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As an historian, Harold Holzer knows the Emancipation Proclamation about as well as anyone. He’s just never seen it all lit up in bright red neon before. “That’s a first,” Holzer says.
We are seated on opposing plush settees in a loungey back dining room at Lincoln, the seasonal American restaurant that opened in April, its name a tribute to the nation’s 16th president. The famous 19th century executive order, illuminated by light emitting diodes, serves as an oddly modish backdrop. It’s as if 20th century minimalist Dan Flavin had freed the slaves through his fluorescent-light installations.
Of course, that’s not how it happened. And that’s why I’ve invited Holzer, a senior vice president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and a guy who’s written or edited 41 books on Honest Abe and the Civil War, to share a meal and help me critique this bizarre anachronism of a restaurant.
Proprietor Alan Popovksy’s PR materials describe the concept as a “contemporary chic log cabin with a modern pop tone.” The bronzy floor is tiled with thousands of pennies. The lighting fixtures are fashioned from mason jars. And the menu features an odd mix of contemporary ethics—locally sourced seafood, artisanal meats—alongside traditional standards that feature “many nods to Abraham Lincoln’s favorite foods.”
The restaurant’s motto, naturally, is “[f]ood for the people by the people.” Thankfully, it is not food “of the people.” Whatever the Confederates may have said, Abe Lincoln was no cannibal.
You don’t have to be a serious historian like Holzer to find the whole concept a bit jarring—and not just because the kitschy theme of “liberation [from] culinary mediocrity and emancipation from the ordinary” seems to equate competing eateries’ menus with chattel slavery.
Popovsky says the idea is more abstract than that. It’s about “getting back to basics,” he says, harkening back to a simpler era when “farm-to-table” wasn’t just a trendy catch phrase. Albeit one that he employs with impunity.
Our adventure in historical contradiction spotting begins even before we sit down. At the bar, we start with a round of “Honest Abe’s Moonshine,” a deceptively strong combination of white whiskey, lemon juice, and orange bitters. It’s served in a mason jar, for $10 a pop.
What would Lincoln think of the stiff drink? Not much. It turns out he didn’t partake. “Never had wine, never had spirits,” says Holzer. “He said it made him feel ‘flabby.’” Even at diplomatic dinners with their obligatory toasts, the president didn’t imbibe. “His technique with wine was not to draw attention to the fact that he wasn’t a drinker,” Holzer explains. “He would just bring it to his mouth and not sip.”
Alas, Lincoln wasn’t much of an eater, either—making the very notion of naming a restaurant after him somewhat ridiculous. Worldly contemporaries like Secretary of State William Seward might have inspired restaurants, but 19th century politicos considered the great railsplitter something of a hick. The designation, in fact, was part of his electoral appeal. “Lincoln was totally indifferent about food for most of his life,” says Holzer. “He wasn’t a foodie. I mean, this was a guy who grew up on possum stew and squirrel dip. He’s not going to be interested in anything but sustenance.”
It’s a pity that Popovsky’s restaurant didn’t try to stay true to Lincoln’s rough-hewn tastes. At least possum stew and squirrel dip would break some new ground on the D.C. food scene. Despite claims of a new birth of culinary freedom, the restaurant’s menu features many of the same usual suspects as countless other places across town: tater tots, meatballs, macaroni and cheese, to name a few. And these are all small plates—arguably the District’s most ubiquitous trend to date.
We begin our meal with a dozen raw oysters, served on an icy tray that our server places upon an elevated wiry platform at a height that average five-foot-something guys like Holzer and I can barely reach from our seated position. Maybe someone six-foot-four-inches or above wouldn’t have so much trouble.
So far, so Lincoln-esque: “Supposedly, [Lincoln] had oysters on re-election night,” Holzer tells me. It’s a scene memorably recreated in Gore Vidal’s 1988 made-for-TV drama Lincoln, starring Sam Waterston, with the president “doling out oysters for Seward and for his wife to celebrate his victory,” Holzer notes. “These are good, by the way,” he adds.
