Hootch & Banter

Downtown "Juice Joint" Is Really the Bees Knees

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 07.02.16 – Dining, Food & Drink

If Greta Garbo, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Rudolph Valentino met for drinks, they’d fit right in at Hootch & Banter. The restaurant’s vibe is part speakeasy and part D.C. chic, with a splash of “Old Frederick” thrown in.

Since opening last November at 49 S. Market Street, the husband-and-wife owners Sherif Salem and Cherie Nearman quickly meshed with the Downtown business community, garnering happy customers and devoted cheerleaders in short order.

Frederick’s foodie cache is well-established, fortified by popular demand for fresh, regionally sourced ingredients and meticulously crafted comestibles that transcend the food-factory rut. While day-trippers cruise into town then waddle home, local folks take pride in the thriving food scene. Hootch & Banter fits right in, with a culinary style inspired by French-trained chef Colin Suser and a kitchen led by chef Andy Watts. Salem and Nearman also share a background working at high-end steakhouses in management and service.

The name is a whimsical take on their nicknames for each other. They describe their place as “new American, upscale casual,” but the relaxed atmosphere belies high standards and astute attention to detail. “We make everything,” they say, practically in unison. Salem expounds, “We make all our dressings in-house, homemade desserts, even ice cream. We hand-squeeze juices. We’ll puree raspberries to make syrups for Mimosas.” No Heinz squirt bottles here; the ketchup and country mustard are house creations, too.

For things they can’t make in house (yet), they comb the region for quality options, such as gluten-free/vegan bread from Rise Bakery in Adams Morgan. Nearman eats gluten-free, so her favorite dish is the charcuterie and cheese plate, which may include wild boar salami from Olli Salumeria of Virginia or prosciutto from Italy. Firefly Farms in Accident, Md., provides cheese selections.

The menu changes daily, with recurring favorites. The Kidd Prime Burger is popular. It’s an homage to the site’s previous owners, the Kidd family, proprietors of The Canal Bar & Grill. The 10-ounce patty is loaded with local aged cheddar, apple wood bacon and tobacco onions on a brioche roll. Maryland crab cakes are the number one entrée. Another fave is The Banter, a mound of house-cured Wagyu corned beef chunks with melted gruyere on black Russian bread.

Menu selections may draw from Watts’ Italian background and Salem’s Egyptian culture as easily as from classic American dishes. A recent brunch menu included nine debut items along with their oft-ordered stuffed French toast and salmon frittatas. Nearman says, “We try to have fun with it.”

A spirited mood is ensured. The “hootch” list is a hefty three pages of cocktails, wine and beer. Cocktail creations are courtesy of barman Jeff Naylor, who came highly recommended by neighboring business owners. He draws from Prohibition-era drinks for party-starters like their signature Sour Hootch, with Bulleit Rye, citrus juice, egg white and bitters. Perpetually popular, Poke the Bear blends blackberry and lemon with two ounces of smooth SKYY vodka. Other libations wear titles such as Blood & Sand, Tickle Me Pink, Moulin Rouge and Le Fee Verte, a “giggle water” mix of Absinthe, cucumber and lime.

In a way, Hootch & Banter’s origin is as much love story as business brief. Certainly, it’s love of food. It’s also a whirlwind of personal passion, family devotion and serendipitous good luck. Salem and Nearman met while working a banquet for George W. Bush’s second inauguration at Smith & Wollensky’s posh D.C. steakhouse. Their connection was instant. Three days later, Salem asked to be transferred from his management position at the company’s Dallas location back to D.C. and the two became a dynamic duo. He was recruited by Bobby Van’s, another heavy-hitting district steakhouse, a few years later.

They discovered Frederick when Nearman’s parents moved here from Howard County. Salem chuckles, “We’d visit for Christmases and Thanksgivings, and we’d go to Wegmans and Costco, but we never went Downtown.” When the pair decided to ditch D.C. apartment living in search of a family-friendly environment, they noticed all the area has to offer.

Ted and Sharon Lapkoff of Jefferson befriended Salem during dinners at Bobby Van’s over the years. When she and Ted, both real estate agents with Re/Max All Pro, heard his dream of opening a restaurant in town, the wheels started turning. “We thought, ‘Wow! That would be amazing.’” In March 2015, a family friend, Bart Miller, noticed a for-sale sign on the property. He called Julie Paredes (Nearman’s sister and Hootch & Banter general manager), who buzzed Nearman and Salem. They called the Lapkoffs to find out more. Completing the circuit in less than an hour, Salem recalls their response as, “That’s funny, because we are standing in front of the building getting ready to call you!” The next day they met for a tour. “As soon as I looked at it,” Salem exhales, “I fell in love.”

The place was in rough shape, due to its abrupt closing after the death of Canal Bar owner Charles Kidd III. “It was as if time had stopped,” says Nearman. Undaunted, the pair made an offer on the building. They got it after a competitive offer fell through. Salem’s mother, Nancy, brother, Mohamed, and sister-in-law, Eman, chipped in to make it work, ultimately relocating from New Jersey to help with the endeavor. “His mom was in their house for 40 years,” says Nearman. Now the whole family calls Frederick home.

She recounts a hectic timeline. “I graduated nursing school on May 15 (2015) and we were married on May 30. The real estate settlement was on June 30 and July 1st we started demo.” They enlisted Nearman’s brother, Mike, as general contractor, doing most of the work themselves. They took six layers off the walls, exposing hidden windows and rustic brickwork, quintessential to Frederick. Beneath a drop ceiling was the original, mostly intact, stamped tin. “It was like opening Pandora’s Box,” says Nearman.

Nearman designed the space, choosing tuxedo-black and steely blue as color complements for the compact dining room. Small, round tiles shimmer like fish-scale accents on a towering wall, balanced by oversized glass pendant lights above a custom granite bar, and strands of light behind tufted high-back benches. The result is sleek yet comfortable. This year they are renovating the second floor for private events, parties and meetings.

Nearman and Salem are proud of what they’ve accomplished in such a short time and they readily share accolades with their tight-knit crew. Their exuberance is contagious. “We love Frederick,” says Nearman. “The people are so nice. It’s the best place ever.” With a glass of hootch in hand and a circle of friends for lively banter, everybody’s part of this “in” crowd.