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Sliding into a red leather booth at Caruso’s Grocery with a martini in hand and a pasta order in my head, it hits me that I could be just about anywhere in America in any decade dating back a full century when Italian American or “red sauce” cuisine started to become mainstream. The bread is free, the dining room is loud, the service is warm, and customers are tucking napkins into their shirts to shield themselves from marinara drippings. The only thing missing is checkered tablecloths.
All is going according to plan for chef and partner Matt Adler, whose Capitol Hill eatery with Neighborhood Restaurant Group opened on May 12. From the very beginning, Adler promised Caruso’s Grocery wouldn’t serve an “interpretation” of Italian American cuisine, nor would it be “elevated,” or a “modern take.”
The chef has a theory. “People want that comfort of what they grew up with and what they know,” Adler says. “They don’t want to be challenged when they go out to eat.” Washingtonians, he continues, can get a caprese salad, chicken parmigiana, and an ice cream sundae and know exactly what to expect. “Nobody makes you feel bad about not knowing the farm the mozzarella or the chicken comes from,” he adds. “I just want to make people happy and have them leave wanting to come back soon for a fun time.”
If diners want what they’ve had before more than what they’ve never tried as they emerge from isolation, local chefs and restaurateurs are answering the call. A quartet of new D.C. area restaurants are serving nostalgia alongside famed dishes from other eras, ranging from linguine in clam sauce and meatloaf to shrimp remoulade and shepherd’s pie. Doing so comes with its own set of challenges. Fortunately, chefs trying to make perfect renditions of timeless crowd pleasers had some extra time to recipe test because the pandemic delayed the debut of their restaurants.
Chefs feel a different kind of pressure when they try to serve a dish most people have tried, according to Adler. “On face value, this should be super easy,” he says. “You’re making chicken parm and spaghetti and meatballs. But this is harder than if I went out and opened an Italian restaurant and a creative menu of dishes I came up with or pulled from my travels. That’s about me as a chef, but this isn’t. This is about the dishes and the memories people have.”
He says the pandemic allowed him to gather his team and tweak recipes until they were confident they settled on versions that are “very respectful of the original dish, but also technique-focused and good.” It’s a process he enjoyed and one he hopes to repeat for the rest of his cooking career.
“I don’t want to be creative ever again professionally other than some of the work I do consulting,” he says. “I’ve grown past the idea that I have anything to offer the world in terms of creative cooking. It doesn’t excite me anymore.” At home, he tries his hand at roasting the perfect chicken or learning the proper way to make tortillas. Executing time honored classics and the techniques they require is more rewarding than any passing molecular gastronomy trend ever could. “They’re classics for a reason. Tomato, basil, and garlic go together so well. Who am I to come along and say, ‘I’m going to do something better than that?’”
Like Adler, Dauphine’s executive chef, Kristen Essig, used downtime during the pandemic to research the origins of the New Orleans’ dishes and ingredients that would grace the menu when the downtown restaurant opened May 7. Essig moved from Louisiana to D.C. to lead the kitchen with chef and partner Kyle Bailey.
“I’ve enjoyed these things in New Orleans for 20 years, but this is the first time where I was able to sit down with a ton of amazing books and really get into who made the dish, why they started making it, and finding a way to honor the process and those people,” she says. “I went down a ton of rabbit holes in a ton of old cookbooks.”
The process changed the way Essig thinks about cooking. “I used to say, ‘That’s a good dish, how do I make it better?’” she explains. “Now it’s, ‘That’s a great dish, how do I honor it?’ There’s been a paradigm shift.”
Essig shares what she learned with everyone from her team of cooks to diners. A reference page on the Dauphine’s website contains short explainers on 20 people, 21 landmarks, and 24 ingredients pertinent to New Orleans food culture. One can learn from reading the guide, for example, that Dauphine’s uses Chef Paul Prudhomme’s red remoulade recipe for its shrimp remoulade salad.
To reach Dauphine’s goal of melding New Orleans cuisine with Mid-Atlantic ingredients, the chefs take some creative liberties, but not with pommes soufflé. Essig says she wanted to get as close as possible to how the puffed oblong potatoes are served at historic restaurants like Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, and Arnaud’s.
