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A deer is staring at my pulled pork sandwich.
The beady black eyes peer down from a stuffed, mounted, and antlered head above the bar at the U Street NW barbecue joint American Ice Company. It’s part of the hip vintage-saloon look of the place, just like the rusted car battery display case repurposed as a whiskey stand. Even the mustachioed bartender who hands me my Butternuts Heinnieweisse matches the hunting decor: He’s got a buck tattoo on his right bicep with the words “beers,” “beards,” and “steers” around it.
Call it cruel or kitsch, but taxidermy is not dead. OK, by definition it is, but as a decorative trend in D.C.-area restaurants and bars, it’s alive and well. Mounted animals have traditionally been a standby on the walls of stodgy clublike establishments and dive bars, but they’re now rearing their heads at many of D.C.’s trendiest new spots.
Restaurateurs Eric and Ian Hilton have stuffed animals at several of their establishments, including a pair of deer heads and a wild turkey at American Ice Company. Their newest U Street spot, The Brixton, displays male and female pheasants and antler chandeliers on the second floor dining room dubbed “The Lodge.” And Chez Billy, which opened in Petworth in April, has a goose with its wings spread, a wink to the foie gras on the French-inspired menu.
They’re not the only ones. The newly renovated Jaleo in Penn Quarter has a masked bull’s head imported from Spain. Irish Whiskey in Dupont has a fox above its fireplace that was hunted by one of the owners’ grandfathers. Bandolero, while it doesn’t have taxidermy per se, has a collection of coyote and cow skulls on display. And at Black Jack in Logan Circle, a longhorn’s head nicknamed “Bocce Bob” hangs above the indoor bocce court.
“It’s kind of been embraced by more of the hipster bars and lounges, almost in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way,” says CORE Architecture + Design’s Allison Cooke, who helped design Black Jack. Owner Jeff Black picked up the longhorn in Brenham, Texas, as a nod to his home state.
“People are latching onto it because there’s this return to authenticity and patina and having everything look like it’s been there forever,” Cooke says. “It’s a cool twist on something old.”
The taxidermy comeback seems to be an extension of the rustic vibe that has become so popular in area restaurants with their “reclaimed barnwood” and “farmhouse chic” decor. Chefs are reinterpreting outdated dishes like meatloaf and deviled eggs; why not return to throwbacks in the decor, too?
Cooke says taxidermy in restaurants has become particularly trendy over the past two to three years, starting in New York. She says one of the trendsetters was “hipster bar and restaurant” Freemans on the Lower East Side, which has taxidermied animals of all types on the walls: “I remember a lot of clients coming in and being like, ‘Have you been to Freemans? Oh my God, I love that. I want that feel.’”
Artist and designer Maggie O’Neill of O’Neill Studios has also seen the trend pick up in residential and commercial design. She displayed the taxidermied fox at Irish Whiskey at the request of her client. She also designed the expanded lounge at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont, which has a mythical “jackalope”—a jack rabbit with antelope antlers—above the bar.
Designers are also reinterpreting the old style in a modern way, sometimes with synthetic materials instead of real fur or feathers. O’Neill says the super-chic SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, which displays illuminated lucite stag heads next to floor lamps made from rifles in one of its dens, helped make the look cool again.
“It’s kind of like couture taxidermy, if you will, and I think that a lot of people picked up on that,” O’Neill says. “There’s a romance going on with the whole Aspen, naturalist aesthetic.”
The faux animal fixtures are making a comeback alongside the real stuff in the D.C. area. For example, Cooke and her team hung painted duck-hunting decoys from the ceiling at the new Founding Farmers in Potomac, Md. O’Neill will also be integrating faux taxidermy into the decor of Teddy and the Bully Bar, a new restaurant by the owners of Lincoln coming to 19th and M streets NW. (That one, at least, has an excuse for the animal heads: Its inspiration, Teddy Roosevelt, was a famed hunter.)
Most of the real taxidermy in restaurants and bars comes from flea markets, antique shops, or auctions. Sometimes it’s passed down from family—like the fox at Irish Whiskey. American Ice Company operating partner and furniture designer Joe Reza, who’s responsible for the taxidermy at several of the Hiltons’ eateries, found one of the deer heads in his uncle’s garage, and the other cost him less than $200 at GoodWood on U Street NW. Sometimes, it’s not the animal that’s expensive, but the shipping: Black says his longhorn was $1,275, but moving it from Texas to D.C. cost $2,000.
Madam’s Organ owner Bill Dugan is surprised that something he’s had in his Adams Morgan bar for 20 years is now “trendy.” Among the specimens in his collection: a leopard, lion, water buffalo, albatross, bears, deer, bobcats, porcupine, sea turtle, a raccoon stealing eggs from a chicken, and goats with “balls the size of basketballs.” The more expensive animals—like the lion or the water buffalo—cost $1,000, but a pheasant might go for as little as $25.
Duggan says the reason he likes the taxidermy is the same reason he likes images of beautiful nudes on the walls: “It’s a fascinating thing to look at.”
That same fascination is helping to drive the current trend. Reza just wants to give people something to talk about.
“It’s a conversation piece,” Reza says. “You want to give people an experience? You want to charge them $13, $15 for a hamburger? Give them something to look at.”
Not everyone wants to look, though. “It just doesn’t seem to mix, does it? Corpses on the wall, and then you’re thinking of something to eat,” says People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals president Ingrid Newkirk, who lives in D.C. “It’s very outdated. If it is retro, it’s bringing back ignorance and arrogance.”
Newkirk has walked out of restaurants where she unexpectedly discovered animal heads on the walls. Just recently, she went to a Mexican restaurant in Wheaton and spotted a deer head above the door just before she was about to order. She told the staff, “I’m sorry, I’d rather not look at that,” and went to another restaurant.
PETA has never organized a formal campaign against taxidermy, but Newkirk suggests that restaurants and bars replace their animal heads with decorative 3D cardboard moose and bison heads from a company called Polyvore. She calls on diners to politely point out the cruelty of taxidermy to the management and take their business elsewhere. (Newkirk has also been a vegan for decades.)
Restaurateurs counter that they’re not hunting the animals they’re displaying or even advocating hunting: The things on the walls were killed decades ago. For example, a pheasant display at Madam’s Organ dates back to 1909.
Duggan says complaints have been rare in the 20 years he’s had heads on display. “I can’t imagine shooting these things and killing them, but they’re there,” he says. “Better on my walls than a dusty garage somewhere.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery