If you’re lucky enough to get something to munch on while you wait for your meal, chances are it’s bread with olive oil or butter. But not every restaurant offers boring,empty carbs. Here are six spots whose appetite-whetters go beyond the bread basket.
Popovers, Pâté, and Petit Fours at BLT Steak
Before descending on BLT’s filet mignon and truffled mashed potatoes, diners are treated to chicken liver pâté served with toasted country bread and popovers. "If you don’t have popovers on the table after five minutes, [customers are] immediately asking about it,” says general manager Adam Sanders. The freebies don’t end there. The restaurant also serves warm dark chocolate espresso petit fours.
Olives at Pizzeria Paradiso
Ever since Pizzeria Paradiso opened its first location in Dupont more than 20 years ago, it has fed customers a small bowl of assorted olives—green Picholine, black Ligurian, green Cerignola, and oil-cured. "We've made changes over years to the menu—added things, taken things off, modified recipes—but this is something that we've never touched," says director of business operations Sara Gunter.
Duck Fat Fries at Bourbon Steak
Tables at the Four Seasons Georgetown’s steakhouse receive three different kinds of seasoned duck-fat fries, accompanied by three different sauces. The combinations include herbed fries with pickle ketchup, pastrami-seasoned fries with Thousand Island dressing, and white cheddar fries with restaurateur Michael Mina’s barbecue sauce.
Goldfish and Chocolate at Hank’s Oyster Bar
At each of Hank’s Oyster Bar’s three locations, patrons receive a small bowl of Goldfish, a nod to the restaurant’s seafood mission. At the end of the meal, diners receive chunks of Colombian chocolate, which are chiseled from a large brick each day. The treat harkens back to the oyster bar’s beginnings: The Dupont kitchen was too tiny to put out dessert, so chef/owner Jamie Leeds decided to give each table little bites of chocolate. The tradition continues at Hank’s Old Town Alexandria and Capitol Hill locations, even though they also serve dessert.
Banchan at Mandu
Like other Korean restaurants, Mandu serves banchan, a collection of side dishes that accompanies the meal. Mandu serves its customers around six banchan that might include kimchi, pickled spicy cucumbers, julienned burdock root in a honey sauce, mung beans in sesame oil, eggplant sauteed with onion and peppers, and other dishes. Most banchan offerings tend to be cooked first, then chilled by the time they arrive at your table.
Bread board at Birch & Barley
Yes, it’s bread, but Birch & Barley’s bread board is several notches above your typical basket. The premeal offering currently includes pretzels (with housemade mustard), pumpernickel rolls, and crème fraîche biscuits—all courtesy Executive Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac. This heavenly board of free breads sometimes startles new patrons: “A lot of times we get ‘I didn't order that!’ because it’s so generous that they assume it’s something you need to pay for,” says MacIsaac.
Know of other free munchies? Name them in the comments.
Photo of bread board by Greg Powers