An Early Look at Eatonville

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Judging by the already-bustling dining room at Eatonville, you can’t have too much of a good thing. So what if Busboys and Poets is right across the street? There are apparently enough gorgeous urban hipsters to populate them both.

The restaurateur behind the two hangouts, Andy Shallal, named and fashioned Busboys and Poets as an homage to poet and writer Langston Hughes. Eatonville, his latest venture, is a love song to Zora Neale Hurston, another Harlem Renaissance writer with DC ties (she attended Howard University). Hurston hailed from Eatonville, Florida, the country’s first incorporated African-American township.

For Shallal, connecting food to history and folklore is almost as important as the food that brings people to the table. “What I love is the fact that the concept is not just food on a plate,” he says. “It really tells a story. It honors the past, and it honors the African-American culture, particularly on the U Street corridor.”

The decor is as colorful as the neighborhood, with splashy murals and crystal chandeliers. A wall of windows brings the outside in, and a patio brings the inside out—both aspects that seem to play up to Shallal’s concept of integrating the restaurant with its surroundings. “I like to define the community rather than just fit in, whenever possible,” he says. To that end, he tries to locate in new developments—Eatonville is in the new Flats at Union Row condo complex—rather than open something in an existing structure.

So there’s plenty of backstory and a vibrant dining room. But how’s the food? Our early visit revealed that chef Rusty Holman is whipping up promising fare that draws from Southern, low-country, and Cajun cuisines.

A large bowl of gumbo was a delicious and manageably spiced stew of rice, crab, andouille sausage, and shrimp. The crispy chicken—which Shallal says is his favorite thing on the menu—has a well-seasoned, salty crust covering its flavorful brined flesh. The tasty bird came with perfectly cooked collards and sadly dry mashed potatoes, all lightly sauced with gravy. The cider/barbecue-glazed salmon has been popular, Shallal says, but we found it to be only middling, due mostly to its lackluster sauce. The cubed sweet potatoes alongside it, however, were much more interesting, with a black-pepper crust and soft insides.

The desserts, made in-house, were a bright ending. We tried a not-too-sweet peach-and-blackberry cobbler served à la mode and a lemon poundcake over strawberries, which was delicious although skimpy on the cake.

While Shallal may prefer to define the communities where he builds his restaurants, he naturally attracts a clientele trending toward the young, urban, and beautiful. It seems as if this neighborhood already has its own identity—and Eatonville does, in fact, fit right in.

Eatonville, 2121 14th St., NW; 202-332-9672; Lunch is served Monday through Friday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner is Monday through Thursday 5 to 11, Friday through Sunday 5 to midnight. The restaurant plans to add brunch hours.