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The disheveled and discontented continue to shuffle into the Ohio Restaurant and Bar, much as they did during the establishment’s rougher years, before H Street NE became a developers’ playground. These walking remnants from an era that the neighborhood would like to forget don’t really want anything to eat. They just want a beer, a place to escape the heat, or maybe a handout. But the new owners of the Ohio would prefer paying customers, not squatters, in the restaurant’s limited seats. The proprietors, after all, have a sizable mortgage to pay.
“You’re not going to kick me out, are you?” asks a plump, middle-aged woman in shorts as she cops a squat on a leather bar stool. “No, I’m asking you want you want,” responds the chef.
The message has been delivered nonetheless: This is not the old Ohio Restaurant, the cluttered, pitch-dark watering hole run for decades by Ethel L. Harper, who was practically the patron saint of the troubled denizens along the 1300 block of H Street NE. “Everybody called her ‘Grandma.’…She rented rooms upstairs, she rented rooms next door, she lived in one room, she would buy things from them just to help them,” says Betty Ayele, who now co-owns the Ohio with her sister, Sunny, and brother, Dawit. “But times have changed. I don’t even allow that. I don’t tolerate that.”
If only it were that easy to escape the past. For reasons both social and economic, the Ayeles have embraced selective parts of the restaurant’s history and the neighborhood’s habits. Because of a tight budget, Betty Ayele and family, all immigrants from Ethiopia, have not tinkered much with the urban, working–class ambience of the place. They’ve replaced the blackened and barred windows and the old wooden front door, but they’ve left the saintly painting of MLK over the kitchen door as well as the poster of a gun-toting Malcolm X behind the glass-brick counter. Johnnie Taylor and Bobby “Blue” Bland still blare from the jukebox, which gleams against the dingy wood paneling. “That’s what’s attractive about the place—the history of it,” Ayele says.
The Ohio slings soul food out of a similar respect for the past, not to mention out of sheer necessity. Ayele originally envisioned opening an Ethiopian eatery along U Street NW but found real estate prices and rents there too exorbitant. So she looked eastward to the other black neighborhood on the verge of a nervous gentrification. She and her other brother, Million, snapped up the Ohio property in late November for $535,000. “I don’t think the neighborhood calls for Ethiopian food just yet. In order to make money, I have to supply the demand that is there right now,” she says. “In due time, we might change the menu.”
Her chef, Harry DaCosta, lives six blocks from the restaurant. Like his bosses, DaCosta has contorted himself to meet the needs of the ’hood, in a sense setting aside his own history. A culinary school graduate specializing in French and Italian cuisine, DaCosta grew up on Long Island absorbing the rich, handmade traditions of his Sicilian mother. The journeyman chef gave up a comfortable, if unexciting, position with Sodexho’s food-services division to try his hand at smoking brisket, slow-cooking pig’s feet, and braising greens. “It’s hard to trade a sure thing for a possibility,” he says. “At Sodexho and all the other jobs, they had everything of theirs in place, their own recipes….This is kind of my chance to put my stamp on things.”
Whose stamp is on the folded-paper menu is debatable. Both DaCosta and Ayele, a woman who’s made money in real estate and property management, talk about the food as if each were the sole creator. Even though she has no training, Ayele takes pride in her soul cooking, a cuisine she learned from an ex-boyfriend. Ayele may indeed be an excellent cook, but her bold claims remind me of the primary contradiction about soul food: Many view it as a simple cuisine, yet few restaurants serve it up right. I’ve often chalked this up to a lack of professional experience in the kitchen, where training and consistency mean everything.
It is DaCosta’s presence at the Ohio that immediately raises the bar here. Spend just five minutes with him and he’ll convince you that, one day soon, he’ll master soul food. With the exception of a few obvious clunkers, notably the tasteless grits ($1.60 on the “anytime” breakfast menu), he’s not far from the mark even today. Sample his peppery pig’s feet ($6.95 for a dinner), slow-cooked until the fat tastes like butter, and you’ll swear he has Southern blood coursing through his Empire State veins.
His pit-barbecuing skills still have a ways to go, though, as evidenced by his Rémy Martin–injected brisket ($7.95 for a dinner), dry slices of gray, overcooked beef drenched in a triple-sour (vinegar, lemon, and lime) molasses sauce, which is also doused with the cognac. The more immediate pleasures include the Ethiopian-spiced meatloaf ($6.95) smothered in a garlicky gravy, a tangy oven-roasted “barbecue” chicken ($5.95 for a quarter bird, $9.95 for a half) rubbed with jerk seasonings, and a goodly number of side dishes ($1.49 for small, $2.99 large), including the sweet-and-spicy cabbage and the amazing mustard-laced potato salad sprinkled with diced bell peppers.
As the rest of H Street NE gets made over in the image of middle-class America, the Ohio stands as an example of revitalization at its best: a business striving to push the traditions of the past to new levels. DaCosta, Ayele, and the rest of her family may be reluctant soul foodies, but they’re headed in the absolute right direction.
Ohio Restaurant and Bar, 1380 H St. NE, (202) 399-9279.—Tim Carman
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