I’ve witnessed Washington change a lot over my four years at college. Every time I came back from summer break, there was a new building on campus. What amazed me even more was how quickly some not-so-great neighborhoods turned into the most talked about parts of the city. One of these magic transformations happened to the area surrounding what is now Union Market, in DC’s NoMa neighborhood.
I discovered the area during my sophomore year of college, when my friends and I attended a party thrown in honor of the Cherry Blossom Festival. That year the party took place in an abandoned warehouse situated among rows of food packing warehouses. When I heard about plans for Union Market soon afterwards, I was surprised to hear that it was going up in the same seemingly abandoned area where the party took place. Two and half years later, Union Market’s unique food offerings attract thousands of locals and tourists each week. The area is also home to pop-up events such as Crafty Bastards, Emporiyum, and the Angelika Pop-Up micro cinema.
Union Market itself is like a smaller, hipper version of Philly’s Reading Terminal Market. However, instead of Amish bakers you’ll find 30 trendy outlets ranging from an artisanal chocolatier, to an oyster bar to a chic home goods store. Many vendors have full-size operations elsewhere in the city, but a few, like Buffalo & Bergen, are exclusive to Union Market.
Buffalo and Bergen is an unconventional cross between an old-school soda fountain, a diner, a bar and a Jewish deli. The restaurant’s name comes from the Brooklyn intersection on which restaurateur Gina Chersevani grew up. Before Buffalo and Bergen, Chersevani worked her way through DC’s finest restaurants as a mixologist, crafting unique cocktails for Rasika and Hank’s Oyster Bar. Now Chersevani brings New York style bagels, old fashioned sodas and cocktails to DC fans.
The atmosphere here is exciting and inviting. Because Union Market has an open floor plan, Buffalo and Bergen’s U-shaped counter and bar stools effortlessly attract hungry visitors. All of the food preparation takes place behind the counter, so diners have a front-row seat to all of the soda-pouring and cocktail-mixing.
Despite being housed in a trendy venue, B&B achieves the feel of a genuine diner, rather than another trendy gimmick by a DC restaurateur. From the casual, folded paper menus to the quaint china, this effect is achieved through the details.
Although Buffalo and Bergen has many specialties, they are known best for their knishes. The waitstaff uniform is a t-shirt that asks, “Are you looking at my knishes?” on its backside.
If you’re unfamiliar with knishes, as I was on my first visit to Buffalo and Bergen, they’re like the Eastern European, Jewish version of an empanada. Knishes are a snack food made of dough (almost always) stuffed with potatoes, and then secondary ingredients like ground meat or cabbage. Buffalo and Bergen’s changing menu of knishes breaks convention and offers spanakopita knishes, beef fajita knishes and even chili kale knishes.
Since Buffalo and Bergen was my first encounter with a knish, I decided to go with the traditional Potato and Onion Knish ($5) with a twist. For 50 cents more, I “turnpiked” my knish and got it topped with melted butter, garlic and parsley.
According to the trustworthy Urban Dictionary, I found that along with a dirty dance move popularized by the reality show Jersey Shore, “Jersey Turnpike” is also a bartending term meaning “the process of combining all of the alcoholic residue from the bar, cup mats, etc., into a pint glass and giving it to the drunk who keeps asking for more.” Since Chersevani is best known for her bartending, I’m guessing this is where the terminology for the knish topping came from.
I was excited to try my first knish, but I soon became disappointed as I discovered that the potato filling was too dense and a bit dry. It would have been hard to get through without the lubricating buttery topping. Perhaps a non-traditional flavor would have been the way to go to break the monotony of flavor and texture. I also thought the $5.50 price tag for such a simple and lackluster dish a bit steep, especially when a bagel goes for $1 at Buffalo and Bergen. Furthermore, I ordered the knish on my first-ever visit to B&B, and thought it would be enough for a whole meal. It simply was not.
On this same visit, I sampled my boyfriend’s Turkey, Egg, Cheese Breakfast Sandwich on an Everything Bagel ($6.50). After my knish, I had low expectations for this breakfast sandwich. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when the familiar turkey-egg-cheese combination manifested itself in a refreshingly unique way. This age-old breakfast combo was spruced up with a kick of spice and an unexpected hint of rosemary. Another twist I enjoyed was that the bagel was hollowed out. While bagel evangelists may find this sacrilegious, I think this is a smart way to keep traditionally dense bagels from masking the flavors of the sandwich toppings.
On another visit to Buffalo and Bergen, “sweet” was the theme of my meal. Whenever I go out for breakfast, I always face a dilemma when it comes to picking between a sweet entrée and a savory entrée. On this visit to Buffalo and Bergen, I didn’t have to compromise because I ordered the Ham, Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich on a French Toast Bagel ($6). I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had high hopes for this unusual combo. I had never had a French toast bagel before, but having had lots of French toast and plenty of bagels in my life, I thought I could make a reasonable assumption about what to expect. While the ham-egg-cheese component of the breakfast sandwich were tasty, the French toast bagel was not.
In French, French toast is pain perdu, which translates to “forgotten bread” because it is supposed to be made of stale bread. Typically, the stale flavor is usually covered up by the fried batter. Buffalo and Bergen’s French toast bagel was basically a stale bagel sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. I unfortunately lost my original photo of my sandwich, so here’s an image I found of B&B’s French toast bagel with Nutella cream cheese (delish) to show you something comparable.
To accompany my meal, I ordered the Hot Apple Cider, which was on the menu that morning. The cider was unlike any I had had in the past in that it had the consistency and flavor of maple syrup. This may sound like a dream come true to many people, but it was just too sweet even for me. I have a major sweet tooth, but I was worried I’d be leaving this meal with a cavity…
The Bottom Line:
I really want to love Buffalo and Bergen because the concept is so great and the menu reads deliciously. Unfortunately, most of the items that I’ve had have been misses. However, like the abusive boyfriends and girlfriends they teach us about in health class, there are not-so-great restaurants we keep going back to in hopes of finding that magic that attracted us to them in the first place. Buffalo and Bergen’s diner atmosphere is enough to bring me back, if not for a knish, then for an old-fashioned soda.
1309 5th St NE (Union Market)
Washington, DC 20002