For the last year, a restaurant in Washington, D.C.'s Penn Quarter has been keeping America's culinary history alive—a place where you can order Lobster Newburgh, Brunswick Stew, "Hamburg Style" steak, Blackened Croaker, and Oysters Rockefeller. The bartender happily makes rickeys, New York sours, Sazeracs, Jack Roses, and Moscow Mules. It's called America Eats Tavern, overseen by celebrity chef-activist José Andrés with proceeds going to the Foundation for the National Archives. It had always been intended as a "pop-up" restaurant and as such, this coming July 4, America Eats will be closing its doors.
For area residents, there's no time to waste. Multiple visits are practically necessary in order to sample all of the main attractions like the above mentioned dishes, as well as shrimp étouffée, fish fry with remoulade, and the reuben on rye. Or go with friends who don't mind sharing in order to divide and conquer—that's what I did earlier this week when I had lunch at America Eats with retired Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman. I told her this was a fact-finding mission so order whatever you want—it's on the Standard (you are reading this, aren't you?).
And so with some guidance from general manager Brian Zaslavsky, we shared oysters on the half shell, shrimp in grapefruit cocktail, hush puppies with homemade sorghum butter (the best either of us have ever tasted), "vermicilli prepared like pudding," fried chicken, the reuben, and the blackened croaker. It's worth asking your waiter what goes into each dish since the menu descriptives are historical.
OYSTER PO' BOY (Clovis and Benjamin Martin, New Orleans, 1925): The Martins worked as streetcar conductors before they opened their restaurant in the French Market. So when the transit workers went on strike, they supported the "poor boys" by giving them free sandwiches through the end of their popular but violent struggle. Seafood was abundant and cheap at the time. It was also easier to eat than the traditional leftover roasts. $12.
Toward the end of our feast, José Andrés suddenly appeared, towering over our table. He's been a loving admirer of Richman's ever since she wrote about him and the promise he showed back in his late 20s. He is now 42 and presiding over a restaurant empire stretching from the Penn Quarter to Las Vegas and L.A. and coming up in Miami. "The man is capable of anything," writes Anthony Bourdain in Time. "After leaving Haiti, José ... would no doubt be lecturing at Harvard's Science and Cooking course. Or working with the National Archives as a member of its board. Or raising money for D.C. Central Kitchen and its job training for the homeless.... No one kitchen—or 10—can contain him. He is advocate, promoter, entrepreneur, philanthropist, artist. Keep up with him at your peril."
Indeed, Andrés was preparing for a State Department dinner that included, in his exact words, "a watermelon impregnated with mint julep." He was also going to do Charlie Rose before returning to Haiti, where he is building a school. He's in talks with the Navy about a food equivalent of a hospital ship—one that carries trained chefs and trucks ready to provide food during a disaster relief operation. Andrés says it'd be cheaper than standard MREs. And he wants more American kids learning how to cook.
We talked about America Eats and the old cookbooks inside the display cases in the dining room. He went over to one (as he did before with Washington Post food writer Tim Carman) and lifted the protective glass right off it—and in the process breaking part of it. (Aside from his piercing blue eyes, the other thing you notice about José Andrés is his hulking figure.) He then flipped through a cookbook called The Virginia Housewife from the 1800s that featured a recipe for "Gaspacha" soup. A far cry from today's gazpacho, this recipe sounded, in Phyllis Richman's words, "just awful." Still, the chef could barely contain his excitement.
As Andrés explained to Carman last year,
"People ask me in Europe, when they do interviews ... they ask me, 'Well, how does it feel to be a cook in a country that doesn't know how to eat?'" Andrés says while previewing dishes and drinks from the America Eats menu. "It always touches a nerve, because Europe and the world think that America is no more than bad hot dogs and bad burgers. And America is so much more, and I think this is the place you're going to get a sense that this is true."
At least it's a place until July 4. His highly acclaimed Minibar will return on the second floor at some point later. But what of the America Eats menu? And what about the bar that proudly displays American spirits like Catoctin Creek rye, Death's Door white whiskey, and Four Roses Bourbon? Will it simply all become a part of history?
Andrés wouldn't say. Which gives me a glimmer of hope that somewhere sometime in the future I'll be able to order that Brunswick Stew.
And in case my publisher is still reading this, Andrés insisted our lunch was on the house (although I did leave a $20 tip!).