I was in Washington DC to cheer on some friends running in the Rock N’ Roll half marathon. While on my way to the cheering location, I noted an interesting looking cafe at the corner of R Street and 1st Street NW (about 2 miles north of the Capitol). After finishing my cheering, I returned there to have lunch. I am glad I did as the Big Bear Cafe, with terrific atmosphere and great food, is now my favorite brunch spot.
While the Big Bear Cafe is new to me, it is not new to the residents of DC. Lana Labermeier and her husband Stuart Davenport opened it in the summer of 2006 in the largely residential area of Bloomingdale. In addition to opening Big Bear Cafe, Stuart has been very active in the community, even serving on a local Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
The building, a 120 year old Victorian, had been vacant, with the previous occupant a local market that was also called Big Bear. There is a photo of what it looked like on the wall. Big Bear Cafe is quite popular and shows up often on “Best Cafe in DC” lists. It even has been the location of some high profile weddings. With a big, cobblestone patio and walls that show the Victorian brick, the place just oozes with atmosphere.
The Big Bear Cafe is open for both breakfast/brunch (8 AM -3 PM) and for dinner (4 PM – 9 PM). I have only been there during brunch hours.
The breakfast menu consists of bagels, sandwiches, wraps, and salads. Many of the items are vegetarian, but not always vegan. Menu items with meat in them include the Chicken Fajita Burrito, the Grass-Feed Beef Burger, and the Pastrami Short-Rib Bagel. The dinner menu features 9 different choices for pizza but also includes several salads, the grass-feed burger, calamari, and shrimp tacos. I suspect their menu changes with the seasons, but I have not dined there long enough to see that.
On my first visit, I was not too hungry as I had eaten bagels and donuts while cheering at the marathon. Desiring something light, I chose the Farro Veggie Bowl. It is a grain bowl with the dominant grain being farro, although there is also some quinoa (the only protein in the dish).
The farro is not the dominant ingredient, though, as there is a good amount of arugula as well. It also incorporates roasted seasonal vegetables. On that day they were cucumbers, beets, and mushrooms. Everything is covered with a tangy vinaigrette. It’s a great mix of ingredients with the tastes blending together well. I love the dish and would go back to the cafe just for it.
On another trip, I had the Breakfast Sandwich. It is an egg sandwich, which by default is made with an English muffin. It turns out that it can also be made with a bagel. I decided to stick with the English Muffin. In addition to the egg, the sandwich has caramelized onions, aged cheddar, and arugula. The muffin is whole wheat and is house made. Because of the whole wheat, it is flatter than a typical English muffin, but it is not dense. The texture is quite hardy, which I like. Both the cheddar and the arugula have a strong, sharp taste, giving the sandwich a lot of flavor. The onions serve as a sauce, providing some liquid to an otherwise dry sandwich. It is a great sandwich and I would get it again.
Drinks and baked goods
In addition to the food items described above, the cafe has coffee drinks, teas, and baked goods. The coffee is from a local roaster in Annapolis, Md. Other coffee drinks include Lattes, Cappuccinos, Americanos, and Cafe au Lait. I am not a coffee drinker so I have not tried any of these. But I have tried their teas. There are an assortment of specialty teas available, but they are not listed on the menu. You have to ask what they are there. I have had the lavender tea and the English breakfast and enjoyed both. The tea is served hot with the bag just dunked in.
The baked goods include scones, muffins, biscuits, and Focaccia. Too full to try one on my first visit, I made sure to have one on my next. There are two kinds of scone available — a Butterscotch Scone and a Bacon Cheddar Scone — and both enticed me. But there is one item in the case that I could not resist: the Chocolate Bear Paw.
This is a rolled pastry, similar to a cinnamon roll but with the dominant ingredient being chocolate rather than cinnamon. I think there may have been some cinnamon in there, as it has a little spice. The roll is big, soft, and flaky. And absolutely delicious. I suspect their other baked items are just as good.
As I said above, The Big Bear Cafe oozes with ambiance. They have both indoor and outdoor seating. There is not a whole lot of space inside on the first floor and during the lunch rush it gets very crowded. I recommend getting there earlier or later in the afternoon. The cafe added seating on a second floor and on the roof in 2017, but that appears to be closed during the lunch hours. On weeknights, they host events such as trivia night, open mic, and live music. Both of the times I have been there it has been quite crowded, especially around noon. But despite the crowds, the cafe feels cozy and welcoming. The wait staff is pleasant, even when busy.. Overall, it is a fun place to have a meal.
With great food and fantastic atmosphere, the Big Bear Cafe has become one of my favorite spots to get breakfast or brunch.