The vision for Kyle Bailey and Greg Engert was very clear when they opened Birch & Barley and its upstairs bar Churchkey five years ago on 14th Street in October 2009. The craft beer program was groundbreaking, offering 555 craft brews and an unheard-of dedication for pairing food with beer. They knew exactly what they didn't want for the restaurant too: they didn't want to be pigeonholed as a "beer bar" or a "beer restaurant." And hey definitely didn't want to serve gimmicky, beer-battered food.
"I didn't want to poach fish in Coors Light. I didn't want to do that shit. I didn't want to put beer in the fucking food. It's something I feel very strongly about," Bailey told Eater DC. "I definitely wouldn't have signed on until I met Greg."
Engert was on the same page. "When we met, it's like OK, we want to do a restaurant with awesome complex food, amazing service, and I want to prove that my beer program belongs at the table with your food by the way we're going to serve and present it," he said.
So Birch & Barley is a restaurant that sweats the details, from in-house butchery to extensive temperature control for the beers to 15 different beer glassware options. To prove that Birch & Barley and Churchkey can't be typecast, they also have a brunch service that is incredibly beloved. "We were actually voted best pancakes in the city, and we don't even have pancakes," Bailey said. Eater DC chatted with Bailey and Engert about opening day to now, and how the neighborhood's evolved since the restaurant's opened.
Congratulations on five years! How has the menu changed over the past five years?
Kyle Bailey: I think the food menu definitely evolved in a big way. If you look at the first menu we ever did, it was very simple. We were really worried about what the neighborhood was going to take and what was going to happen. I'd never lived in D.C. I moved from New York and one of the dishes [first on the menu] was pork cheeks on a bowl of grits with a red wine glaze and pearl onions. Then you look at the menu now and we've come so far.
A big part of that is every night after work, we sit down, we talk about food and what we've never done and the challenges we want to take on. Food that we think sucks. No food should suck. There's a reason it sucks. Let's figure it out and how do we change that around. Some of the best dishes that ever came out of here were from, "Hey, what if? Hey, what if we cut okra to order and cooked it right there, and that would cut out the slime. What if we saved corn all summer and dehydrated it and milled it ourselves. That would be really cool." That's how a lot of those dishes came through.
Greg Engert: For Kyle, he didn't live in D.C. So also what that means is he didn't know the farmers. He didn't know anybody, the distributors. When he came down it was kind of a quick learning curve. Also, 14th Street was very different than what it is today. A lot of people were counting on us to be like a neighborhood restaurant and bar. At first, we were hesitant about what kind of cooking we were going to put in down here. There was a part of it that was going to be maybe a little bit more like Churchkey at first. We ended up with the dining that we have today, which is great modern American cuisine.
We didn't even know exactly how beer down here was going to work at first. We knew we were going to have a giant beer list but it was a last minute decision to say, let's just embrace it. Let's do a tasting menu, which we didn't know we were going to do at first. We didn't know if the neighborhood would even want a tasting menu from this restaurant. We decided to make that tasting menu exclusively served with craft beer rather than wine, the first place in the United States to ever do that every night. All these things were decided in the eleventh hour. We were very concerned about what people wanted, and at the end of the day, we decided to do what we wanted. Which is the best move, I think.
But then as Kyle also got to know the farms, it's hard to say how your food's changed over time because you're so into it, but I can see that the food has become just far more seasonal. Kyle's always been a seasonal chef, but the ingenuity of the seasonality, talking about dehydrating corn for grits in February, house-jarred tomatoes for our tomato sauce in the winter time. It's not just utilizing what's local and fresh for that season, it's figuring out ways to preserve it for further seasons. That's what I think our restaurant does exceptionally well and not many restaurants do.
Also, the in-house thing was always there, but it's gotten extreme. Kyle is breaking down a quarter of a cow every couple weeks or so. And then a pig every week. A lot of people don't understand that we do all of our own butchering in-house here. That's been something that we didn't do at day one, obviously. The staff really hasn't changed in five years, either. Which is enormous.
KB: I can't believe it. These guys have been with me for a very long time. We had some fresh pastas on the menu, and it was really cool. So let's expand this. What if I bought ravioli makers and we'll try this out, and then we'll have this really great fresh pasta program coming through. The charcuterie program has really taken off. So much has changed, man, since we open. I remember the first four months, the only thing anybody ever bought was the flatbreads and the burgers.
GE: Which speaks to what we were concerned about.
How did you tell that it was working, going with your gut was the right choice?
KB: It was definitely the fastest turnaround I've ever seen in a restaurant. I've opened a bunch of restaurants, or been a part of openings anyway. I think that we had two or three pivotal moments. The first one was day one: we opened at 4 o'clock at Churchkey. It was 3:45 and someone comes running and says, "Hey, check out this picture on my phone." It's this line of people. I'm like, "What's this, dude?" They're like, "That's right there." And I looked out the door and there's a line of people all the way down 14th street. I've never seen anything like it. I thought I was going to throw up. I was sweating, man.
