City Paper is not for tourists
“I want to tell you about authentic worship and inauthentic worship.” Minister H. Beecher Hicks Jr. is sweaty. He pats his brow. “Can I preach here for a minute?” No one in the congregation at Metropolitan Baptist Church bothers to answer; they’re tired, too.
Just moments earlier, the room was boiling over. One man sang of faithfulness so passionately that it left him virtually disembodied. Then, when Hicks approached the podium, the congregation was on its feet and vocal. A member of the choir ran through the aisles, energized. I could hear music but wasn’t exactly sure where it came from. The balcony was quaking. Occasionally, Hicks’ voice cut through the commotion; at one point he shouted, “I gotta get it on,” then accepted a high-five from a colleague.
But now the congregation is calm, and if Hicks wants to preach, he can. He doesn’t need to ask.
You don’t have to be a believer to feel the spirit in a place that’s so obviously full of it, and as I leave the Sunday service at Metropolitan and head for the gospel brunch at Music City Roadhouse, my hope is that some of that emotion will be sustained as I eat. As the service at Metropolitan made clear, gospel music elevates the act of worship to an experience of indefinable uplift. James Baldwin, whoto put it nicelyhad complicated feelings about his own faith, wrote, “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord.” I can’t empathize with Baldwin’s particular life experiences, but I have seen Brother Luke and the Sensational Stars before. They’re the Roadhouse’s gospel group, and I think they’re pretty good.
Foodwise, the Sunday brunch at Roadhouse is among the best in town. $12.95 brings a spread of cheese-covered grits, buttermilk biscuits, gravy, jam, blueberry pancakes, hash browns, scrambled eggs, baked apples, peppery fried chicken, sausage, bacon, and a full loaf of hot-from-the-oven banana-nut bread. You can eat all you want, but you won’t see many people asking for seconds; there’s enough food in the first serving to make a noseguard sick.
In case you don’t notice that this is pitch-perfect Southern fare, Brother Luke’s on hand to remind you that the cuisine has deep-running roots. The band’s reverence for the spirituals and the volume at which they play and sing them make the musicians impossible to ignoreeven though, in this setting, the music is really secondary.
Music City Roadhouse is designed to be a kind of rough-and-tumble juke joint for Georgetowners, but its idea of coupling gospel music with food descends from an African-American church tradition in which members gather together to sing hymns and feast. The union of religion and commerce at Roadhouse isn’t totally soullessthe crowds seem to enjoy the music, especially when the song is one most white people know, like “Amazing Grace.” But the marriage is interracial and visibly dysfunctional.
Roadhouse’s menu is printed like a newspaper, and in an apparent attempt to make one race feel welcome and another feel down with the program, its “stories” contain healthy portions of strained ebonics: “What do you get when you cross a helpin’ of downhome southern cookin’ with a good ole’ fashioned revival meetin’ at the ultimate southern dive?” In this case, I’d say a theme restaurant, thanks for asking. Just below the list of brunch items is this boldfaced quote: “There’s a whole lotta healin’ goin’ on in there.” What healing? And who said that?
The racial makeup of Roadhouse’s brunch crowd is technically mixed, but if you don’t count the hired help, you’ll be lucky to find more than a handful of black people among them. In four visits, a waitress is the only non-bandmember I notice who feels inclined to sing along, much less stand up.
Washington offers people lots of opportunities to tour its racial divisions. I wasn’t the only guest at Metropolitan Baptist whose motive was as cultural as it was spiritual. I go to Florida Avenue Grill because there’s history in its walls, and in its food you’re allowed a taste of what helped people stuck on the shittiest side of segregation get through another day. At Roadhouse, the fried chicken and grits are racial totems served with a subversive wink. The gospel band doesn’t provide entertainment as much as an unsubtle reminder that this is supposedly how some peoplesome other peopleeat.
Music City Roadhouse, 1050 30th St. NW, (202) 337-4444.
Flatbreads doesn’t hassle much with ambiance, but the kitchen certainly sweats over the food, which runs from focaccia sandwiches and wheatberry salad to chili made with dark beer and served over jasmine rice. I was directed to the nondescript lunch counter by a reader who called the lemony tuna salad “fabulous,” but I’d advise ordering something with a little more oomph, like the cubana sandwich. It looks tame, but that baguette hides long-marinated pork, melted cheese, a smear of black beans, and enough jalapenos for a plate of nachos. If you’re in a more seasonal mood, there’s a burrito with that same pork, peanut sauce, and fresh Granny Smith apples.
Flatbreads, 315 Madison St., Alexandria, (703) 836-9165.
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