After a long, hot day trekking around the National Zoo playing tour guide for out-of-town guests, a spot nearby the Zoo’s gates with stellar burgers, crisp fries and a cold draft beer starts to feel like a mirage.
The idea was just a fantasy for years in the Woodley Park neighborhood — until Duke’s Counter opened last July right on Connecticut Avenue near the Zoo, adding a new sit-down option for diners in tourists and neighbors alike. “We’re the only full service restaurant and bar next to the zoo,” said Duke’s Counter managing partner Daniel Kramer. The welcome reception to burgers and beer was what Kramer was going for when he opened the doors just over a year ago. The newer restaurant is an expansion from the Dupont Duke’s Grocery location that’s just as charming, if a bit smaller.
“Our neighbors in Woodley Park and Cleveland Park have been great, and the staff and visitors to the National Zoo are also great,” said Kramer. “It’s been a really positive and fun first year.” In this interview, he reflects back on the “great — with an exclamation point” year that he and his staff have had in their new spot, how they’ve made the space work for them, and how much love he has for his deep fryer.
What are some additions at Duke’s Counter that are different from the Grocery?
Daniel Kramer: There’s three exciting overall additions from Duke’s Grocery to Duke’s Counter. The first is a robust draft beer program. The second is a deep fryer, which we don’t have at the grocery, and the third is a kids’ menu. [The deep fryer] is a very normal thing to have at a restaurant and not something that we have at Grocery, so it’s pretty exciting. We’re constantly excited every day about the opportunities to expand options and service for guests for all ages. We rotate the drafts seasonally with a focus on local craft and international options. We have eight draft lines. People really enjoy the Fuller’s one and there’s a heavy focus on beers brewed in the DMV.
What challenges have you incurred in having a different space?
DK: The space itself is about half the size of the original location, but with roughly the same overall number of seats. We are very tidy and imaginative with our storage. We have a lot of kegs of beer and products to store and we don’t have a lot of space to do it in, so we just get creative and efficient, more so than normal. Physically there isn’t room to [expand].
How does the clientele differ from the Grocery location in Dupont Circle?
DK: It’s been really popular with local and tourist families alike. We get a lot more tourists at the Dupont location as well, the difference now is that we get a lot tourists with young families. The biggest difference is children, which whe have a lot of at the Zoo location, and which has created a lot of opportunities for us. We’ve embraced [it] with a Kids Menu, a Koala Kare changing station, high chairs, booster seats, Etch-A-Sketch, and so on.
What’s the most popular kids’ menu item?
DK: Either the Fish and Chips or the kids’ Proper Burger, both of which are served with french fries. With that being said maybe the hand-cut french fries, made fresh daily, are overall the most popular [item].
I know you are known for your Proper Burger, but tell me more about your pies.
DK: At both locations we feature pies made for us by Acme Pie Company out of Arlington, Virginia. Sol Schott over at Acme Pie is a piemaster and a supreme baker, so it’s great to partner with a delicious local purveyor for dessert. They adjust seasonally, but some of the popular ones are hazelnut nutella, strawberry rhubarb with bourbon, and there’s a blackberry lattice, which is delightful.
So why, when someone is hot and sweaty after having made the trek all the way up Connecticut Avenue, should they take the time to come to Duke’s?
Because we have options for guests of all ages at all times. And we’re the only full service restaurant and bar next to the zoo. We expanded into Woodley Park because there is a great residential community in Woodley Park and Cleveland Park because it’s an underserved area and because it’s always good to be neighbors with pandas. They’re happy to have us and we’re happy to be part of the Woodley Park community. It’s a great set of neighbors and we’re happy to serve them and they’re happy to have the options that we provide.