KitchenCray has been built a massive social media following and celebrity clientele for its breakfast and comfort food in a nondescript office park in Lanham, Maryland. Chef James “JR” Robinson and his uncle/business partner Sudon Williams count Wale, Pusha T, and “any of the starting line-up for the Washington Football team or Baltimore Ravens” among their regulars.
And now, they’ve finally realized their longtime dream of open a restaurant in DC. A second location of KitchenCray debuted on H Street Northeast this month with hot-honey fried chicken sandwiches, lobster mac and cheese topped with a fried lobster tail, and other hearty dishes.
It’s been a long time coming for Robinson. The chef grew up in and out of homeless shelters and foster care, and worked his way into leadership roles at high-end hotel kitchens. When he first launched KitchenCray as a catering operation in 2012, he was cooking whatever was on hand in people’s home kitchens and hosting pop-ups in his aunt’s basement. From there, he started Sunday brunch takeovers for party spots like Cities, where he’d serve 600 people in four hours. In 2012, he appeared on season 13 of Gordon Ramsay’s Hells Kitchen.
Eventually, Robinson and Williams, who worked in law enforcement for 22 years, scraped together enough money for their first brick-and-mortar spot in Lanham. “I felt like if we can make it there, that would be where we would get our practice, learn everything we need to learn before we come to a major city,” Robinson says.
Three years later, it was finally happening. Their H Street restaurant was slated to open in March. Needless to say, that didn’t go exactly as planned, but they made the most of it. Before Covid, KitchenCray had built a local reputation for popping up in homeless shelters or going to schools to teach students about healthy eating. From the early days of the pandemic, they collected money to help people with rent and offered free breakfast and lunch for school kids.
Seven months later, their restaurant is now open. While the Lanham location is particularly known for its breakfast and brunch, the DC spot aims to be more of a destination for dinner. Among the highlights: oxtails braised for six hours, mixed with rice, peas, and mozzarella, then stuffed inside deep-fried spring rolls and served with a mumbo dipping sauce. The menu is divided into “not that hungry,” “kinda hungry,” and “starving” sections. Under the latter, look for fried catfish and creamy cheddar grits topped with jumbo lump crab or coconut curry lobster with rice and spinach.
Of course, they’re still doing brunch too. The DC restaurant is carrying over a best-seller: hot sauce-marinated fried chicken served on top of French toast with a vanilla cream caramel. In Lanham, they can only offer mimosas, but in DC, there’s a full bar. (Think margaritas and bloody Marys with shrimp, crab, and bacon.) There are also ten varieties of mimosas with mango, passionfruit, and watermelon juices. Meanwhile, at the Lanham location, they’ve launched a “Cars and Brunch” event during the pandemic to take advantage of the empty office park for a socially distanced gathering. People bring exotic cars and their families for DJs and outdoor brunch on the first and third Saturday of the month.
While the DC space doesn’t have any outdoor seating yet—they’re working on it—it does have a beach vibe with ocean blue floors, a palm tree leaf design, and lights look like stars. (Take out and delivery are also available.) In a post-pandemic world, they hope to bring back bigger events.
“Right now it’s all about perfecting the craft, coming up with fresh ideas, keep people guessing and wondering what’s next,” Robinson says. “We use our social media a lot to keep our hand on the pulse of DC. We can send out a tweet or post a picture on Instagram and we could have 200 people come in in less than 24 hours.”
KitchenCray. 1301 H St., Northeast. 202-396-2729.