The other night at Café Saint-Ex, I ducked in to find bartender Jonathan Fain pouring drinks. I asked for a surprise and ended up with a cocktail of Smirnoff, house-made thyme sour mix, Cynar, Angostura bitters, and egg whites. A few seats away in rapt discussion sat Ora Nwabueze, the founder of the Dunes—a creative project that links galleries, artists, and musicians through pop-up events. A pair of men entertained their companions by making up poems based on lines a woman read aloud from her gardening book; the verses were punctuated by cheeky images of earthworms and garden tools.
I sat at the corner intending to read, but the scene was too animated. To my left was the young blonde Brianne, whose companion was an iPhone with a photo of her baby niece. She ordered a Jack and Coke and a burger without looking at the menu.
Brianne lives down the street and rarely feels like cooking. She dines alone at Saint-Ex a couple nights a week, she said. Though she has lived in DC only for a blink, at Saint-Ex she seemed to feel at home, even though home for her is originally a Michigan farm. “Eating here is my version of vegging out on the couch to unwind,” she said.
Over a burger and a salad, she talked about raising pigs for 4-H and how the reality of farming often clashes with restaurants’ romanticizing of it. She fronted the struggles she saw growing up regarding farmers trying to make a living. She dissected fancy foodies who focus on heritage breeds.
I tried to navigate my hunger and listen at the same time, wanting a graze of greens and something new; had I been more thoughtful, I’d have gone to Saint-Ex’s next-door sibling, Bar Pilar, where little fish on toasts, lamb dogs, and pig ears keep me sated. In the meantime, Brianne navigated between a serious and playful discussion, poking fun at Whole Foods as a grocer for misplaced yuppie guilt, sipping her drink from a straw, poking at the remnants of her dish. Though she was dining solo at Saint-Ex, it was the first of several stops that included meeting friends elsewhere.
Songs from Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On looped through the playlist—reminders of a friend I’ve been missing. I resigned myself to two sides off the menu: braised, garlicky chard and house-made gnocchi with sage and brown butter. The chard was beautiful, though I wanted a twist: maybe as a hot salad with bacon-fat dressing, more vegetables, pickled tomatoes, and some crusty bread.
The bar was a pastiche of customers in transition from dinner to drinking time. The poets were gone, and partiers had filled their seats. Twos and threes from the neighborhood stood against the rail, in the window, and between tables on the dining-room floor. There were plenty of band shirts, pork-pie hats, poindexter glasses, and plenty of ink.
One more drink, I said to Brianne, the first one having gone down easy. I felt guilty ordering something complicated once it was busy. But Fain was more than accommodating. I watched as he poured a jigger and added a dash before working the shaker. It’s called “A Sour Thyme,” Jonathan said, flashing a grin. Like the service and my company, my stop at Saint-Ex was far from it.
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