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Trail Blazin’ Sixth Engine

Where once stood a historical, but neglected, fire station, now resides a thriving neighborhood eatery committed to stoking appetites with artful comestibles and extinguishing thirsts via kicky libations. 

Prior to Sixth Engine’s (438 Massachusetts Ave. NW) arrival earlier this spring, passers-by trudging along the still transitioning strip of real estate were hemmed in by ambitious apartment developments and perpetually shifting traffic lanes. 

Today, the residents of the former amusement desert can avail themselves of food and drink at the recently retooled Buddha Bar, Sixth Engine or the newly minted Tel’veh wine bar just across the way. 

But carving out this burgeoning pedestrian’s paradise took quite a bit of doing. 

Sixth Engine co-owner/executive chef Paul Madrid said the project took his group roughly two years to complete, including the planning, design, investor hunt and ultimate construction of the modernized pub. 

But he insisted it was all worth it to bring new life to a piece of D.C. history. 

“The firehouse spot is what kept us going,” Madrid said of the captivating locale. 

The building originally housed the Metropolitan Hook & Ladder Company and hosted Old Engine Company 6 for nearly a century before the fire brigade decamped for new digs on New Jersey Avenue in 1974. 

Madrid and his partners — a roster that includes managing partner Jeremy Carman, with whom Madrid has worked at sibling tavern Town Hall (Glover Park) for the past seven years, as well as Gavin Coleman, the third-generation restaurateur whose family has operated the Dubliner for nearly four decades — fully restored the former fire station, putting the reclaimed wood and exposed brick back to work as eye candy within the two-floored interiors while recasting the former driveway as a breezy outdoor patio. 

The facelift appears to be working, as evidenced by the menagerie of guests we’ve encountered during our numerous visits. The upstairs dining room appears to be the purview of privacy-seeking couples, the tables set far enough apart to avoid unwanted interruption by circulating servers or eavesdropping neighbors. The long, handsome bar downstairs welcomes all, from T-shirt clad couples sipping craft brews while engrossed in the NBA playoffs to back-slapping business types content to close out the day with splashy cocktails. 

Carman handles all the hard stuff. His tastes run the gamut from easy sipping standards (Dark and Stormy, Old Fashioned) to rejiggered favorites (rum-laced Rickey, Champagne-brandy cooler) and alterna-digestifs (cocoa-spiked tequila, coconut-infused porter). We remain most smitten with an eponymous beverage that’s actually a Scotch sandwich, an angst-erasing medley of aged Scotch, mellowing port, bitters and a float of Compass Box Whisky Co.’s smoky “Peat Monster” blend. 

Madrid is the primary force behind the mealtime magic. Although, to hear him tell it, whimsy and the changing seasons play their part as well. 

“It really is a little bit ‘as the mood strikes,’” he said of his penchant for rewriting menus (he’s already retooled the compact but eclectic carte three times since opening day).  

Figuring Out the Favorites

The first overhaul was done out of necessity. 

Madrid pieced together the opening menu during the dead of winter and quickly realized that the featured selections were too “heavy and hearty” for those walking in the door several months later. 

We’d have to agree, given that orders of spaetzle (a dry, colorless starch fest) and seafood-studded linguine (too much vermouth, not enough chorizo) left much to be desired. 

Things have improved steadily since then. 

“We’re still trying to figure out what the favorites are,” Madrid said, billing a luxurious red snapper creation as the only real runaway hit. 

Allow us to spread the love around. 

Gratis mounds of hand-cut potato chips flanked by house-made French onion dip never cease to amaze. The chips are paper thin yet extra crispy and the flavorful dip — extra thick and clingy — is a whirlwind of diced onions, sour cream and mayonnaise. 

The ham and cheese beignets blow fried dough out of the water. The savory morsels resemble mini crab cakes more than beignets, each patty of minced country ham and extra salty Gruyere unencumbered by much in the way of binder. They are perfectly complemented by glassy slices of crisp cucumber and a refreshing dill-spiked chaser. 

“It’s just a steak and cheese with a higher quality meat,” one barkeep said of the signature duck and cheese sandwich. 

He’s being modest. The sandwich would be grand if it included the standard shaved rib eye, but substituting fat-enrobed duck meat makes it nothing short of sublime. The fork-tender fowl melts in your mouth. But the real stars are the sautéed onions and sliced shiitakes enmeshed within. We didn’t taste much of the promised Manchego (pity). 

The marquee cheeseburger is totally toppings driven; yellow mustard is the predominant spice, tangy pickles the wild card. All in all, we prefer the Dubliner’s burger — a totally stripped down, but irrefutably beefier experience — over this well-manicured effort.

The fabled red snapper lives up to hype. The incredibly succulent fish is dappled with piquant chili butter, decorated with lightly charred greens and laid to rest on a luxurious bed of Andouille-flavored
risotto and sweet golden corn. 

Madrid is already hard at work on his next-generation temptations. He anticipates switching over to “light summer” fare by the end of this month and is mulling updating the brunch offerings (the only thing that’s remained static since opening day) in the near future. 

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