If you’re hip and with it, as I am, you might recognize the exterior of Ancient Rivers and think, “Hey, wait a second! It’s Eatonville with a crappy vinyl sign!” And you would be correct. Ancient Rivers is just Eatonville with the most minor of decor changes. I think they put about five minutes of thought into their decorating scheme here, but the decorations aren’t exactly why we were here.
When we arrived, we were told it was Happy Hour until 7 and all cocktails–ALL COCKTAILS–were $5. “They’re going to be watered down!” we moaned, then ordered them anyway. Long story short, we actually hit a second round before happy hour ended and were able to try a slightly embarrassing number of their house cocktails. My favorites were the Al-kindi, which had the pungent smokiness of mezcal with a pleasant sweetness, and the Nile, which tasted exactly how it purported: spicy and gingery. We were wrong about them being watered down; although it took an awfully long time to receive our drinks and they weren’t all winners, they were definitely made fabulously. Not quite sure how they can manage to sell these drinks for $5 apiece and still stay afloat, but that’s their problem.
We ended up ordering a total of seven mezze, which may have been a bit of a mistake. I always feel like tapas-style restaurants mean that I can eat exactly the right amount without having to finish a huge entree, when it reality it means that I will invariably slightly under-order and then compensate by asking for three more things, which end up being two things too many. Anyway, enough about my lifelong battle with Friday-night binge eating, here’s a picture of the first round:
The meat dolmas had the classic spiced meat with tart, oily grape leaf exterior. The libne b zayt was so delicious, just a giant bowl of creamy, cheesy, yogurty goodness to scoop up with their plush, warm pita. The cheese fatayer was doughy and soft with a well-spiced cheese filling. Kind of boring, but hey, it’s cheese and bread and I’ve certainly never complained about this combination. But seriously, dat cauliflower. Spicy, crispy, and just the perfect texture, with a thin harissa to boot. I could eat this all day. And then…our merguez sausage arrived. How did I ever live without this sausage? How did I ever spend fifteen years of my life without any sausage? Is there a more perfect food anywhere? The merguez was one of the greats, though; all spicy, lamby goodness, pine nuts, and onions.
Next, we went for the kibbeh–yumyum meatballs in yogurt sauce–as well as the red pepper hummus. As you can see, Ancient Rivers doesn’t skimp on the pita. In fact, though you can only see two enormous baskets of pita pictured here, they brought us a total of three. Is there such a thing as too much pita? I’d ordinarily say no, but this was maybe slight overkill..? The hummus was good but not a star by any means. But that’s only because it was completely overshadowed by all the other great things we got.
I am not one to pass up a solid dessert, and I am really glad I didn’t. Ancient Rivers offered a slice of kunafeh that was basically the size of my head and at least an inch and a half thick of gooey, melty cheese. The top was not as crispy and honey-soaked as I like, but it was topped with a pistachio crumble and was laced with cardamom, two flavors I truly appreciate together. How can my husband hate chesecake but be totally fine with this, a cake that is just a huge block of cheese? I will never know the answer to this, but I won’t complain, as long as I get to keep eating sweetened cheese for dessert.
Service was slow, but ended up being totally worth the wait.
Price: $25 per person.
Bottom line: Ancient Rivers is a hidden gem, if by “hidden” you mean “encased in a huge, conspicuous building on one of the busiest stretches of road in DC, but advertised only via cheap vinyl sign.” It has solid Middle Eastern specialties with decent portions for an actually reasonable price. Come here if you’re thinking about Zaytinya but are okay trading a small difference in quality for a huge difference in price. Or maybe you just couldn’t get a table at Zaytinya, I know how it is.