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American Eats Tavern Serves a (Literal) Slice of Americana

Everyone agrees that Washington, D.C. is one of the most diverse cities in the country. The nature of this town brings together representatives from all 50 states, creating an atmosphere that integrates everyone from Oregon to Georgia.

But anywhere in this country, D.C. included, it would be difficult to find a restaurant that incorporates nearly every single facet and distinctive style of American cooking. From deep-fried Southern traditions to fresh-caught fish fries in the Northeast, almost no place runs the entire gamut of American cuisine.

And certainly, if there was such a restaurant, it wouldn’t be connected with a national museum showcasing an exhibit on the history of food in America.

Or, at least, that was the case before Jose Andres opened American Eats Tavern. Andres is one of Washington, D.C.’s most famous chefs, credited with bringing a culinary revolution to the nation’s capital. This summer, Andres closed one of his most successful restaurants, Café Atlantico, on 8th Street NW between D and E, in Penn Quarter, to turn it into something unique, fresh and new.

What emerged is something unlike any restaurant in the area. Andres partnered with the National Archives and the restaurant coexists with an exhibit at the nearby museum documenting the government’s effect on the American diet.

But first up, the restaurant.

Andres completely revamped Café Atlantico, with fresh paint, pictures and decorations, transforming it from a hip Latin joint into an ode to Americana. Bright white walls are adorned with sculpted bronze stars and giant pictures from eras in American times, ranging from the Great Depression to the Civil Rights movement.

The menu is designed to be enjoyed in four courses, and each is an homage to the United States. It begins with a selection of oysters, which have been a culinary favorite throughout U.S. history, from pickled oysters popular at taverns in pre-revolutionary times to grilled oysters, which were consumed decadently during the early days of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange.

Every item on the menu, from the first course to the entrées, comes with a brief history of the dish, describing where and why it was invented, making the entire meal a learning experience.

Appetizers run the gamut from the familiar to the far out. There are buffalo wings, done in the style of the bar that invented them—Anchor Bar & Grill in Buffalo— as well as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that can come topped with foie gras.

After a course of popular American soups and salads—shecrab soup, Cobb salad—comes an optional course of ketchup, or catsup. In American history, catsups were unique and varied, playing to local ingredients and seasons, very unlike the ubiquitous Heinz that dominates the national market today. Almost all the catsups come from  mid-1800s recipes  and include unexpected ingredients like gooseberries, oysters and mushrooms.

Lastly, an entrée course covers popular and delicious American dishes like braised short ribs, lobster rolls and chicken pot pie. After a long and full meal, your trip to American Eats doesn’t have to end. Digest by walking the two short blocks down 8th Street to the National Archives.

There, you’ll encounter What’s Cooking Uncle Sam: The Government’s Effect on the American Diet, which runs until January 3, 2012. Exhibits there cover four main ways the government influences what you put in your body. The four sections are Farm, Factories, Kitchen and Table and feature photographs and documents to illustrate how the federal government has shaped what people put in the stomach throughout the course of American history. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking collection, and only adds to the enjoyment of American Eats Tavern, making this collaboration one of the few places in the world where you can eat and learn in equal servings.

– David

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