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Monday’s announcement that James Beard Award-winning chef José Andrés is shuttering his longstanding nuevo latino restaurant Café Atlántico to make way for a temporary American cooking-themed exhibit hits a little too close to home for this columnist.

While the restaurant’s once high profile has diminished significantly in recent years beside its heralded, hard-to-book-a-reservation tasting-menu counterpart, Minibar, not to mention various other top-notch eateries around the District, the place will always hold high standing with me.

Cue the mushy background music: I got engaged after dinner there back in 2001.

I was so nervous that my memories of the actual meal that night are pretty fuzzy. I’m pretty sure we had the homemade guacamole prepared table-side. After that, it’s kind of a blur. The missus recalls things a bit more clearly: “I had the red snapper—-it was light and flaky and delicious. I think we had cocktails. You said, ‘One drink only…'”

Perhaps my most vivid memory of the place, however, comes from our very next visit after the deal was done. The look on my mother-in-law’s face when her fish arrived with its head and tail intact (a style of presentation you just didn’t see in her native central Ohio at that time) recalled the popular 1967 Procol Harum song “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” We did our best to salvage what remained of her appetite by immediately sending it back for decapitation. When it returned from the kitchen, though, the scaly tail remained. She was done. I ended up eating the fish for her. It was delicious.

At a press conference Monday morning, where the news of Atlántico’s demise was largely downplayed in favor of the new pop-up concept, Andrés indicated that he always wanted the restaurant to focus on Latin American fare but its concentration has since expanded to include Lebanese, Turkish, Greek and other cuisines. “I want it to be Latin American again,” he says.

A spokesperson for Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup insists that Atlántico, which opened in its original Adams Morgan location in 1990 and relocated to its current Chinatown digs in 1996, is not shutting down for good; Andrés is just looking for a new location to relaunch the concept.

Then why not just bring it back after the pop-up is gone?  At the end of the exhibit, in January 2012, ThinkFoodGroup will begin preparations for a yet-untold “next phase” of the Atlántico space, according to a release.

A spokesperson says Andrés plans to expand Minibar and put his Think Tank Group in the space instead.

Share your own memories of Café Atlántico in comments.

With reporting by Stefanie Gans

Logo courtesy of ThinkFoodGroup