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I’m staring at a vintage, framed Time cover depicting Cassius Clay when I’m first spoken to at the Imani Cafe. “What can I get you, baby?” asks the woman on the other side of the cafeteria line. My back is to her and to my friend, who is asking about today’s fish. I’ve moved to another piece of art hanging on the wall when the woman asks me again, even sweeter this time, “What can I get you, baby?”

Her tone is so pleasant and familiar that I assume she’s not talking to me. I turn around only because my trance has been broken by the resounding falsetto of a man clearing tables and competing with the radio: “Baby, Bay-ay-a-bee, Bay-ay-a-bee.” When at last I look up, the woman is busy but unflappable: “Now what can I get you, baby?”

The Imani Cafe serves what proprietor Lamont Mitchell likes to call “African-American nouveau cuisine”—a health-conscious twist on soul food that uses no animal fat to prepare the vegetables, and which serves pork only as breakfast bacon. On the wall with Clay is a collection of African-American art, most of it either for sale or already sold, and a group photo that includes Bill Clinton, a client of Mitchell’s catering operation. Multicolored curtains adorn picture windows in the front. The whole place is as charming as the story behind it, which begins with a broken heart.

“In 1981, my wife left me, as I would say, and I got a divorce,” says Mitchell, who sat to talk with me on my final visit to Imani. “So right then and there I decided I’m gonna have to fry some chicken.” To make a long story short, Mitchell didn’t know squat about frying chicken, and his kitchen caught fire. “I gotta learn how to cook,” Mitchell told himself. He went to a woman at his church, Sister Virginia Williams, and offered her money in exchange for some culinary guidance. By 1985 they had started their own catering service. It soon grew enough that they needed to get their own kitchen. So in 1993, Mitchell got a loan and built the Imani Cafe, as he puts it, “literally with my bare hands.” The restaurant opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in October 1993, and it still houses Mitchell’s catering service, which boasts Sister Virginia as executive chef.

The handwritten menu at Imani changes daily, but the staples are constant. Fish and chicken are always offered either baked or fried, and all meals come with a choice of two side dishes and a dense, freshly baked yeast roll (prices range from $4.95 to $5.95). The less-than-strict vegetarian I was with savored her plate of fried croaker, which was served crispy in a gently spiced batter with the tail still attached. The baked trout we tried on another visit was cooked with Cajun seasoning and only a pleasant hint of butter. One woman confirmed Mitchell’s assertion that the baked honey-glazed chicken is to die for. “This reminds me of the old-style Florida Avenue Grill,” she said—implying that the renowned institution isn’t what it once was. To eat the fried chicken, I employed an uncivilized technique that I once reserved only for Grandma’s recipe: First, remove all the skin with your hands, roll the pieces into balls with your fingers, toss them into your mouth like pieces of popcorn, then dive headfirst into the juicy, skinless remains. I don’t think anyone saw.

Of the sides, Imani’s black-eyed peas and boiled cabbage were favorites, the former graced with a touch of vinegar and the later with a kick of pepper. But as is always the case when I confront African-American cuisine, it was the macaroni and cheese I couldn’t resist. After suffering through years of Kraft as a main dish, I’m still taken by the gall of those who would regard as a lowly starch something as exquisite as macaroni baked with real cheese. Two companions who were raised on soul food laughed at my white-trash rant: “You’re kidding.”

The home-style meals, the woman who always called me baby, the devilish vanilla-and-chocolate pound cake: All are enough to warrant a trip to Imani, but Mitchell notes that some folks prefer not to cross the river. As I slurp at the last splash of Imani’s sweet iced-tea punch, Mitchell tells me that he’s come to expect bad PR. When he opened the restaurant, accusations that he was crazy were common, and despite his success, Mitchell says the cafe is still one of only two sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood. But Mitchell considers himself a “pioneer” and doesn’t think it’s impossible for the strip along MLK to one day be what Adams Morgan is today.

“This is an alternative for people who want to sit down, have lunch, entertain a client, or have visitors from out of town. It’s an option.” Mitchell says. “This is the type of situation where the police come and sit at one table, and some guy who you might know in the neighborhood as cops-and-robbers will come and commingle. During lunchtime I would say I have probably 25 to 30 percent Caucasian clientele. For the people who have never been over here, the only thing they know is the hype.”

As I try to negotiate out of a tight parallel-parking space to leave Imani, I spill my iced tea between my legs and subsequently give the car in front of me a healthy whack. When I get out of my car to see if there’s any damage, I look at the people lingering in the street and think of the “hype.” Besides the dude across the street who’s laughing his ass off at me, no one even bothers to stop and call me a shithead. Which I doubt would be the case if I’d pulled the same stunt in Adams Morgan.

Imani Cafe: 1918 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. (202) 678-4890.

Hot Plate:

Looking into Crisfield Seafood Restaurant’s window from afar, the joint looks like it could be a ’50s-era barbershop: All I can see are the white-haired heads of men—some sitting, some standing—with their mouths flapping. As it turns out, I’m right on the age of this Silver Spring relic, which hasn’t found much need to alter its Ike-period, neighborhood-diner style. We ventured here in search of what I’d heard were the ultimate in crab cakes, which was close to the truth. The platter comes with a side of slaw (left uneaten) and two plump, unassuming blobs of meat that, after a few bites, we learned to suck on rather than chew. Try the hearty seafood bisque as a primer.

Crisfield Seafood Restaurant: 8012 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md. (301) 589-1306. CP