When Potbelly Sandwich Works began to open restaurants like mad in Washington, D.C. last spring, I was mystified. I had never heard of this California based chain and wondered what all the fuss was about. Fuss? Well, the usual puff pieces in the Washington Post and so on did pique my curiosity. I finally had to venture inside the branch which opened next to my favorite coffee shop on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle. That it replaced a French cafe is somehow telling, but I had to take comfort that it wasn't another shoe store. Dupont Circle now has enough shoe stores to keep Imelda Marcos busy for years.
I have also checked out another branch on L Street in downtown Washington. The atmosphere of both places is similar. Think exposed brick, wood floors and big exposed beams..a toned down industrial look. It's not the techno-scary look of Chipotle, nor is it so homey that you'd mistake it for someone's living room. It's just another fast food place...but at least the food is edible.
Get in line with the others and move silently along until you get to the point where you can actually read what's on the chalk board behind Sandwich Maker #1. At this point, you will discover that the menu is really pretty simple. All of the sandwiches are exactly the same price- a very modest $3.79. So far, I have had the Turkey Breast, the Smoked Ham and the Chicken Salad varieties. These are all just what they might appear to be. There is nothing especially creative or unusual about them, except possibly for the bread. Instead of ordinary sandwich bread, Potbelly uses warm crusty rolls. The ingredients inside the sandwiches might not be the best, or most expensive possible, but the corporate management here does see the value of using good bread. The basic roll is a soft white roll with a crunchy exterior, though you may choose to have wheat bread instead. This is usually cut from a fresh loaf.
There are other varieties as well. I'm not tempted by the pizza sandwich (!) which comes with marinara sauce, provolone cheese, mushrooms and Italian seasoning. The Roast Beef is straightforward, with roast beef (not exactly rare, unfortunately) and more provolone. If you crave a PBJ, they have got that too, though it seems odd to find it here.
A large rack of chips holds the usual suspects, with the salt and vinegar variety being the most exotic of them.
A limited number of side dishes is available. Coleslaw, macaroni salad, pretzels or pickles. Remember that this is just a lunch place..
The Doc was happy with her bowl of chili ($3.29), though I haven't yet tried it. Actually, the Doc swears that their chili is very close to the way she makes hers. They also have chicken noodle soup ($2.29). It is good enough, though perhaps too salty. I haven't yet tried the vegetable soup ($2.29). It just sounds too dull for words. Maybe some day when I am not feeling well...
They really do shine with their malts. Most places haven't any idea what a real malt is anymore. A malt is not a milk shake. Their malts ($2.69) and milk shakes are far better than those offered by most other fast food places. The basic flavors are offered (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry), but you can also get a mocha variety as well as an Oreo one which isn't bad at all. It'll cost you 50 cents more for a banana on top.
If you are more of a modern person and eschew the nostalgia of a malt, you can have a yogurt smoothie instead. Don't pat yourself too heartily on the back for this. How can a Dreamsicle smoothie really be good for you anyway? It tasted more like St. Joseph's Children's Aspirin than not.
Bottled sodas like Stewart's Key Lime and IBC Root Beer and Cream Soda are priced almost fairly at $1.29.
Cookies and Dessert
Do you really think I had room for a cookie after all of that bread? Neither of us have to date, but the cookies (mostly oatmeal and other things carefully devised to make you think you are being healthy) look pretty tempting. Sheila's Dream Bar might be the one to try..caramel, oatmeal and chocolate.
The sandwiches aren't expensive at all.. The basic sandwich is $3.79 with a possible extra 15 cents for hot peppers. The sodas, malts and so on might drive your tab up a bit, but this is still not much more expensive than the most basic fast food.
I haven't been overwhelmed with their dedication to service. How could I be? The kids behind the counter are just that...fresh faced college kids who don't really want to be there. They are still friendly enough. If there were one problem here, it might be that the system is sometimes disorganized, according to which branch you are in. At some of them, one has to do a lot of traipsing back and forth for soup and other items. At others, the system has been worked out better. Maybe I was merely a victim of overcrowding. These places are almost always packed during the lunch hour. Several locations in downtown D.C. have thought to feature wispy Joni Mitchell wannabes and their guitars as entertainment during the busy hours. This is diverting, even if it's not always tuneful.
In the end, it's still just another fast food place. The warm fuzzy trappings and good bread almost make it worthwhile. If you are going to succumb to the urge for fast food, there are worse places to do the dirty deed.
Hours vary according to location, but most I have seen close before 8:00 PM.
Potbelly Sandwich Works
1635 Connecticut Avenue
1900 L Street
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Kid Friendliness: Yes
Vegetarian Friendly: Yes
Notes, Tips or Menu Recommendations Fast food- no reservations--lines can be long at times
Best Suited For: Friends