Words by Kaylee Dugan, Photos by Nicholas Karlin
The first thing you’re going to notice when you walk into HalfSmoke, isn’t the many fireplaces, the board games, the over the top milkshakes, the neon signs, or the New England boathouse vibe, it’s the size. This place is big. Even though the restaurant is separated into a bunch of different sections (including bar, small tables, couches, chairs, and bigger tables) the space feels roomy. The wall to ceiling windows help, letting the light pour in, but it’s almost an act of magic really because there is so much going on inside that in any other space it would be an absolute madhouse.
One of the stranger things about HalfSmoke’s set up is that it is constantly bouncing from sort of fancy to wildly casual. Half of the restaurant looks like it could be a part of your parents basement, filled with wood paneling and brick. The other half looks like a New England boathouse, packed to the brim with strong manly, arm chairs with lots of dark reds and navy blues. Then there’s the marble bar with a million taps that would be right at home in any more upscale bar in the city. There’s even a little alcove just for people to take selfies. I’m not even kidding about that last part. Just walking from one side of the restaurant to the other feels like walking into three different restaurants. It’s a lot to take in.
The menu feels like it’s going through a similar identity crisis. If you’re the kind of person who hates small menus, you’re in luck, because HalfSmoke has a dizzying amount of options. You can get your sausage in a rice bowl, on a flat bread, in a salad, or on a bun. There are numerous toppings, sauces, and sides available and that’s way before you get into drinks or desserts. There are wine flights, beer flights, and cocktail flights, plus outrageously huge milkshakes that can be made with or without booze. There’s even funnel cake. HalfSmoke is branding itself as “fine casual” and even that is proving hard to understand. Is there enough space between a full blown restaurant and a fast casual joint to fit an entirely different category?
Despite the insanity that is both the space and the menu, the few bites of food I had were really very good. I was able to try one of the rice bowls and the duck foie gras sandwich and both were incredibly tasty, which makes sense considering James Beard award winning chef Bob Kinkead consulted on the menu. I didn’t try any of the ridiculous milkshakes or the mini funnel cakes or anything like that, but if you’re looking for a quality rice bowl or a fancy sandwich, HalfSmoke will be able to deliver. Not to mention, if the prices on the website are accurate, it’s going to be a relatively cheap place to grab a meal or drink. Sausages will run you between $6 and $7, including most of the cheese, toppings, and sauces (although some, like bacon, are an extra $1). Sides are between $3 and $4. Craft beer will run you between $4-$7, while wine and milkshakes are $5-$7. The only other place in D.C. I can get a craft beer for $4 on the regular is Glen’s and I’m constantly worried they’re going to change their mind and raise the prices.
There are a lot of things that make me excited about HalfSmoke, especially when it comes to the quality of the food and the pricing, but there are also a lot of things that make me take pause. Like the giant neon sign that says, “Don’t grow up it’s a trap.” Maybe it all comes down to the patronizing design. Maybe once it’s filled with actual customers, real people sitting down and ordering drinks and meals, I’ll feel differently. But right now, I’m apprehensive. Shaw feels like it’s filled with a million different restaurants and bars, so it’s not enough just to be in the neighborhood making good things. You have to find a way to stand out. To have some personality. As of right now, I’m not too wild about HalfSmoke’s personality. I hope that changes. I really want another rice bowl.