TL;DR: Cheap beers, decent food and excellent trivia make Whitlow’s on Wilson in Arlington, Va., a weekly occurrence for me and my friends. Despite its idiosyncrasies, Whitlow’s gets full points for not pretending to be anything that it isn’t, and remains a solid choice as a neighborhood bar.
Whitlow’s at Wilson is like a former lover that you keep hooking up with after a breakup. There are (probably?) better options, but the sex isn’t bad and meeting new people is hard. I, along with my group of friends, know this to be true because we’ve been going back to Whitlow’s for weekly trivia for around a year now — that’s included after a “break” in our relationship to try out other bar trivia.
I’ve been meaning to do more reviews of barbecue restaurants in the area, but haven’t found the willpower or the money to do so. So I figured that I may as well start with a place that I’m going to end up at anyways. Whitlow’s at Wilson isn’t a barbecue restaurant, though there are barbecue-related items on the menu — or that’s my excuse anyways.
Located about a block away from Clarendon metro, Whitlow’s is unassumingly nestled in a former furniture store — I found that out from one of the trivia questions from way back when. There’s an affiliated rooftop tiki bar that is separate from the main part of the building. It is easily confused for the actual restaurant because of awkward signage positioning. Inside, the decor is of your typical dive fare — fully equipped with concrete floors and miscellaneous beer paraphernalia.
Whitlow’s is full of oddities, such as when you can’t push your chair in because there’s some stick to the floor (the place uses its open space for more bar-related activities during the weekend). And the barrier-less urinals and their almost too-close proximity make going to the restroom just short of being fully awkward — I also can’t seem to recall there ever being any paper towels. There’s a section with pool tables and a few arcade games if you look hard enough; I have yet to partake in such wonderful amenities.
The menu consists of largely American fare, with a combination of seafood, bar bites and sandwiches and burgers. There is sometimes a rotating menu of specials that include full entrees normally not on the menu.
Where Whitlow’s on Wilson really shines is its generous weekly specials. Burgers are half-priced on Monday evenings, and sandwiches and craft beer buckets on Wednesday evenings. Tuesdays have all-you-can-eat snow crab legs. Brunch features on the weekend.
Since I typically show up on Wednesdays for trivia (as hosted by the excellent and amazing Damien Wolfe), I can personally attest that Whitlow’s sandwich game is solid, but not really anything to write home about. I don’t believe that the pulled pork sandwich is actually smoked in any way, so it isn’t as authentic as their true barbecue brethren. It is accompanied by a generic commercial barbecue sauce; a bit of tang from a simple vinegar-based Carolina-style sauce could help a lot here. The open face meatloaf is decent and gives a more “entree” vibe as compared to the other sandwiches. The only thing to be avoided is the southwest panini. Despite being touted as Whitlow’s “most popular,” the portobello mushroom-chicken concoction has been universally panned by our group.
The waitstaff is friendly, but appear to be chronically understaffed, or on Wednesday’s at least. It isn’t uncommon for your waiter or waitress to disappear for up to an hour at times dealing with a pretty large number of tables. Flagging them down is pretty the only way you can get their attention sometimes. Try to get your check early if you don’t want to spend too much time waiting around.
Despite it’s quirks, Whitlow’s gets the benefit of the doubt by remaining thoroughly and unabashedly true to itself. And honestly, I would be willing to put up with much more for four dollar sandwiches.
Without overselling itself, Whitlow’s manages to — almost comically — have something for everyone. Whether you fall under the “bitches who brunch” category, regular drunk, trivia aficionado or seafood addict, Whitlow’s on Wilson will have something for you. And therein lies the rub: by attempting to appeal to everyone, Whitlow’s doesn’t necessarily excel in any particular thing. At the very least, it makes it easy to bring groups of friends (or former lovers, if you’re into that).