Summery Firefly has a light touch with atmosphere

Nesting spot draws a crowd to Dupont Circle

February 26, 2004|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Never mind the frosty winter chill: Inside Firefly, it's eternally summer.

Inspired by what its creators say are "memories of summer nights spent lazing in the backyard," this Washington restaurant, bar and lounge has become a haven for simple, unhurried pleasures.

"We're not formal, not stuffy," says John Wabek, a Salisbury native who juggles dual roles as general manager and executive chef. "It's someplace you can be comfortable."

Much like its name, Firefly's decor suggests casual fun and the relaxed, leisurely days of summer.

At the centerpiece stands an oak tree, with candle-lit lanterns flickering from its limbs.

There are soft couches and banquettes carved in birch. Natural materials such as mahogany, leather and iron abound.

Throw in a bit of trendy music, and it all combines to create a chic yet cozy environment: part eatery, part nesting place.

"We're a neighborhood place where people can enjoy life," says Wabek.

It's been this way since Firefly opened in October 2002, on a day that officials warned people to stay home due to riot threats associated with the World Bank and IMF meetings.

Yet more than 300 local residents and government workers packed the intimate 58-seat establishment (there's additional seating in the bar and lounge area) to welcome the business to the neighborhood.

Since that time, Firefly has emerged as a popular destination in not only Dupont Circle but also the metropolitan area.

Once a patron has visited a time or two, the friendly staff often greets him or her by name on subsequent visits.

"Lots of people pop in after work just to relax," says Wabek, who has launched trendy D.C. bars and lounges at Hotel Rouge and Topaz Hotel. "Or they'll come when they don't feel like cooking. We have great food and wine every day."

Indeed, Firefly's bistro-style cuisine has been recognized by the culinary industry, die-hard foodies and restaurant critics alike. A stone-and-glass wall allows patrons to observe Wabek at work, executing a nouveau-American menu, which changes frequently.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the classically trained chef draws on American favorites and fresh, seasonal ingredients inspired by the cuisines of the world.

The day's specialties may feature crisp oysters with chipotle tartar sauce, chilled sweet corn soup with Maine lobster, and grilled salmon BLTs.

Drinks are also a very big deal at Firefly.

Wabek not only designed the menu, he's also used the expertise he gained during stints in California's Napa Valley to pick a much-lauded wine list. Almost every wine-producing country is represented on the extensive list -- more than 22 whites and 26 reds.

"With simpler food, you can be more wine-friendly," says Wabek, who often circulates through the dining room, chatting with guests and suggesting the perfect wine.

Wines are regularly rotated by the glass, the bottle and half-bottle for the single diner.

And for those who desire creative cocktails, the natural outdoor theme continues with White Oak, Southern Pine and Sugar Maple Mojito martinis, just to name a few.

By last call, one more touch of whimsy at Firefly will likely make you smile and yearn for summer. The check? Delivered in a mason jar with holes punched in the lids.

Firefly serves lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly and weekend brunch. Firefly is at 1310 New Hampshire Ave. N.W., Washington. 202-861-1310.

For more club events, see page 32.

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