Sign of the Whale, the Dupont bar that’s been known for years as a hangout for rambunctious college kids and hard-partying interns, reopens tonight with a reformed purpose. New ownership will show off a renovated, grown-up look and a Japanese-Southern menu that offers sushi and grilled kushiyaki skewers next to togarashi-spiced fried chicken and etouffee.
The two-story hangout, formerly known for cheap drinks and free (for a lucky few) happy hours, closed in the summer for the second time in three years. The team from nearby wine bar Nero stepped in to usher the classic spot (1825 M Street NW) into a new era.
“We are hoping for a lot more food and drink pairings as opposed to the three-shot and slam a beer kind of thing,” says chef Andrew Holden, who also oversees the Italian-Indian kitchen at Nero nearby.
Grilled yakitori skewers will include seafood, veggies, and marinated meats, including venison in lemongrass plum sauce and spare ribs with hot honey ginger. King oyster and maitake mushrooms get slathered in shoyu, and eggplant arrives with sesame soy tahini. Shrimp and octopus get jazzed up with green sauces and grilled lemon.
Holden, who grew up in Tennessee and spent the past few decades in Virginia, is mixing in Southern influences by making etouffee with tempura okra and sticky rice joining Andouille sausage and shrimp. Fried oysters and okra get a Japanese kick from matcha wasabi kewpie and chili honey drizzle. A small plate of fried chicken ($9) is covered in togarashi spice and comes with matcha wasabi kewpie mayo, tako sauce, and slaw.
“We aren’t trying to be called traditional Japanese — because none of us are,” Holden says.
A sake list will include nine different bottles to start, but Holden promises that number will grow.
“We want to have one of the larger selections around,” he says.
Happy hour (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) starts right away with $5 beers; $6 wines, $7 sake, and select cocktails for $8.
The Japanese-Southern theme bleeds into the cocktail menu in drinks like a lychee Old Fashioned made with French vanilla syrup and Japanese whiskey. A big gin and tonic goblet blends Roku Gin, mandarin tonic water, citrus peels, and spices.
Sign of the Whale regulars won’t recognize the place. A full-blown refresh took about two months. Colorful sports jerseys all came down, letting the building’s exposed brick shine. A working, wood-burning fireplace will soon switch to gas. A completely revamped VIP area upstairs can seat 20, slinging higher-end cocktails in the $20 range that require more time to make.
SOTW opens at 4 p.m. daily for now, but it will soon add lunch.