One doesn't usually think of a Korean-Japanese restaurant as a local diner, but Niwana (3 E. 33rd St.,  366-4115, niwanarestaurant.com) fits that role for many that live or work in Charles Village. On a Wednesday evening, the restaurant is full of locals—some that appear to be on a dinner break in Union Memorial Hospital scrubs, some Johns Hopkins undergrads that seem to know this is a good place to take their visiting parents, some like me who appear to have recognized on this broiling summer's eve that it is just too hot to turn the stove on and cook a meal and instead have wandered out of their apartments and up the block to sit in air conditioning and have a cold meal. The waiters recognize a few regulars and chat with them about the specials, assuring them, "This is spicy, you'll like it."
It has a similar vibe to nearby Tamber's—though a completely different menu since Tamber's, on St. Paul, combines traditional diner food with an Indian menu—as both places share a friendly, low-key atmosphere that attracts the "let's meet over lunch" crowd, the "where should the family go for Grandma's birthday lunch?" crowd, and the solitary "let me finish reading these papers over dinner" diner.
When I am in that latter category, looking for a place to grab dinner with adequate lighting for reading where I can linger over a beer afterward without feeling rushed to make space for the next set of diners, Niwana does the trick. The décor is simple: a well-stocked bar on the upper level, standard wooden tables and cushioned benches on the lower level that with some dividers, plants, and lattice manages to feel like a faraway refuge from the bustling street outside without over-spelling it. The wait staff is cheery and efficient but not prone to interrupting patrons unnecessarily—the better for reading during a solitary meal.
As a feminist and mother of a former toddler, I'm always attentive to how businesses accommodate the small humans we all once were, and so I also appreciate an establishment that stocks high chairs, offers a simple dish for the emerging palate, and provides benched seating that can effectively corral a toddler between parents or give them room to snooze after dinner so the beleaguered adults can linger over a beer—or two, or three—in peace after; Niwana graciously accommodates kids and parents in all these ways.
The restaurant is tucked in a hard to spy spot on the ground floor corner of a building at the corner of 33rd and Charles that is even harder to notice these days due to construction fences and trucks working on the adjacent building—but it is worth seeking out.
My go-to favorites are the Bibim Bap ($9.95 at dinner time; $8 for lunch) and the Spicy Mindy Roll ($10). The roll is a not quite aesthetically pleasing but nonetheless delicious combination of various sushi pieces, scallion, and tempura flakes mixed with a spicy mayonnaise. It's not for sushi purists, this roll, as the mayo tempers the raw fish taste slightly, but chef's-choice fish pieces are consistently fresh and generously scattered atop the dish. Their buttery texture and taste stand up to the mayo and hold their own.
The Bibim Bap comes with the traditional bowl of miso and salad, making it a perfect light summer meal. Though I can and do eat it all year round, its room temperature ingredients offer distinct flavors that are enjoyable separately or tossed together. The classic version has romaine lettuce, spinach, carrot, shiitake mushrooms, radish, soy bean sprouts, zucchini, shredded beef, and a fried egg gracing the top. The vegetarian option ($8.95) is the same dish, minus the beef and egg while the dolsot, which comes in a steaming ceramic pot, ranges from the pricier-but-irresistible Kalbi (short-ribs) for $17.95 to the seafood dolsot ($14.95).
For those who like their sushi or sashimi straight, Niwana offers a full menu of generous portions with prices ranging from $15 for the "sushi regular" (six pieces and a tuna roll) to $35 for the "sashimi large" (26 pieces of sashimi). Lunch specials, such as the Sushi and Sashimi combo are less, at $14.
Though it has not yet taken off, Niwana, like most restaurants, tries to bridge the lunch and dinner crowds with a happy hour, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. It offers half-price beer and sake, as well as $1 off cocktails along with reasonably priced snacks to nibble on including edamame ($2), vegetable tempura ($5), and cucumber salad ($3)—healthier alternatives to the standard wings or potato skins you might find at other places.
As chain stores have made their incursions all around Charles Village's St. Paul Street commercial strip in the last eight years—Subway, Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, Potbelly, Chipotle—Niwana has held fast against the encroaching giants, remaining a neighborhood staple when such spots are increasingly rare.
Niwana is open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.