“Pommes soufflé, we didn’t invent shit for that dish,” Essig says. Bailey and a sous chef went to great lengths to nail the preparation. “We had diagrams and sheets of paper and 18 piles of potatoes cut to 10 different widths and lengths. It pulls us back down to the science and discipline of what cooking is. No one is creating things that have never been done. That’s something that brings us all together and I really enjoy that process.”
Essig knows she can’t please everyone. That comes with the territory of serving dishes diners are likely to have specific food memories about like gumbo. Dauphine’s serves theirs with potato salad instead of rice. Both versions can be found in New Orleans. “We have people who love our gumbo and we have people who hate it,” Essig says. “Mad props to grandma or whoever is making gumbo in your life. The fact that they even gave ours a chance is a compliment. I want the gumbo you remember to be your grandmother’s.”
While Adler and Essig explain how they go about bringing bygone bites to life for new audiences, two restaurateurs pontificate on why diners are craving them. “With what we’ve all gone through, you want to reconnect with your childhood, your positive memories, the times you were happy, the times you went with grandma to the diner, or the place your dad took you every Thursday after bowling,” theorizes KNEAD Hospitality + Design co-founder Jason Berry.
Berry’s restaurant group is behind Gatsby, which opened April 8 in Navy Yard. The menu spans chicken fried steak, pot pie, meatloaf, Chinese chicken salad, and a Monte Cristo sandwich. “Nostalgia is a big deal,” he continues. “Over the last 18 months, we’ve had plenty of time to reconnect with what’s important to us. Do I want to eat ‘tweezer food’ for several hours and $300? Sure, sometimes. But that’s not an everyday kind of thing.”
When they secured the lease, Berry said KNEAD had to carefully consider what kind of restaurant would be a hit with both the ballpark crowd and the neighborhood’s fast growing population of apartment dwellers. “A return to the American diner, but from an upscale perspective,” is what Berry says they settled on. There are even blue plate specials like fried chicken and lasagna that are discounted daily between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. The drinks also feel like throwbacks. “Many of them are reimagined American classics like the Appletini and White Russian that were ruined by college and needed to be revisited,” Berry says.
He wants customers to have all their American comfort food itches scratched, whether that’s ordering chicken pot pie or a cheeseburger paired with fries and a milkshake. “Restaurants were deprived of making people happy for so long that this is not only a very timely opening, but also a very important opening,” he says.
Restaurateur Cathal Armstrong is also serving comfort food, but across the river in Arlington and with a Irish bent. He named Mattie and Eddie’s after his grandparents. “People from Ireland say they feel at home and tourists say they feel like they’re in Ireland,” Armstrong says. “The measure of a good restaurant is if it can take you away to somewhere else for a few minutes at least.”
Armstrong wanted to open a modern Irish restaurant at The Wharf when development was in its nascent stage, but he learned another Irish pub project was already in the works. When he was approached with taking over the former Siné space at Westpost (formerly known as Pentagon Row), Armstrong says he felt like a more traditional menu was a better fit. Plus, it was easier to turn around quickly because he had the recipes in his back pocket.
Together with chef-turned-author David Hagedorn, Armstrong published a cookbook in 2014 titled My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve. “That helped a lot,” Armstrong says. “We can use that as a guideline for where to go. A lot of the work was already done. … We signed the deal on Feb. 22 and opened on March 24. That has to be some kind of stupid record.”
Visit and you can order a full Irish breakfast any time of day. There’s also fish & chips with seven sauces borrowed from Armstrong’s former Alexandria restaurant Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper, smoked haddock soup, and a ham & cheese toastie. The chef deviates from the norm by making shepherd’s pie with minced lamb shoulder instead of ground beef. “I think that makes more sense,” he says. “I don’t know any shepherds that herd cows.”
Armstrong echoes Berry when it comes to why customers and restaurants are gravitating toward the hits. “There are no words to express the horrific experience of the last 14 months,” he says. “Having something comforting and familiar gives everybody a little sense of the way the world used to be and the way the world can be again.”
Caruso’s Grocery, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; (202) 661 0148; carusosgrocery.com
Dauphine’s, 1100 15th St. NW; (202) 758-3785; dauphinesdc.com
Gatbsy, 1201 Half St. SE Suite #205; (202) 817-3005; gatsbyrestaurant.com
Mattie & Eddie’s, 1301 S Joyce St. D-1, Arlington; (571) 312-2665; mattieandeddies.com