The Colorado Kitchen isn’t the best restaurant in the city. It’s not the best value. It’s not the quirkiest. It’s not the homiest. And it’s far from being the best for service. In fact, this tiny, understaffed diner is about as wifty as it gets when it comes to taking care of customers.
But it gets my vote, and by a wide margin, for being the most misunderstood.
In the almost three years since it opened, this appealing shoebox of a place has generated no small amount of attention for co-owner/chef Gillian Clark. Her predilections—among other things, she categorically refuses to make substitutions—have garnered widespread support and derision. And her style of cooking—I’d call it, for lack of a more encompassing term, Americana, though some have seen fit to slap the ill-fitting Southern label on it—has been justly praised to the skies. But virtually no one has singled out the restaurant for being a cleverly orchestrated piece of social engineering.
Though it’s the Colorado Kitchen’s food that gets me in the door (I’ve got soft spots for, among other treats, Clark’s burgers and doughnuts and shrimp-and-grits plate), it’s the revealing glimpse of the multiple ironies and complexities of race in this odd, divided city that compels me to sit and linger. Every night it’s open, the restaurant offers up a sight that even in 2004 is surprising for its rarity, especially when it comes to higher-end dining: blacks and whites breaking bread, if not quite together, in that enduring line of King’s, then certainly in the same room.
Clark is a mischievous contrarian, and her concerns go well beyond the purely culinary. She has made a life of going against the grain: as a black woman in a white-male-dominated profession, as an independent-minded daughter who turned her back on her father’s medical ambitions for her in order to study literature at Johns Hopkins, as a restless seeker who gave up the security of corporate management to pursue an adrenalized career in the kitchen, as a small-business woman who has chosen to set up shop with her white domestic partner and co-owner among a community of socially conservative blacks.
It was not enough, then, for her to cook the simple, comforting food she loves, or even to run a consistently bustling restaurant, as the Colorado Avenue NW space has become. Though she will not say outright that she set out intentionally to create what is arguably the most integrated restaurant in the city, this inveterate button-pusher smiles when she admits, “I want people out of their comfort zone so they can see how comfortable they can be with something else.”
The idea for the place was born when Clark, who was then living on nearby Kennedy Street, grew disgusted with seeing the long, snaking lines at the local McDonald’s on Sundays after church. She was out of work at the time, with two kids and only $600 in the bank. She saw possibilities: She had in mind “a comfortable place that felt like what I remember when I went to my grandmother’s house,” a place that would bring back the warmth and sit-down, communal dining that was largely missing from the neighborhood. She muses that nowadays “food is losing its personality, and people aren’t taking it personally.”
Taking it personally in an area of liquor stores and boarded-up businesses, however, meant taking a gamble. The initial excitement among the neighbors at the opening of a new restaurant in their midst was quickly dispelled by the realization that Clark and her partner, Robin Smith, who runs the front of the house, were not motivated solely by serving the community. The restaurant’s lack of alcohol, even so much as beer or wine, took many aback. (Clark and Smith have recently taken the first steps toward acquiring a liquor license.) So did the adamant no-carryout policy.
Clark is tired, she says, of hearing that black people “have to have” carryout. There are enough places that serve that need, she argues: “I think black people can be the most racist people if they think that.”
As for Clark’s design sense—which she describes as “Aunt Jemima’s bandanna in three dimensions”—with the napkins, the dining room’s red, black, and white color scheme, and the high-kitsch salt-and-pepper-shaker collection all echoing and reinforcing one another? Let’s just say that few share her appreciation of irony. Some blacks have refused to take their seats if they’ve been assigned a table with mammy figurines.
“I’m looking at it as Americana,” Clark contends. “Not ‘I’m gonna put you niggers in your place.’” She adds, “You have to see things in their context.”
More troubling to Clark, though, were the persistent entreaties to “blacken up” her food, a telling reminder that although the Colorado Kitchen might be in the community, for many there was a continuing suspicion that it was not of the community. But she refused to consider losing the potato-and-cauliflower knish that shared a plate with the meatloaf, say, or putting hot sauce on the tables.
The Colorado Kitchen, Clark allows, is “not a black restaurant. It’s a restaurant. Period.” She doesn’t want to be supported because she’s black, she says; she wants to be supported because she’s good: “If I suck, don’t support me.”
Plenty of people do support her, if not necessarily the same ones who came when the restaurant was new. I was struck by the composition of the dining room on a recent Sunday night. The vast majority of the patrons were white—a dramatic change from my first visit to the restaurant, in the weeks after Clark had opened. At that time, blacks outnumbered whites by at least 2 to 1. Then came a glowing review in the Washington Post, and another soon after in Washingtonian, and the restaurant was flooded with foodies of all races, from as far away as Gaithersburg and Alexandria.
Like her black customers, her white customers have struggled with Clark’s stubborn refusal to define herself. They have assumed that, because Clark is black and because the neighborhood is largely black, the Colorado Kitchen must be a soul-food restaurant. The chef wrinkles up her features and affects a cranky, righteous tone: “This isn’t ‘soul food.’ No, it’s not. I’m a Yankee, first generation. My parents are Panamanian.”
Clark contends that she draws fairly equally from both races, but that blacks, particularly the older blacks who patronize the restaurant, tend to like to eat dinner earlier. “Going out to eat,” she says, “means different things to blacks than it does to whites.” For instance, whites, she argues, are more inclined to want to drink with their meals. “Everybody has their nurse blanket,” says Clark—the one item without which they are going to feel ill at ease at the table. “For black people, it’s hot sauce. For white people, it’s a glass of wine.”
Slowly, surely, she hopes to continue to tweak both blacks’ and whites’ notions about dining out. “I’m crossover,” she says proudly. “I’ve always been crossover. I’ve seen too many restaurants go down because they didn’t represent anything. I’m a neighborhood restaurant, but I respect food.” And, she notes, if the surrounding community hasn’t quite embraced her, it hasn’t quite rejected her, either.
“We were the only place around here without bars on our windows,” she says, smiling wryly, “and we haven’t been broken into yet.” —Todd Kliman
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