The Bar Belle: The Magic Gourd

Magic Gourd Restaurant
Columbia Plaza
528 23 St., N.W.

Perhaps, while on your way to purchase a few wine coolers for your fraternity-house shindig, or while idly following the scent of that vile temptress that is SizzEx, you have spied the Magic Gourd Restaurant. Perhaps, on a whim, you have wandered in beneath its neon sign to view its dim, serene interior and surrender yourself to its host of Chinese delicacies. Perhaps, as you munched on the Gourd's Crispy Eggplant and its beguiling Twice-Cooked Tofu, you have even caught but a glimpse of the small, intriguing bar within, hidden from the eye behind a set of shadowed screens.

Often, I have wondered what lies behind those screens, for while I had tasted the fruit of the Gourd before, I had never crossed behind those screens to drink of its nectar. But last week, after another rousing evening at SizzEx Happy Hour, I was ready to taste of the mystical Chinese spirits the Gourd had to offer. I ordered a Corona.

What we found was a small, community bar where aged Washington folks clinked glasses in the cave-dark space. My friends and I, all a good 20 years younger than the rest of the bar, were ushered in to the small gathering of high-backed booths and smooth black countertops by our exceedingly polite waiter, who pulled out our chairs and checked our IDs with demure regret ("I'm so sorry," he said, reading our birthdates. "Oh, pardon me.") Already buzzing from happy hour, we drank in the Gourd's atmosphere and had a few more beers. The James-Bond-with-a-mounted-singing-fish interior (not retro, but rather left un-remodeled since the Nixon era) offered high, mirrored walls and black-grubbed leather booths. Grayed ornaments hung limply from the walls, left over from last Christmas. The aged clientele, coming for a drink after work, celebrated a regular's birthday; our waiter laughed and gave the birthday boy a slap on the back as he delivered our drinks (and a large bowl of Chex Mix, chocolate chips and rice crackers) in no time.

As we sipped our beers and watched the crowd, the waiter was watching us. Fresh meat compared to the salty regulars, he treated us with extreme care. An unordered plate of shrimp dumplings appeared on our glossy black tabletop. We eyed each other. The man eyed us. Was it a trap? My friend grabbed one and popped it into his waiting mouth. "Is it good?" I asked. The waiter smiled, nodded energetically. We left him a large tip. He didn't even mind when we left, ordering only 5 beers between the 10 of us, most likely never to return again.

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