Independent restaurants usually have multiple owners. But 40,000? That’s how many people are behind downtown DC’s new Founding Farmers. The owners are all members of the North Dakota Farmer’s Union, the same group that opened Agraria in Georgetown two years ago.
The union spent $6 million on the space to create a “modern farmhouse” feel, complete with “silo-shaped” booths. But the two-story, 8,500 square-foot restaurant feels more like a Philippe Starck interpretation of a cavernous barn: Those sleek, circular booths feel more isolated than homespun, especially when set next to cold concrete pillars. Decorative jars of pickled vegetables are lit eerily from below and sit on minimalist steel-and-glass shelving. Sure, doors and ladders from an old West Virginia barn decorate the first floor, but the contemporary slickness overwhelms the rustic details.
The union charged veteran Atlanta chef Graham Duncan with turning their farm-sourced products into modern-rustic dishes, and his lengthy menu promises familiar comfort food—chicken pot pie, meatloaf, chips and dip—and more whimsical offerings like kettle-corn and bacon lollipops. But on our early visit, the menu descriptions sounded better than what was on the plate. Those bacon “lollies” turned out to be rectangle-cut strips threaded on toothpicks, and the “classic filling” in the deviled eggs was a finely diced egg salad, without the traditional mustard or paprika. Portions are as colossal as the space: Our carrot cake could have fed a small family.
The restaurant does deliver when it comes to environmental friendliness. It’s the first restaurant in DC to meet the LEED Gold Standard design criteria, and the Green Restaurant Association deemed it a Certified Green Restaurant. According to Dan Simons, one of the union’s local representatives, fryer grease is converted into bio-fuel, half of the energy comes from alternative sources like wind power, and the floorboards are made from salvaged wood. Unlike most restaurants, the kitchen staff separates recyclable waste from compostable waste.
“Our principles continue to raise the bar,” says Simons of the restaurant’s commitment to the environment. Let’s hope the food follows suit.