Times may be lean, but you’d hardly know it at Founding Farmers, a sprawling, eco-conscious restaurant in DC’s Foggy Bottom, where barnyard chic meets industrial garage. This two-story dining room with weathered-wood accents and shelves of pickled peaches and corn has been playing to overflow crowds since it opened in the International Monetary Fund building on Pennsylvania Avenue on last fall.
The draw? The restaurant has tapped into the spirit of the moment, just as Howard Johnson’s and Bob’s Big Boy did in eras past. But Founding Farmers’ currency is Modern American comfort fare, outsize portions, mostly wallet-friendly prices, and a green sensibility (low-voltage lighting, reclaimed wood, recycled menus). George Washington University profs and students, World Bankers, and the IMF crowd have turned the place into a kind of second cafeteria, while tourists in search of cooking that’s several cuts above fast-casual land there instead of at pricier nearby spots such as Kinkead’s and Marcel’s.
The menu is by turns healthful (a 17-vegetable salad) and homey (meatloaf with mashed potatoes), a virtual checklist of current food trends from deviled eggs to chicken with waffles. Most items—including pasta, breads, and preserves—are made in-house. And many of the fixings—the restaurant is owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union—are from farms, fisheries, and meat purveyors in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, some from farther afield in Maine and Wisconsin.
Breakfast, served Monday through Friday to the am meeting crowd, is the most fully realized meal—on Sundays it’s called brunch—and the reason for much of the buzz. Plates to seek out are ones involving the restaurant’s farm-fresh eggs. A Benedict with a house-made English muffin gets an elegant hollandaise sauce. Perfectly scrambled eggs are studded with vivid green asparagus and mushrooms. And a savory skillet hash brings together crusty potatoes, smoked salmon, and eggs any style in a cast-iron pan. Thick, tender slabs of Edwards ham and meaty strips of Nueske’s bacon add a hit of pork to the plate—what would a farm breakfast be without it? There are boutique coffees from Intelligentsia as well as T-Salon teas, but the house-made fizzy drinks—a tart grapefruit cooler and mint limeade, both nonalcoholic, and a Pimm’s Cup, one of the best Pimm’s cocktails around—are more festive.
At lunch and dinner, the theme shifts from country fare to Modern American comfort, and the cooking—Graham Duncan is the chef—takes dips and dives along the way.
Pimiento-cheese-filled puffs are irresistible little bites. The zippy cheese also jazzes up ground-to-order sliders on eggy brioche buns made in-house. But even topflight bacon can’t rescue blue-cheese-stuffed dates, where flavors clash rather than contrast, and flatbreads aren’t much more than slapdash open-face sandwiches with meats, vegetables, and cheese piled on.
Chicken pot pie sports a tender, flaky crust and a light, gravy-like binder, but fried chicken with waffles disappoints with a flabby coating and a tough bird—though the waffle is crispness itself. Pasta is house-made, but that doesn’t mean it’s properly cooked: “Straw and hay” was a mushy mass of broth, vegetables, bacon, and noodles one evening. But a lightened-up beef stroganoff with pappardelle was wonderfully homey.
Unfortunately, there’s no trick to sussing out what works and what doesn’t. A lobster roll would seem simple enough, but the version I’ve had here on two occasions was shy on lobster and heavy on jícama—and despite all that filler, one of the most expensive items on the menu at $24.
Sweets should be a no-brainer, given the homespun vibe. The retro-inspired lineup reads well on the menu, but it needs work: red-velvet cake that’s icebox cold, campfire s’mores made of chocolate pudding with a couple of graham crackers broken on top and a dollop of marshmallow cream that shows up on way too many desserts.
Service has improved some since the early going. Now there are managers around to soothe tempers and comp drinks—and sometimes dinner—for those who have waited far too long.
Founding Farmers is by no means a perfect restaurant, but it’s likable and fun—and its heart is in the right place.
Open Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch, lunch, and dinner.
This review appeared in the May, 2009 issue of the Washingtonian.