Step into Justin’s Café on a night when the Nationals are in town and you’ll find a boisterous collection of fans sipping on some pints and eating pizzas. Just three blocks from Nationals Park, Justin’s occupies a space on the ground floor of one of the many high-rise condo buildings still waiting for the full occupancy promised by the vision of a revitalized Navy Yard anchored by the home of the Nats.
Back to the Café itself though; at first glance it’s easy to mistake Justin’s as a place looking to, like the “Bullpen” near the Park, get fans a few cheap pints before they head off to the game. The pints at Justin’s Café are indeed cheap, but unlike the Bullpen they’re not filled with light varieties of Miller, Coors, or Budweiser. No, the light-colored beers that patrons at Justin’s are sipping are much more likely to be Bell’s Oberon or Lagunitas Pils than a watery macrobrew.
Enter Justin Ross, DC native, the Café’s namesake, and owner and the neighborhood’s first purveyor of craft beer outside of Nats Park’s Red Porch. Justin recognized that the neighborhood “needed a watering hole,” and despite not having a craft beer background, he decided to make the “gutsy decision to not carry Bud Light and Miller Lite.” Instead, Justin opted to put craft beers on his draft lines. “I’ve gotten so into [craft beer], recently,” he notes, and he’s taking advantage of a city that can say the same.
“I didn’t realize how many regulars are big, big craft beer lovers,” Justin admits. “People know what they want.” So how does he decide what to keep available? “The key for me and my bartenders is to like the beer. Then we can sell the beer.” The ability of the bartenders to talk these beers up? Justin wants that to be just a part of the conversation his staff has with patrons. From the beginning Justin has wanted this to be the “neighborhood bar.” It seemed like his staff knew most of the people by face, and many by name, when I stopped in.
Justin wants what’s on draft to be accessible to connoisseurs and novices alike. You won’t find Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout or Stone Ruination here, but you will find a solid variety of very drinkable craft offerings. A recent visit yielded Bell’s Oberon, Lagunitas Pils, Founder’s Red Rye, and Great Lakes Elliot Ness on draft and Oskar Blues Mama’s Lil Yella Pils and Dale’s Pale Ale, Duck Rabbit Milk Stout and Brown Ale, Great Lakes Burning River, and Bell’s Two Hearted in bottles/cans. While the taps don’t regularly rotate, they will have to at some point because Oberon, a mainstay since the Café opened, is a seasonal and will rotate off come the end of summer.
By day, the Café is less bar and more, well, café. Because the neighborhood is “still developing” and there “are not a ton of people or offices,” Justin hybridized fast casual dining (order from the register and your food will be out in what seems like a matter of minutes) with the bar business. “It’s innovative, I wasn’t sure if either a bar or a lunch business separately would last the whole year. So I combined the two.”
The food seems to be working so far. The menu is chock full of salads, soups, pizzas, and sandwiches, and the café was doing a healthy carryout business during my visit. The pizzas (about 8″ in diameter) come with a deliciously chewy crust. On Eric, my bartender’s recommendation, I had the Gadsden: hand-cut pepperoni, black olives, fresh spinach, and feta. It went great with my Red Rye. As good as my pizza was, I was a little sad not to have gotten “The Bull,” an Italian sausage and pepper sandwich that looked and smelled just unbelievable.
Great beers, great food, what’s not to love? Well, there’s a lot to love when the Nats are in town. Justin’s does a rousing business on game night. “On Friday nights with a game, we’re rocking. On Friday nights with no game, we do a great happy hour, but then we’re not that busy,” he says. That speaks to the reality that the area is still developing. The Café opened on April 16, so it has never lacked the promise of Nats games driving people to the neighborhood.
So does Justin have any fears about the off-season? “I wouldn’t say fears,” he answers, “I’m curious. On game days, my regulars don’t usually come in [because it’s so packed]. The lunch business is consistent. Booz Allen is moving into the area. The Lerners are finishing their building. No matter what sales will be down when the season is over, but we’ll weather the storm.” That’s good news for craft beer loving baseball fans and Navy Yard residents alike. It’s good for a developing neighborhood to have someone who says, “I’m glad to be the first. I believe in it.”
It’s tough to be a small business in an area without a large consistent volume of traffic, foot or otherwise. “[The development of the neighborhood] has taken longer than expected, but when the economy crashes you have to understand these things. It’s definitely going to come. It’s fun to be a part of, to be basically in the heart of DC but still have a neighborhood feel is pretty unique.”
The Nats still have about 30 home games left. Make sure to get to one and take advantage of the Café’s awesome happy hour beforehand and tasty pizzas afterward. Hell, even after the season ends, stop in and pay a visit. Inside you’ll find Justin Ross serving the neighborhood he’s an increasingly important part of and waiting for the return of baseball so he can serve to fans the beers he’s come to appreciate so much.
Address: 1025 First Street SE
Monday-Friday:4-6pm, $3 drafts, $4 rail drinks, $5 Firefly sweet tea vodka drinks, 6-7pm +$1 to 4-6pm specials, 7-8pm +$2 to 4-6pm specials
Monday: Live jazz. Half price bottles of wine.
Sunday: Trivia Night at 8pm
DC Beer Week: Tuesday, August 24, Racer 5 IPA and Dangerously Delicious Pies