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all photos: Stephanie Breijo

The second you walk into Mike Isabella’s highly anticipated new restaurant, Bandolero, smack in the middle of M Street in Georgetown, one thing is clear- this is not your Grandma’s favorite Mexican joint. Isabella always said that the brightly colored, cheery notes of usual Mexican eateries is, well, just not his thing. Instead, you get a darker, more rock’n’roll, Day-of-the-Dead vibe within seconds of passing the black awning outside.

All adding to the vibe in the 180 seating, 2 level space: re-purposed cemetery gates as informal divides between eating areas, a warm glow provided mostly by salvaged lighting on the exposed brick walls, mismatched seats and napkins purposefully chosen to take away from the cookie-cutter vibe Mexican restaurants often fall trap to, and, perhaps most notably-a vast selection of animal skulls which will be placed strategically on the walls of the restaurant in lieu of art.

As you take in the two prime communal tables (one on each floor), a long bar (which will be open late with salsas and taquitos on the menu) and the big, sink-into-them leather couches instead of traditional banquettes-the message is clear: this is the kind of Mexican place where it is ok to order not one, not two, but three or four cocktails with your drink.

Much like with his fabulously popular first outpost Graffiato, Mike Isabella went with his gut here: a place where he would like to hang out with his friends, drinks he likes to drink, food he likes to eat.

The service, which officially starts this Thursday, is going to be initially dinner based (similar hours to Graffiato-Sunday to Tuesday 4pm-10pm, Wednesday-Thursday 4pm-11pm with bar menu till midnight, and Friday-Saturday 4pm-midnight with bar menu till 2am) with imminent expansion into brunch and lunch pending as the kitchen settles into it’s groove.

The menu, on which Isabella worked on with his new chef-de-cuisine Tony Starr (also previously of Zaytinya), which we had a chance to preview in February, features plenty of classic dishes people look for in Mexican eateries but also a few decidedly on-trend 2012 items which are bound to go well down with the DC crowd: suckling pig tacos, Pozole Verde salad (with pork belly and soft egg on top), a number of vegetarian options (from wild mushroom tacos and crispy yucca tacos to enchiladas verdes) and those blue crab taquitos we got a chance to try during the “BACK TO SCHOOL” benefit which, in and of themselves, would be worth a late night visit to the bar.

The bar operation is manned by Sam Babcock, another one of Isabella’s previous collaborators at Graffiato (whom you also may remember from behind the bar @ Cafe Atlantico) and the cocktail menu is, shall we say, sturdy at first look: 10 Mexican inspired drinks (heavy on the mezcals and reposados and anejo tequilas), 8 different margaritas (including a blood orange one and a nice TIKI offering for the summer) and 9 more non tequila/mezcal based drinks with classics such as Aviation finding place to rye, pisco and gin drinks.

The bar, in general is full, and we did notice (and remember from his “What’s in your fridge?” story) Isabella’s favorite Basil Hayden’s on the shelves too. If you’re going to spend all your waking and non waking hours here-you better be prepared. Frankly-Thursday can’t be here soon enough.