Whenever I’m in Washington D.C., I inevitably wait in an hours-long line for a meal. Every city has prominent restaurants with no-reservations policies where people gladly queue up for a table. In D.C., though, it’s a particular sport to arrive mid-afternoon at one of the town’s true game-changers — I’m thinking of Rose’s Luxury, and Little Serow, and Bad Saint — for a chance to make it inside for dinner that night.
A couple of weeks ago, while zooming through D.C. to wrap up research for our annual list of America’s Best New Restaurants (look for this year’s edition later this month!), I stood in another long line — two lines, actually — that ended in an inspiring lunch. My destination: Sweet Home Café, the cafeteria in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The museum is a landmark that everyone should visit. It opened in September 2016, and by this past February the NMAAHC had welcomed over a million people. Sweet Home Café seats 400 and regularly serves over 2,000 diners daily. Incredible demand for tickets, in the form of timed passes, makes admission tough but not impossible. I showed up on a Friday at 12:15 p.m. for one of the limited passes distributed on weekdays at 1 p.m. The line wrapped from the entrance on Madison Drive and down the sidewalk on Fifteenth Street. At 1 p.m. the group began slowly inching forward, all eyes on the woman at the front of the crowd handing out passes. I bounced with joy when she handed me my ticket.
So much has already been intelligently written and discussed about the cafe as an extension of the museum’s experience — how cooking is a living document detailing the complex and painful narrative of the African diaspora. Four stations comprise the menu options, dividing the country into culinary quadrants: “the Agricultural South,” “the Creole Coast,” “the North States,” and “the Western range.” The setup makes clear the defining influence of African-American cooks throughout the nation.
Fried chicken, collards, gumbo, and shrimp and grits turn up as expected. So does “son of a gun stew,” a cowboy staple also known as son-of-a-bitch stew that was often made with beef offal; Jerome Grant, the cafe’s executive chef, reinterpreted the dish using braised short ribs. Oyster pan roast, cooked to order, honors Thomas Downing, a black restaurateur who ran an eighteenth-century oyster house in New York and aided escaped slaves as part of the underground railroad. Brunswick stew highlights chicken and rabbit, a choice that favors the Virginia version of the dish rather than the Georgia variation that emphasizes pork.
I came to the museum alone, but I wanted to try as much of the cafe’s menu as I could, so I struck up a conversation with a man in front of me, Ronald. When we both had tickets in our hands, I invited him to join me for lunch. Wading through the cafe line took almost another hour. Once inside, we split up to order from several stations. Grant, who has Jamaican ancestry on his father’s side, created a special menu for National Caribbean-American Heritage Month, including stewed goat, vinegary snapper escovitch, and rice and peas. I grabbed a couple of these dishes, and some gumbo from the Creole Coast station, while Ronald went for the fried chicken platter flanked with classic sides: mac and cheese, collards, and cornbread.
The cooking far exceeds expectations given the volume of people that Grant and his team are feeding daily. He’s mentioned in interviews how tricky it is to navigate the sundry tastes of visitors, to settle on versions of favorites that will satisfy as many palates as possible, while also putting forth some creative fillips here and there. His gumbo includes pulled duck thigh, for example, which adds a mildly gamey richness amid crawfish and andouille sausage. The fried chicken was textbook crisp, the cornbread slightly sweet, and the greens, rather than cooked to utter collapse, still had a bit of tug to them. This Southerner felt content. (Ronald, who’s from Portland, Oregon, did too.)
History literally surrounds you as you eat. A black-and-white photograph of the Greensboro Four — Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, who sat in protest at a Woolworth’s counter in 1960 — fills the entire back wall. Above our table were images of a sixties-era soup kitchen run by the Muslim Center of Detroit, and a community farmers market in Baltimore circa 1979. I looked across the room and saw a quote from Dr. Jessica B. Harris, who was a consultant for Sweet Home Café. It read: “We have created a culinary tradition that has marked the food of this country more than any other.” The restaurant, and certainly the museum, do justice to her testament.
Go experience the museum for yourself as soon as you can.
Photography by Bill Addison
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