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When Greenwood, the sensuous, Berkeleyesque restaurant in Upper Northwest, shut its doors for a couple of months last year, rumors abounded. Would chef Carole Greenwood, whose restless soul had driven her to open three different incarnations of her restaurant in three different locations in less than 10 years, return with a fourth Greenwood in a new part of town? Or had she burned out on the business to which she’d devoted her entire adult life—tired of dealing, as she says, with “baby-sitting infants”?
There was even not-so-idle gossip that Greenwood, who had gone and rented an artist’s studio in Mount Rainier, and who was given to closing the restaurant on occasion so that she could host post-opening receptions for her local artist friends, was giving up her career in the kitchen to devote herself to the plaster-based sculptural works that had begun to consume her.
An answer, of sorts, arrived in October, when the curiously named Buck’s Fishing and Camping opened its doors—the very same doors that once belonged to the old restaurant. In fact, aside from a couple of thematic touches, such as the large canoe above the canopied communal table in the center of the dining room, the new restaurant looks an awful lot like the old. And the chef’s sensual, personal cooking remains much the same: the plump, gorgeous mussels in an herby cream broth; the mammoth, marbled New York strip with the salty, crusty exterior; the dessert standbys of lightly sweetened apple tart and flourless chocolate cake. In short, the new place appears to be a relatively modest transformation compared with the one Greenwood engineered several years ago when she left behind her original, vegetarian-centered restaurant downtown to relocate to Cleveland Park.
In fact, there is a dramatic difference, though one perhaps undetectable to the casual observer: It’s the first time Greenwood, a self-described “control freak,” has ever ceded command of the business end. That task falls to James Alefantis, formerly of Johnny’s Half Shell, Greenwood’s new co-owner. To hear the two of them banter is to hear a couple in the early stage of a relationship, still negotiating their roles.
“She was running the front of the house from the back,” says Alefantis, alternately marveling and incredulous. “She still tries to do it. In the heat of battle, she’s still looking out at everything.”
Greenwood counters: “I’ve let a little go. And I’ve gotta let a little more go than I have already.”
Greenwood was, she says, as good as gone this past summer, determined to start over and begin a new life for herself as a full-time artist. A teaching job awaited her in Provincetown, Mass. A residency beckoned in New Mexico.
Greenwood, the restaurant, was in limbo. So was Greenwood, the woman.
It was Alefantis who drew her back. He was, he says, “maxed out” on his job at Johnny’s, longing to strike out on his own.
He took a step toward fulfilling his dream of greater creative autonomy when he opened an art gallery, the Strand on Volta, in Georgetown. He took another, unwitting step when, on the lookout for artists, he decided to become Greenwood’s dealer. When the gallery launched last May with a group show titled “Ground Work,” Greenwood was one of the three featured artists. A one-woman show of her pieces followed in September.
Their friendship took a decisive turn one day in the spring, when Alefantis, seeing Greenwood at her most frazzled, discovered not only that she was essentially working two jobs at the restaurant but also that her rent there was “ridiculously high.”
He immediately got on the phone with her landlord to negotiate a new lease for her. There was only one hitch: If she wanted this drastically reduced rent, this lease without which he’d told her she couldn’t keep on doing business—well, she couldn’t keep on doing business as she was. Discussions revolved around a single, nonnegotiable stipulation: that Alefantis would be “actively involved” in the restaurant.
Greenwood agreed. The new venture would start sometime in the fall.
In the meantime, though, she still had the old venture to run. And it was still driving her crazy. Worse, having sublet her house in Mount Pleasant for the summer, Greenwood was now without a place to stay. Chucking it all seemed a more and more attractive possibility.
Alefantis stepped in, taking in Greenwood and her teenage son, Dylan, at his apartment in Georgetown. One Saturday, typically the busiest day of the week for a restaurant, Greenwood came down with food poisoning. As it happened, Alefantis had a rare night off and so, with an assist from Dylan, he took over the kitchen at Greenwood.
“It was,” says Greenwood, “a moment of trust.”
In short order, Alefantis the dealer became Alefantis the dealer and manager. He and Greenwood began renovating in August. They signed the new lease a week before reopening Greenwood as Buck’s.
Business has been good; reviews for the new-old restaurant have been, for the most part, enthusiastic. But Greenwood is not making any promises about its longevity. Returning to cooking with Alefantis alongside her, she says, was a way to “make a more gradual transition” to her eventual life as a full-time artist. And although she has plunged herself into the new venture with the same intensity, the same painstaking perfectionism, as before, she sounds like a woman still in the midst of a profound re-evaluation of her priorities: “There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do this anymore.”
Greenwood is referring, no doubt, to the often wearying business of satisfying the persnickety customer base of Upper Northwestland. One night, shortly after reopening, a woman arrived for dinner and asked Alefantis, cautiously: “Is she still here?” Another asked Alefantis if it was true that Greenwood was now more flexible when it came to substitutions. Not long ago, she flew into a rage at the request of one customer to leave out the wine in the mussels, lest his 4-year-old ingest even a trace of alcohol. (The outburst, it should be noted, occurred in private—which may come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard stories about Greenwood’s famous temper.)
To listen to her go on about the episode is to realize that if anything, Greenwood is even more determined this time around, with the steadying, interference-running Alefantis on board, to fight for her aesthetic principles. She may have agreed to let him adjust her prices to reposition the restaurant as a neighborhood eatery, but she is not about to sell her soul for the sake of a successful business.
“I don’t cook to make people happy. I cook because I’m an artist. And food is my medium. I have no need to nurture the world. ‘You’re in the service industry.’ I didn’t get into it to serve people. I got into it because it was the least objectionable commercial enterprise I could think of,” Greenwood says.
Why, then, has she consented to return to all the pressures and expectations and uncertainties of restaurant life, even if only temporarily?
She casts a glance at Alefantis. “Would I have stayed in Washington without a gallery show of my work?” She pauses. “No.”
Score one for Alefantis, who now can lay claim to a gallery, a restaurant, and a new creative partnership. “Art and the restaurant; the restaurant and the gallery…” he muses. “I just couldn’t see us having the one without the other.”
“They go hand in hand,” he says.
Hand in hand: like Greenwood and Alefantis. Like Greenwood and change. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.