D.C. is by far one of my favorite foodie cities in the U.S. Every time I visit, there is always one or two restaurants that just capture my heart and stomach. This time it was the Zora Neale Hurston-inspired eatery, Eatonville, that even has author Terry McMillan singing its praises with other notable diners to include First Lady Michelle Obama, Alice Walker, Gabrielle Union and Stevie Wonder.
Named after the Hurston’s hometown in Florida, the restaurant was a non-stop revolving door as patrons continued coming in and going out all night long on this particular winter evening. The weather finally broke 60 degrees again during the day which meant everyone was out celebrating I am sure before getting hit with more snow three days later. From private parties to girls or boys night out to talking business while breaking bread, Eatonville was the place to be.
The restaurant is the sister location to the city’s hippest franchise, Busboys and Poets, which actually resides right across the street and pays homage to writer Langston Hughes. One may question rather this was the right strategic move, but if you’re looking for Southern classics that remind you of home, head to Eatonville while Busboys’ menu has an international palate in mind.
Reservations, at least on the weekend, are highly recommended. If the crowd during my visit is a testament of the restaurant’s ability to attract the diversity of the city, it only proves that when you stay true to who you are and your vision, everyone will come.
Honoring Literary Heroes Through Food
The man behind this one and only culinary tribute is Andy Shallal who is currently running for mayor. Shallal, who is from Baghdad, Iraq, studied the Harlem Renaissance during his collegiate years and wanted to feature an author in this restaurant who lived during that period and had a connection to Washington. Prior to becoming a restaurateur, he attended medical school at Howard University. He opened the first Busboys and Poets restaurant in 2005 with three more to follow. Eatonville opened its doors in 2009 with the chef selected by celebrity chef and Washingtonian Carla Hall of ABC's “The Chew.”
One thing that I love about each of his restaurants is the vibe you feel once you walk in the door. Before you even get excited about the food, the artwork (both outside and inside), music and overall dining atmosphere turn up the anticipation for a great cultural dining experience. I love the mural in the entryway of Hurston and one of her quotes which is one of many drawn by a local artist.
And on to the food where any menu that is Southern-inspired will provide a few challenges in making a quick decision. While I decided, I felt a drink was in order and took the server’s suggestion for the voodoo punch that was a concoction of wine, brandy and peach-pomegranate snapps. Their closest thing to sangria, so far I was one for one. Not too strong with all of the ingredients nicely balanced.
Being a Southern girl at heart, I could hear the jambalaya calling my name. For starters, we indulged in a plate of green fried tomatoes with saffron aioli. While I enjoyed the aioli, a little heat in there would have set me over the moon. I have had so many variations of jambalaya with my favorite including some sauce that I can just sob up with my rice and some bread but this recipe was served without it. At first, I thought the flavor was going to suffer but not at all. It was all there and at the end, everything was all gone. Definitely a winner. My friend, who has dined there many times, opted for a lighter fare by ordering the Southern-style fried chicken chopped salad but noted the catfish and grits as a favorite.
Enjoying everything thus far, I couldn’t leave without finishing the evening with dessert. The big piece of red velvet cake with pieces of chocolate chips plated with a raspberry sauce brought it all home. Moist with just the right amount of sweetness, I am sure if I had another piece, it would have been my late evening snack back; a guilty pleasure for sure. Not good for the hips, but it was that good.
The next day and even right now, I can’t stop talking about Eatonville. I just love a restaurant with personality, culture, history and of course good food. Here is just that place and is definitely worth the drive across town.
Update: Eatonville closed in 2015