Pimento cheese. All photos Scott Suchman.
Pimento cheese. All photos Scott Suchman.

Chef Edward Lee’s pimento cheese captures what the celebrity chef is trying to do at Succotash, opening tonight at 5 p.m. in the Equitable Bank Building. Instead of a naked cheese spread served with crackers, Lee’s take on the Southern dipper is topped with tomato jam, pork rinds, cucumbers, and pickled okra. It’s served with popcorn bread, something a Google search confirms he invented after snacking on a bag of popcorn at a Maryland farmers market.

“You got down to the end of the bag and there were those little granules,” he says. It looked like rough cornmeal so he baked it. “It’s totally unique, which is what I love most about being a chef.”

Southern cuisine is far from novel in D.C., but Lee brings a mash-up of comfort foods from his time living in Louisville, Kentucky and his Korean heritage to the table. Consider fresh burrata cheese topped with crispy pig ears, shaved Brussels sprouts, grilled bread, and miso honey or sweet corn panna cotta served with spoonbill caviar, chow-chow relish, bacon crisps, and nasturtium.

“Hopefully what I can bring is my opinion on Southern food, my version of it,” Lee says. “We’re a Southern restaurant, but aside from five or six dishes, everything else is my interpretation.”

Lee had some say on the drinks too. “It’s all brown water as we say,” he says. While Brook Vandecar is the beverage director, Lee determined which bourbons made the list.  “We have some cool surprises in the works,” he continues. “I have relationships with distillers. We have them over to the house for dinner.” 

About 50 percent of the food menu at the downtown restaurant debuting tonight is different from the first Succotash that opened in 2015 in National Harbor. KNEAD Hospitality + Design partners Michael Reginbogin and Jason Berry are behind both restaurants, plus Mi Vida coming soon to The Wharf. The duo brought Lee on three years ago as culinary director. They first saw the Equitable Bank Building space at 915 F St. NW a year and a half ago, and its grandeur was enough to convince Lee to move to D.C.

“I saw the size and the and the scope and knew this had to be a project where you’re either all in or all out,” he says. “You can’t dial it in from afar. We’re making a statement. For me to do that from Louisville, it would seem disingenuous to me. This is not an outpost, this is not a second concept. This is our flagship.” 

Succotash is one of the most elegant restaurants to open in D.C. The historic space dates back to 1911 and is one of only fifteen buildings in the District with both a landmarked interior and exterior. Much of what you see when you walk in is original, but it needed a lot of attention after being neglected for so many years. Maybe you remember it as Platinum Nightclub? “Turning a 110-year-old bank into a restaurant, I can tell why no one has done it before,” Berry says. “It’s formidable.”

The first floor is characterized by semicircle, see-and-be-seen brown leather booths and a bar. There’s also a mezzanine KNEAD Hospitality built to overlook the main floor. Find a second bar in the back of the mezzanine level that’s designed to look like the original Succotash in National Harbor. There are 14 configurations for private dining.

Collard and kimchi

Chefs Dean Dupuis formerly of Brasserie Beck and Phil Cronin, who Lee toted up from Kentucky, man a sprawling below-ground kitchen. On a recent visit, a giant caldron of collard greens with country ham and kimchi was bubbling away. They have a smoker the size of a car down there, and a fried chicken pressure cooker capable of producing 60 pieces of fried chicken in nine minutes. 

“They’re the kind they use at KFC, but obviously our recipe is a little different,” Berry says. Succotash’s fried chicken comes with sweet and spicy sauce, blue cheese crumbles, and nori flakes. 

Lee says he wants you to feel sexy when you walk in. “To me, dining out is still a precious experience,” he says. “I don’t think it has to be an expensive, fancy meal, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t go to a restaurant and feel special. Without taking jabs at anyone, what we’ve seen is the trend in the past decade is the democratization of food. Which is great, I love it, but I miss the specialness of the restaurant.” 

Succotash opens tonight at 5 p.m. They’ll start with dinner only, with weekday lunch and weekend brunch to follow. Happy hour is offered from 5-7 p.m. on weekdays. Reservations are accepted on OpenTable.

Eventually the hours will be Monday–Friday: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m.; Dinner: 4-11 p.m. (12 a.m. on Friday) and Saturday–Sunday: Brunch, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner, 3-11 p.m. (12 a.m. on Saturday).

Succotash, 915 F St. NW; succotashrestaurant.com