The Wharf’s New Lucky Buns Resembles a Big Beachfront Bungalow
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The Wharf’s New Lucky Buns Resembles a Big Beachfront Bungalow

Aug 15, 2023

Lucky Buns, a D.C. destination for juicy double patties and fried chicken sandwiches since 2017, turns things up a notch at its largest location yet. The 200-seat edition opens daily from lunch til late starting Wednesday, April 26, with an expanded menu full of fun drinking snacks, homemade horchata ice cream, citrusy crushes, and slushy cocktails (675 Wharf Street SW).

The glass-enclosed corner newcomer with a wooden waterfront patio keeps the party going later than most on the Wharf, until 1 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends.

Building upon the success of the Adams Morgan original and a Union Market offshoot, chef/owner Alex McCoy’s clean new canvas on the Potomac presents the opportunity to unleash a sea of new starters alongside its reliable handhelds.

An open kitchen under a big blue sailfish sends out plates of “go-go fries” loaded with half-smoke chili that’s made with the same sausage Ben’s Chili Bowl uses. “There’s no better bite in the city than a Ben’s chili dog,” says McCoy. The indulgent homage to D.C. gets doused with “dive bar” queso McCoy calls “our version of [Velveeta] Rotel.” Another nostalgic way to start is with an order of peppery mac and cheese sprinkled with crushed Cheez-Its.

Deep-fried confit wings start with a 24-hour marinade in South African Braai spices. “My mom lived for many years in Johannesburg and this is our family recipe,” he says. A sweet soy-based barbecue sauce — a Balinese recipe lent to McCoy by Indonesian Embassy chef Galih Baskoro — brings wings a flavorful blast of aromatic lemongrass, galangal, lime leaf, and chilis.

Unlike the other landlocked Lucky Buns locales, the Wharf has a big waterfront patio to play with. McCoy’s in talks with Grillworks owner Ben Eisendrath about setting up a wood-fired parrilla outside for summer. In Lucky Buns fashion, look for lots of one-off and rotating activations. His longstanding Thai venture Alfie’s could pop up a few days a week, with gai yang or sad ua sausage sizzling outside, and his annual Crabs and Crushes event could also work well at the Wharf.

McCoy recruited lots of fine-dining talent to join the growing team. Head chef Scott Han and newly named sous chef Matty DeFranza both worked at Michelin-starred Rose’s Luxury, and Bad Saint alum Amanda Carpenter helped assemble its all-natural wine program featuring organic or biodynamic grapes. Lucky Buns’ popular Painkiller joins new cocktails like a strong “Huracan” made with tequila, rum, maracuya syrup, lemon, and sorrel.

Adding personality to a brand-new buildout can be tough, but McCoy made it his mission to bring the lived-in quirkiness of Adams Morgan to the Wharf. “I asked them to give me a nice building so I could dirty it up,” he says.

Lots of the retro artwork flew back in his backpack, sourced from second-hand stores on Brick Lane in London where he did a Lucky Buns pop-up last summer. McCoy did some DIY assembly in his living room with frames he found at Ikea. Mod prints join woven lanterns, tiki glassware, and ’60s surfer film posters that speak to its waterfront locale. Cabinets are constructed of century-old wood his contractor friends pulled from renovations.

“I wanted it to feel real, not perfectly designed. It had to be imperfect. I wanted it to feel like it had been there for years,” he says.

Covering the exposed industrial ceiling with a dramatic geometric installation took some convincing. “People leave out finished ceilings because they are expensive, but I can’t imagine the space without it,” he says.

McCoy continues to turn to local friends to build much of the menu. Creekstone Farms patties are balanced between bread baked daily by Pops Buns, and Gordy’s Pickles delivers dills every week. Meatcrafters’ Jeb Gavin — and McCoy’s old rugby teammate — handles the sausage recipes. And “you won’t find tomatoes in-house if they aren’t locally grown,” he says.

He also sources some ingredients himself from the Eastern Shore, where he lives. Every week he drives down blue crabs from Cambridge’s J.M. Clayton Company, which has been picking since the 1890s. The Chesapeake favorite shows up at the Wharf in a crab-rangoon dip. From his own “farm-ish plot” at home, he grows obscure herbs like lovage, sorrel, and salsify that make their way onto the menu when possible. Desserts and cocktails will benefit when apple and peach trees start putting out fruit.

“Everything we put on the menu has meaning and significance. What people eat is important,” he says.

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