It’s not nice to eavesdrop or stare, though Food for Thought is a great place to do both. It’s safe to say the object of my attention and her comrades are regulars. This is the first but not the last time I see many of them occupying one of the restaurant’s center tables, eating what appears to be one of their favorite dishes, chili. One woman eats the meatless specialty in a bowl topped with cheese; another has a mugful and eats it with corn chips, as if it were salsa. The only other woman eating picks at a plate of chili-topped brown rice, a mixture I can attest softens the dish’s spicy charge. All the members of the dining party I’m spying on have either a tattoo or an earring dangling from someplace other than the ear.
Like me, however, the women seem more interested in their conversation than their food. It seems that their social circle is pretty tight, given that one woman’s confession of a recent sexual encounter prompts a chorus of giggles and interjections pertaining to the particulars of the unnamed male’s anatomy. “I’d heard he was well endowed,” says one, lifting her head from a book in which she looks to be journaling.
Much has changed at Food for Thought since Robert Ferrando opened it in 1973. For example, the restaurant used to offer T-bone steak. But over the years, FfT has become known for its health-conscious menu and for the health-conscious people who order from it. As at the Black Cat, which is run by Ferrando’s son, Dante, or the 9:30 Club, the ambience at FfT is as important as the product. In 1996, steak is no longer on the menu, but there’s plenty that hasn’t changed.
“I’ve watched three generations of people come here, grow up, and a lot of them are still hanging out,” says Tiik, a manager since 1976, who prefers to use just her first name, which is also the name of the spicy bean-and-vegetable patty that she developed and the restaurant serves. “The people that tend to hang out here or work here are, how do you say it, more community- and health-oriented,” she notes, mentioning that the restaurant once attempted to go co-op. “It’s become a place as much to hang out as to eat. We’ve always had lots of, like, radicals…and liberals, though only in the good sense. People here just tend to be creative and interested in peace. We have lots of artists who are employees.”
Tiik could be describing lots of places, but only one that happens to be a restaurant in D.C. Food for Thought, like its cuisine, is no-nonsense. There are booths and tables and a chalkboard that says whether or not you need to wait for an employee to direct you to one. Most of the cooking seems to be done at the far end of the bar, where you can get anything from Jack Daniel’s to organic carrot juice. Deep Purple and Cream are on the jukebox, but when the music’s live, it’s usually folk, a genre that seems to go with health food like cigarettes with coffee. Tiik says that Mary Chapin Carpenter played at FfT for five years before making it big and that a young Michelle Shocked once slipped Tiik a demo.
Like any establishment that can boast of having a scene, hanging out, not eating, defines Food for Thought. But the eats are good. A friend cautions that the vegan nachos are dreadful. Granted, tahini—even when poured over corn chips and Mexican fixings—is still tahini, not cheese. But the vegan nachos still make for a great, oddly tart snack and are a hell of a lot more engaging than the regular nachos, which consist simply of chips, melted cheese, and blah picante salsa. The smoked trout, listed under “share food,” creatively approximates the lox-and-bagel experience, as the fish is supplemented by a plate of cream cheese, onion, tomato, and French bread. There’s always a soup of the day—hearty black bean one time, smooth yellow pea another—and a featured quiche, the Mexicali being our favorite.
Most of Food for Thought’s main courses are simple dishes, like what you’d find at a diner, but that have gained character in the process of making them healthy. All of the veggie burgers, the Tiik, the soy-based Boca, and the sunflower- and brown-rice-based sunburger, are (for lack of a better term) meaty, appetizing departures from their beefy cousins, which are also offered. Red onion and mushrooms pinch-hit admirably for corned beef in the veggie reuben. The grilled beef hot dog is on the puny side—about the size of a breakfast-sausage link—but the nitrite-free, organic frank, when topped with chili, is tasty as sin. The smoked turkey (cut thick and flat, like Christmas ham) and hummus sandwich further proves my assertion that hummus goes well with everything.
Food for Thought’s menu offers a full page of salads, both vegetarian and non, that come with dressing on the side. The NBA-center-tall guy who often works behind the bar steers me away from the jicama red slaw—“I can’t recommend that,” he says flatly—and onto the four-bean salad that’s a meal unto itself, tart with lemony dressing, spring onion, basil, and parsley. There seems to be more feta cheese than anything else in the Greek salad, which goes well with the jalapeño corn bread. The sprout salad comes looking like the head of a Chia Pet but tastes great with its sublime tahini dressing. The taco salad is what it should be: a chili-nacho hybrid served on a bed of lettuce.
The issue of service comes up often while eating at Food for Thought. It’s friendly but slow; sometimes it just doesn’t exist. Such neglect inspires rage in some. “I hate it there,” says one friend, who also hates the feel-good, folky vibe as a matter of principle. “It’s like you have to have a fucking nose ring to be considered compassionate or human or something.”
My friend’s complaint isn’t unlike others I’ve heard, although he’s the only one I’ve ever talked to at length about the place. It’s not the service he hates so much as the scene. FfT is a place where he feels uncomfortable in his suit and tie, much as someone with visible tattoos feels weird on a golf course. At the risk of sounding like Pete Seeger, my friend should try exercising the motto Tiik says informs the typical Food for Thought regular: “Don’t be mean. Be nice.”
Food for Thought, 1738 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 797-1095.
“How you like that, cuz?” the guy at City Wings asks me from behind the bar, where he’s been tossing wings in large, woklike pans with sauces he concocts from various spices and powders. I tell him my parmesan and garlic wings are interesting, basically like eating a chicken Caesar without any lettuce, but that I still wish I could get some hot sauce, which I’ve already been denied. It’s probably for the best. “That’ll be with you for a couple of days,” he tells me, glancing at my garlic-crazed plate of wings. He’s right.
City Wings, 1005 U St. NW. (202) 234-9464.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.