I think the first few months were almost all beer guys. The beer nerds came out. They wanted to see what we were doing. Then the foodie crowd came in. But the idea was always to try to bring them together. Food and wine has been together for centuries. That's the way it was, and that's the way I was brought up too in fine dining restaurants. But for this place, it was like "Let's make a restaurant where you can get super good food, you can still get wine, but you gotta try some of these beers. You're not going to see these anywhere."
GE: So Michael Babin, who is the founder of our company, he and I started working on this years and years ago, in 2006. That was the idea. What if we afforded beer the same respect that wine gets. And one of the ways to do that was to serve it with great food. We wanted to have a real restaurant with a real chef and a real chef who also liked beer.
KB: Loved beer.
GE: It was bizarre five years ago to have this many beers or to be pushing beers at the tableside the way that we do now. Now it's like cheese courses at prix fixe table menus involved beer, five years ago they did not.
KB: Or if they did it was so novelty. It was like I'm going to show you how I pour this beer. Oh, wow.
GE: You know what's weird, is five years ago, there were foodies who loved food and probably loved wine, maybe were getting into cocktails. But they weren't really into craft beer. Then there were beer nerds who weren't interested in food. They were very distinct cliques and over time, I'm not saying it's because of Birch & Barley but we've done some things to further this, over time now, it's very rare to find a beer geek who doesn't like good food. Or a foodie who doesn't at least appreciate craft beer. People have become more well-rounded over the last five years. I think we've kind of spurred some of that on and it's also helped spur our success.
The neighborhood has changed so much in five years.
KB: It certainly has. There's been like 40 restaurants down the street in the past few years.
GE: We are on the quiet end of the street.
KB: When we opened, it wasn't like this. It was us and Cork and Café Saint-Ex. Every time a new place opens up, somebody's like "Oh man, you must be worried about business." It gets busier every time a new place opens up. More people are coming.
So you don't find it harder to generate buzz, now that there's so many restaurants on the street?
KB: We're not new, you know what I mean?
GE: We're less interested in generating buzz. There's two kinds of buzz. We're never going to be new again. We're never going to have 300 people outside, like when we opened. That's never going to happen. When you're new, everybody's trying you for the first time.
So now, everybody's been here. The thing is, it's ok to go back to a restaurant because you like the things they do. They don't have to have a new menu every time you go, you can enjoy the same thing twice. We have to remind ourselves of that. Especially in the beer industry because it's all about what's new. It keeps getting better and better and different and different. There are new dishes, it's hugely seasonal, the menu's constantly changing, the beer list continues to change all the time, our events have never stopped.
Has the crowd changed?
GE: It's less touristy. It's regulars. It's a neighborhood thing, much more than it was at first. But it's still very busy, it's a blend. Lots of repeat guests. You know the funny thing is, when we first opened, I was surprised by how many different walks of life were drinking craft beer. And that's continued more and more and more. It's really fun to have a bar that's not a certain set of people.
Tiffany [MacIsaac, former Birch & Barley pastry chef and Bailey's wife] has left. Has the brunch changed, how you approach it?
KB: Not really. Her presence is definitely still felt. She trained her staff really well. I don't feel like it's changed all that much.
GE: She made an impact on them before she left, that's for sure.
KB: She still lets me know.
GE: Kyle's the chef of this place, so all the food that comes out of this kitchen is Kyle's food. It's not going to be any different.
How do you balance all the demands on your time?
GE: We have awesome people that we've hired that are incredible. We've taught these guys to do the things that only we used to do. It's a testament to the team here that we're able to walk out and work at GBD and Bluejacket and host Snallygaster and Novemberfest and develop new restaurants. We've instilled the passion and we hire the best people and they kill it when we're not here and when we are.
Do you have any really memorable days of service?
KB: Do you remember the Jon Stewart rally? I expected nothing, just a regular Saturday service. Churchkey is open at noon, but everything comes out of the same kitchen. So these guys are cooking that service and also prepping for nighttime. And then it was 1:30 p.m., very, very chill and it's welcome because Saturday night is the big show, we better get ready for the big show. And then you could hear something. And we came out and 14th Street was completely full of people walking towards here. So we went back in and I was like, "Batten down the hatches guys. This is coming. This is going down now."
And people flooded this building. Once the upstairs was filled, we filled downstairs and started doing bar service down here. It was insane. It's the kind of thing where you see cooks starting to break down. And you're like "No, no, no keep moving. There's stuff to do." That was nuts.
What are you excited about for the future, for 2015 and for the next five years?
KB: Stay the course, man. I really like what we've got going on here.
GV: We have a lot of new things that we're working on for sure, in house. Different kinds of events, different updates to the space, I think we'll have some really fun stuff with that coming up, some major, some minor. It's going to be fun. I think we're going to keep doing exactly what we're doing, except when we are not doing exactly what we're doing.