Originally published: November 6, 2000
It might be unjust to compare a restaurant like Sam and Harry’s, the famous chain of steak houses popular with the rich and famous (reviewed in this space on Oct. 30), to a small, one-of a-kind establishment like The Lost Dog Café that specializes in pizza and sandwiches with nary a filet mignon or a lobster in sight. But then, fairness can be so dull.
By way of comparison, I think it is important to mention the few similarities these restaurants do share, though it will take some thinking on my part. (A pause and the sound of fingers lightly drumming on a keyboard) They are both in Northern Virginia.
The mottos of the two restaurants seem to characterize not only their general attitude towards their clientele, but the socioeconomic platform upon which each stands. With “You are where you eat”, Sam and Harry’s, located in McLean, has the elitist, snob appeal edge, sure to win points with conservatives. Lost Dog gives a sort of unilateral two-fingered whistle and a liberal thump on the back, promising, “Food and Grog For Every Dog”.
At Lost Dog, there is no reception desk, no off-screen coat room, no obvious chain of command. No valet parking. There is, in fact, almost no parking of any kind. The Arlington restaurant is situated in a tiny strip of shops (not as grand as an actual strip mall) and is squeezed in between a laundromat and an ever-changing restaurant that is currently some nouvelle Thai variation.
On a Friday or Saturday night, the Lost Dog is packed. Our party consisted of 4 adults and 3 kids, all hungry. When the kids, ages 5 and 8, learned it would be an hour until we could eat the killingly wonderful pizza we could smell, there was much flailing of arms and legs and even some tears, but no one wanted to leave. They wouldn’t dream of it. They’d been here many times before and knew what awaited them.
They took to wandering around the dusty racks of wine and beer that act as breakers for the constant tide of customers that ebb and flow through the door. There’s always a lot to see at the Lost Dog: the massive dog-theme paintings (sort of like dogs playing poker as interpreted by Van Gough and Rod Serling), the photos of dogs lining the walls, the paw prints embossed in the concrete floor. The owners seem to delight in stocking wine and beer with the most inventive names - names like “Delirium Tremens” and “Pink Elephant”. There’s a little bit of roughing it at the Lost Dog. The floors are dirty, there is nowhere to sit while waiting, if fact, there is really nowhere to even stand. That evening, the door had been propped open with a flattened wine box (over which almost everybody tripped) to accommodate the overflow. Everyone coming and going was smiling, even our kids, who were surviving on breath mints at that point.
When we were led to our table, our waiter greeted us, and proceeded to take our scattered, chaotic orders without writing a thing down. “2 root beers, no, 3 root beers, 2 lemonades, 1 small, no wait, 1 medium cheese pizza, 2 single serving pizzas-the Pedigree Pie and the Kujo Pie, 2 sandwiches--the healthy Dog and the Big Dog, one Pink Elephant and 2 glasses of Fat Bastard Chardonnay. Oh! And 2 orders of Dog Collars ( their Tabasco-laced onion rings)!
The employees here cannot compare to those at Sam and Harry’s. For one thing, at Lost Dog, the servers appear to enjoy their work. They wear jeans and colorful T shirts that say, “Life’s short--bite hard”. Their hair is untamed, although spikes are occasionally encouraged. They are often multiply pierced, and their smiles are completely genuine. They’re muscles seem to have been developed, strangely enough, by carrying trays full of food and drink, rather than by pumping iron.
Our waiter delivered each item not only quickly, but to the correct person, even though we had all changed seats to accommodate a five year old’s tearful demand to sit next to his big brother. Throughout the meal, drinks were refilled and empty dishes were removed. The food, as usual at the Lost Dog, was fresh, unique and honest. They also seem to serve the world’s finest pita bread - not a trace of mold to be found (see previous review of Sam & Harry’s). Everything was finished. Everything was excellent. My friend Tracy and I kept remarking on the Chardonnay, not only because it was excellent, but because, well, how often does one get to say the words “Fat Bastard” loudly and unabashedly at a restaurant?
When the 2 five-year-olds requested their long anticipated Giant Chocolate Chip Cookie, the waiter returned with two, said they were not particularly fresh, and said he would be glad to give them to us for free if the boys still wanted them. They did--most kids don’t understand the adult preoccupation with “day-old” baked goods. Apparently, at Lost Dog, not fresh is not for sale.
I don’t recall that I got my moldy bread and age-old prawns at Sam and Harry’s for free...
Our bill for 7 people was about $77.00. I know, I know. It is unfair and meaningless to compare prices, to even mention, in fact, that our dinner for 4 at Sam and Harry’s was close to $400. Sam and Harry’s has the clientele, the reputation, the suppliers, the location, the trained wait staff, the... the coat room.
It’s really not fair. Home of the Lost Dog is a much better dining experience.