Changes, meanwhile, are mostly for the better. Pounce on the chicken pot pie fritters.
Never been to the Tombs? Here’s what you’re missing: A timeless bar and warren of rooms, elevated pub grub and the kind of service you might recall from visits to any of the 10 other restaurants in the popular Clyde’s Restaurant Group, known for its hospitality. The hostess seems genuinely glad to see and seat you, and the waiter volunteers the WiFi password without your even having to ask. Dishes might be auctioned off at the table, but they never take long to reach you.
More than any other college-adjacent restaurant in town, the Tombs is as linked to its school as John Thompson Jr. and Hoyas basketball. The pub’s landlord is no less than Georgetown University.
The Tombs’ culinary caretakers include Adam Howard, the new executive chef of the formal 1789, and Chris Benitez, who serves as sous chef downstairs. Howard is responsible for adding to the menu those chicken pot pie fritters, a legacy of his time at Family Meal in Frederick. A lot of work goes into the little bites. The chicken is brined before it’s roasted and shredded; a roux binds poultry with the peas and carrots. Japanese breadcrumbs form the golden crust. Each bite feels like a complete dinner. Swanson, eat your heart out. Benitez, an Arlington native whose family is from El Salvador, has also tapped into his background, previously serving pupusas and fish tacos.
The menu bridges the appetites of students, professors and tourists who may have read about the institution. Guess what the kids like best? According to both chefs, the bestseller is chicken tenders. Laugh if you want, but the fat fingers of super-juicy chicken sporting craggy bronzed coats are finger-licking good, more so after a dunk in honey mustard sauce. Familiar flavors rule here — the menu also lists mac & cheese bites — but they tend to be better than your average bar fare. At once crisp and creamy, the pasta cubes are punctuated with bacon and red pepper, dusted with parmesan and cooled down by a ramekin of ranch dressing, tinted pink with sriracha. The Tombs should submit a patent.
Summer sent the chili, so loaded with ground beef and beans you could eat it with a fork, on a sabbatical. In its place is a Mexican-style chicken soup with a broth that swells with chicken flavor, a fan of avocado and a garnish of thin fried tortilla strips. The dish, created by Benitez and ignited with jalapeño, deserves a long run.
Half a dozen salads encourage you to eat your vegetables; go green with sugar snap peas and shaved celery — plus radishes, almonds and a creamy poppy seed dressing — or better yet, Italian. The antipasto chopped salad is equal parts charcuterie plate (salami, provolone) and produce section (tomatoes, radicchio), a sublime kitchen sink (welcome, chickpeas and tiny pasta!) bound with a sunny vinaigrette. Share it as an appetizer or think of it as a colorful main event for $15.
A few plates suggest you’re eating at the dressy restaurant upstairs. One of the prize entrees is a slab of roasted salmon splayed across tzatziki sauce and a bed of Israeli couscous, slicked with pesto. Desserts are made by a dedicated pastry chef at 1789 but priced for students. Eight bucks is a fair trade for a slice of tangy key lime pie with raspberry sauce and (real) whipped cream.
If I were handing out grades to dishes, a few wouldn’t pass. The fettuccine with Bolognese sauce, for instance, is so limp, it tastes like it was cooked in the dishwasher. And while the “hot honey” fried chicken sandwich delivers a nice crackle, honey is the dominant flavor. More balance is in order. But those are easily righted wrongs, and the majority of selections show care.
Order the turkey BLT, and it arrives with thick slices of turkey, carved from a whole bird roasted inside the open kitchen, and crisp smoky bacon on toasted bread. The star of the brunch menu is shrimp and grits, each element of which leads to a Charleston-worthy performance. The seafood is springy, the grits dare you to not scrape the plate, the andouille adds snap and sass, and the tomato broth, glossed with butter, ties everything together. You’ll want a box for any leftovers.
David Moran, area director of operations for the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, worked at the Tombs as a manager, starting when he was 23. He says the pandemic pause gave staff a chance to reevaluate the establishment. “Do we leave something just because it’s tradition or because it’s great?” he recalls thinking. “Restaurants should evolve.” One casualty of the philosophy was the salad-topped pizza, a menu staple despite the fact it was never a big seller. Diners knew it as the Hoya Salad. Moran dismissed it as “a hot mess.”
Wine drinkers can save themselves some money when they drop by on Sunday or Monday, when bottles are half price. The Tombs also offers two respectable 1789 wines by the glass, a chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon, both produced by Rutherford Wine Co. in California.
Brass name plaques lend patina and a sense of community to the pub. Those affixed to the bar are shout-outs to former employees who worked there at least two years. (As at war memorials, former workers are known to return to take etchings.) Other little signs toast beloved professors and regulars, as well as students who managed to visit the Tombs for the last 99 days of the school year, a tradition launched by seniors in the class of 1999.
Did you expect peace and quiet with your nachos and Nutty Professor, a milkshake powered with peanut butter whisky? Between the low ceiling and the hard floors, the Tombs traps noise. FYI: A seat at the bar requires more repeat questions than say, the booths, which are semi-enclosed with leaded glass.
Be sure to read your bill. The bottom of the ticket invites you to complete a short survey within 48 hours. File by the deadline, and you receive $10 off your next visit, the cost of a pitcher of Coors Light after 10 p.m. here.
Okay, that’s me thinking like I’m back at Georgetown. The older and wiser me would spend the cash on the $9 chicken pot pie fritters — and be home before 10.
1226 36th St. NW. 202-337-6668. tombs.com. Open 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $15, sandwiches and main courses $17 to $28. Sound check: 80 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: The basement restaurant is not wheelchair-friendly. Pandemic protocols: Masks and vaccinations are not required of staff.