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The Owl Bar is in fine feather, but food's lackluster

The Owl Bar has been a notable tavern at The Belvedere, on and off, for 111 years. The place has had its ups and downs. It's been wildly popular and not at all. Twice, for about six years in early 1970s and for about 18 months in the early 1990s, the Owl Bar was closed entirely.

The best days for the watering hole, ironically, appear to have been during Prohibition, when serving drinks was illegal, at least technically. As legend has it, savvy visitors to the bar at the back of the Belvedere Hotel would know to look at the two large amber-eyed plaster owls stationed at the bar's cash register — blinking eyes meant the liquor was flowing; static-eyed owls meant cool your heels.

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For pure weirdness, the last few months of 1993 take the cake. That's when the place wasn't even The Owl Bar. It was Taos Cafe, a restaurant featuring tortillas, quesadillas, fajitas and other "New American Southwest" fare. This really happened.

Like the Owl Bar itself, the owls have been through the wringer. They were stolen twice, in the early 1930s and again in the early 1970s, only to be returned, each time, years later, without explanation.

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Scene & Decor The room-length oak bar is in place, as impressive as ever, and the room's other notable features, including stained glass panels and stuffed animal heads, are in fine repair. The owls are back in place, too.

Recent cosmetic renovations add a touch of glamour to the room. The banquettes have been reupholstered with bright animal prints. The old round dining tables in the main dining area have been replaced with mid-height tables for two. The room feels contemporary but still like the good old Owl Bar.

Drinks Enormous advances have been made with the beer and cocktail offerings. A printed beer list provides helpful descriptions (but not prices) of the draft beer line-up, which includes an impressive representation from such local brewers as Heavy Seas, Union Craft Brewing and The Brewer's Art.

The bartenders look actually pleased when customers take an interest in the cocktail list, which has been divided into "old school" and "new school" categories. I liked the ambition and wit that went into the Prohibition Punch ($9.50), a bracing blend of brandies, rum, black tea and just enough lemon juice to keep it all from getting too syrupy.

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For those of you with long memories, the Owl Bar's 32-ounce "half-yard" beer glasses are back after a brief hiatus.

Appetizers Traditionally popular pub grub is present on The Owl Bar's menu. We're talking Southwestern spring rolls, duck fat fries, fried calamari and crab dip. It's a dull line-up, and the preparations of the duck fat fries ($9), Owl Bar nacho grande ($12, with added chili $3) and wedge salad ($8) were satisfactory but not more. The fries needed more seasoning, the nachos could have used some time under the broiler to get the cheese melted and the salad's blue cheese dressing was too bland. The crab dip, a creamy blend of claw meat, cream cheese and Old Bay, was our favorite.

Entrees The Owl Bar meatloaf ($17) and the umami burger, served with American cheese and truffle aioli on a pretzel roll ($10), felt just a little tired. The meatloaf needed more seasoning, and the boring umami burger didn't live up to its name. This food is good enough to keep you company on a visit to the Owl Bar, which is more than I can say for the fish and chips, which, flavorless and soggy, was not up to pub-grub snuff.

Our best luck was with a carne pizza ($15) topped with pepperoni, sausage and prosciutto, which was made in the large wood-burning oven that arrived at the Owl Bar in the early 1990s. The crust was crisp and the toppings were solid.

Dessert Dessert choices (all $7) are familiar things like tiramisu, chocolate lava cake and apple pie. We'd get the warm chocolate cake again, if we had a sweet tooth, but not the tiramisu, which didn't have the espresso kick we want in that dessert. The best dessert choice is ice cream from Moorenko's, the popular Silver Spring ice-cream maker.

Service We found the service much improved since our last visit a few years back, especially at the bar, where in the past we've encountered apathy. In the dining room, there was a noticeable gap between the appetizer and entree courses. It wasn't egregiously long, but an update from our otherwise efficient and pleasant waiter would have helped.

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