Does Oddfellows Gentrify or Rectify?

Linda Derschang’s latest haunt sits at the nexus of the new Pike/Pine: good eats, great prices, displaced artists.

Linda Derschang's gift for ambience grows more potent and focused with every venture. Oddfellows Cafe & Bar, which opened six weeks ago, makes Smith look a little raggedy, which makes King's Hardware look thrown together, which makes Linda's—her original bar, 15 years old last week—look like a dive. While Derschang did excavate the basement of the Oddfellows Building to incorporate its relics into her renovation, the finished space proves she's more an archaeologist of collective nostalgia: the pale blue-grays of sun-bleached walls, the countertops of all the drugstore lunch counters our parents speak of wistfully, the long wood tables from Wild West saloons on Sunday-afternoon TV, the warp-backed chairs from the roadside cafes where we imagine pie and sass are served all day. A group of handsome Odd Fellows look over the crowd from their honored spot on the wall, perhaps peering for signs that their grand mustaches are coming back into style (they're in luck). The menu looks as if Derschang raided a deserted print shop and stole a half-dozen sets of type. If Oddfellows has her most beautiful interior to date, it's also the most controversial. When Ted Schroth of GTS Developments bought the Oddfellows Hall in January 2008, he vaunted his commitment to keep the building's "arts culture," then jacked up the rents so high that he forced out the dance studios, theater school, and arts organizations that had resided in the building for years. The angry response by the creative class seemed to crumple when a bit of follow-up news broke: "This is the end of Capitol Hill as we know it!" became "Oooh, have you heard Linda Derschang's opening a restaurant there?" The queen of indie Capitol Hill's takeover of the space that Freehold Theatre had to vacate was quickly followed by news that Wallingford ice-cream queen Molly Moon would be her neighbor, as well as another restaurant named Tin Table. Taking Cafe Presse as their model, Derschang and partner Ericka Burke, chef of Volunteer Park Cafe, have made Oddfellows a place to work away a couple of hours with a laptop and a latte during the day, gather for a few pints before heading to a show, or spend a few hours over a multiple-course meal afterward (and probably pay less than $30 a person at that). It instantly became the first-choice hangout for many people on Capitol Hill, including those who complain the most about gentrification. Good food and classic cocktails are the primary draw, something that Smith and Linda's haven't been able to guarantee. Half the menu is taken up by sandwiches, which cost no more than at Honey Hole or Baguette Box. The one barrier for diners who've passed their clubgoing years is noise. High ceilings, wood surfaces, and no acoustic baffling mean that on a Friday night the decibel level isn't that much lower than it is down the block at Neumos, and the servers sometimes get as overwhelmed by the hyperactivity as much as patrons do. Burke's gift is for classing up basic American food without sparking class resentment—her simple mac 'n' cheese looks circumspect yet has a surprising depth of flavor, and the mashed potatoes only hint at the mountain of butter fluffing them up. For every plate of clams with chorizo the kitchen puts out, it assembles six BLTs and chicken-salad sandwiches. Sure, you've eaten a thousand mixed-green salads with roasted beets, goat cheese, and candied hazelnuts before, and that's the point—they're Tuesday-night fare. And the chef's not too classy to come up with a buzz bite like pork nuggets served in a coffee can. What is a pork nugget? A thumb-sized hunk of tender pulled pork rolled in bread crumbs and fried. The procedure seems to be to dip the nuggets in apricot-chile sauce and then text all your friends about them. It's early days yet, the kitchen is still finding its way through the instant crush, and the food isn't as even as it should be. Two friends raved about the tahini-dressed baby spinach salad with farro (whole grains), squash, and chickpeas they'd ordered on their previous visit. So we got it again, and all of us were disappointed by how bland that night's version was. A three-cheese panino with onion jam was depressingly mushy, and a beef stew pulled a fast one—the broth tasted long-stewed, but the chewy meat and al dente vegetables clearly needed to cook for another half-hour or so. I've also eaten dishes at Oddfellows so good I was surprised to spend only $10–$13 on them. There was one night's special of ricotta gnocchi, the size of marshmallows and not much denser, sauteed with brown butter, the loose curls of Brussels sprout leaves, and capers and lemon juice. A shepherd's pie in which a constellation of mashed-potato stars floated over an earthy ground-beef stew. And a $5 blueberry cobbler, still bubbling around the edges when it arrived at the table, haunted by lemon and anise. After one meal, my friend and I took ourselves on a tour of the complex. We climbed the stairs and stood awhile at the doorway to the Century Ballroom, lapping up the goofy joy of 50 couples jitterbugging around the room. Another flight up, we ogled the battered wood floors, exposed beams, and brick walls in the now-vacant offices. Finally we encountered a group of dancers leaving practice. "What studio is this?" I asked one. "Velocity's," the guy answered, "or at least until we get kicked out next week." He glared downward, and wisps of smoke practically rose from the floorboards. I couldn't help wondering at whom he was directing his acid gaze.

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