Our server identifies the chilled mollusks as Blue Point oysters from Long Island. Not an uncommon variety, nor the biggest or briniest oyster I’ve ever tasted, but perfectly palatable with a tiny drip of the accompanying mignonette.
Next up, a plate of organic kale salad with hazelnuts, dried cranberries and parmesan shavings. Holzer has no idea how this dish harkens back to the 16th president. But he couldn’t care less. “The kale salad is really fantastic,” he says. “It’s tangy.” (Throughout the evening, the Lincoln scholar repeatedly rebuffs our server’s attempt to clear that particular plate.)
A subsequent salad of sliced watermelon, cheese and olives proves equally refreshing—and turns out to be historically apt, to boot. Holzer notes that the first town in America to be named after Lincoln was christened with a watermelon smashed against a rock.
For the main courses, I order the chicken pot pie, duck breast, strip streak, and pork belly plates because, well, that’s what Lincoln would do. “He always ate some kind of meat because meat was a sign of economic success,” Holzer says. “If you could afford to slaughter your cow, you were in good shape.”
The size of the servings, though, might have shocked the top hat right off Lincoln’s head. The supposed “pot” for the chicken pie is more like a shallow ash tray, with a single biscuit floating atop a thin creamy stew of peas, celery, and carrot bits. The steak plate contains just three slices of medium rare beef and a small puddle of creamed spinach. The coffee-rubbed duck is more flavorful, but the slices are even thinner. Of the four meat dishes, the three modest squares of pork belly, drizzled with a clam vinaigrette, prove to be the most substantial.
“Lincoln would be amazed,” says Holzer. “‘What are these portions? Who are they for? What dainty young lady is coming by here to have a tasting?’” Meals were significantly heavier in the 16th president’s day. Holzer points out that the 2009 inaugural luncheon for President Obama, himself a noted Lincoln buff, featured a hefty Civil War-era menu including seafood stew, pheasant, duck, molasses sweet potatoes, and an apple cinnamon sponge cake. Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd both left the feast on stretchers.
On the other hand, maybe the modern restaurant’s smaller portions would suit Lincoln, a reputedly picky eater no matter what size the serving. “People remember him eating an egg in the morning, an apple at lunch, and sort of picking at dinner,” Holzer says.
Scanning the dessert menu, the historian is immediately disappointed to find no angel food cake. “That was his favorite,” Holzer says. Grilling our server over the remaining options, however, we learn that the blueberry upside-down cake duly incorporates Lincoln’s weakness for the angelic stuff, though he might be taken aback by the pretentious-sounding accompaniment of corn semi-freddo.
But here, too, the servings don’t size up against the weighty baked goods that the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, used to make. “You needed two people to pick up the cake plate,” Holzer says. “Really heavy stuff. A lot of eggs.” The restaurant’s version, by comparison, is about the size of a hockey puck and weighs even less.
As we make our exit—Holzer having stopped to buy a restaurant T-shirt—we pause briefly to admire the enormous white chair at the center of the restaurant. It’s an obvious reference to the seat where Honest Abe’s statue sits at the Lincoln Memorial. Of all the Lincoln-themed memorabilia in the restaurant, Holzer seems most impressed with this one. “Very clever!” he says. He thinks Lincoln would appreciate the gesture, too. “In truth, he never fit into a chair,” Holzer says. “If you look at mid-19th century chairs, they were all small. They did not have stuff made to order, which is why he always sat with his feet up.”
Tonight, the big seat is occupied by five svelte young ladies wearing glossy lipstick and short dresses. They glare back at us with disdain. “That was so not what I expected,” Holzer says, stepping out onto the street. “I expected to see old ladies in bonnets. You think anyone in there is thinking about history?”
Lincoln, 1110 Vermont Ave. NW, (202) 386-9200
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery