-0145

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Our Readers Say

You hit the nail right on the head with the multiple personalities, only I was surprised to find that in this particular case, it wasn't a disorder at all. Northside seems to wear each of its masks very well. It's my new favorite place to get sloshed while getting work done: http://bit.ly/9UUAlj
So it's a poor imitation of Tryst, is what you are saying ;-)
I think its a great place and feels more comfortable than the shop before it. The location cant be beat.
I think that the main problem with Nick Cho was that he was a tax-evader, and that he hated customers who wouldn't leave within a minute or two of finishing their coffees.

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