Sunday, February 21, 2010

An American Chili Parlor: Hard Times Cafe

The Hard Times Cafe is a very successful regional restaurant chain in the DC Metro Area, with 15 locations in Virginia, Maryland, and one in Washington, DC. These places are very popular in the DC Metro area, and for good reason. Hard Times offers its customers a relaxed and casual atmosphere, with great service, good portions, lots of beer, and great prices. The Hard Times Cafe and Cue locations offer pool tables and darts as well.

Founded in Alexandria, VA in 1980, Hard Times Cafe is a throw back to days gone by, and is fashioned after a Southwest Depression Era American Chili Parlor, popular in the 1930's. The decor is a simple, but very welcoming, comfortable, atmosphere, with polished red oak, terra cotta tiles, and Western art work covering the walls. The food at Hard Times Cafe is served in generous portions, and at very fair and reasonable prices. You will find a menu that will range from appetizers, to salads, to burgers, to steaks, but the star on the Hard Times menu is their 4 styles of chili.

First time visitors to Hard Times are offered a free chili sampler, to decide what chili they like best. The 4 styles of chili featured at Hard Times are:

Texas Chili: The Hard Times Cafe Original Chili-A 100 year old family recipe.

Cincinnati Chili: From 1922 Geek Immigrants

Vegetarian Chili: Textured Soy Protein Chili-Fresh veggies with a soy protein flake and special spices.

Terlingua Red Chili: Hard Times Cafe Exclusive Championship Chili-A tomato based Texas chili with a competition spice blend. Created by competition chili cook and Hard Times Co-Founder, Jim Parker.

I have sampled all the chili styles at Hard Times Cafe, and I find them all to be quite excellent. The Cincinnati Chili is my personal favorite, it is more like a meat sauce, that is sweet and spicy from the addition of cinnamon. I usually get it served "3 Ways"which is with cheddar cheese over spaghetti. You can chose a number of ways to have your chili served to you at Hard Times, from a bowl, to frito pie, to chilimac (spaghetti), to chili burgers and chili dogs. But Hard Times isn't all about chili.

They have an excellent grill, and have a good selection of burgers, steaks, and sandwiches to choose from. You will also find a nice range of appetizers and deserts at Hard Times. Try the Southwestern egg rolls as a starter, they are stuffed with chicken, salsa, pepper jack cheese, and served with a spicy dipping sauce. Their chili lime wings are awesome as well. Hard Times has a $5 lunch/dinner special they run daily. A heaping bowl of chili with free (all you can eat) corn bread will cost about $6, chili mac will cost about $8, and the portion is enough to feed two people.
You could enjoy a full meal here for under $15, just over $20, for a couple. A kids menu is also available, prices on kids items are good as well. Hard Times also offers free refills on all sodas. The service in my experience, has always been fast and friendly.
What really makes Hard Times special for me, and for any beer lover, is the fact that Hard Times Cafe is a multi-tap or beer bar. You will find an average of 25-30 taps pouring a variety of beer styles, $3-$6 a pint, depending on what style you chose. From regional domestics like Yuengling and Shiner, to micro brews such as Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams,to seasonal specialities, to rare imports, there is always something new and exciting for a beer lover to find on tap. From imported German schwarzbiers like Kostritzer, to California Red Ales like Moylan's, to Belgian Krieks like Kasteel, to local favorites like Dogfish Head, you will find it at Hard Times. Hard Times even has their own beer, called Hard Times Select Lager, which is a Dortmunder by style, brewed for them.

Not going overboard on the tap selection, a mistake many multi-taps make insures that the beer is always fresh, always moving, and isn't old and stale beer that has sat too long. Hard Times Cafes are known in the beer world for being outstanding beer bars,with select locations hosting beer tastings. Great chili, great beer, and great prices? What more could one ask for? Hard Times Cafe is the perfect place out for a day or night of casual dining, or just a great place to hang out, have a bowl of chili and a beer.

Hard Times is also a very family friendly place,so don't hesitate to bring the kids along to the restaurant. My experience with the VA locations I have visited (Woodbridge, Alexandria, Manassass, Clarendon, Fredericksburg)have been very good. For more information visit Hard Times web site at

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