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Before the internet fell in love with Grumpy Cat (R.I.P.), Takoma Park fell in love with Motor Cat. The feline hepcat with a passion for Jimi Hendrix gained fame in the late ’80s and ’90s for wearing a custom-made crash helmet and cruising around on a front of a Suzuki 500 motorcycle driven by her owner, known as “J. Catman.”
We swear we are not making up this most Takoma Park story ever.
Though Motor Cat passed away in 2002, her memory inspired the team behind Zinnia and Takoma Beverage Co. when they were coming up with a name for their new concept in the Takoma Park space that was formerly home to Jeff Black’s Republic, which closed last September after a 10-year run.
Motorkat is a collaboration between owner-partner Chris Brown and executive chef Danny Wells, who currently oversees the kitchen at Zinnia and helmed Republic for most of its existence until he left in 2017 (he continued to work for the restaurant group until the fall of 2019). “It feels very bizarre and surreal to be back, yet completely normal and natural,” he says. “It’s all the feelings. It’s all the emotions.”
With an estimated mid-April opening date, the restaurant will focus on an extensive raw bar and dishes coming off the wood-fired grill. Brown and Wells took a research trip to San Francisco, where they were especially inspired by State Bird Provision’s dim sum style of service. Motorkat guests will begin meals by filling out order sheets for raw bar items designed to come out quickly, such as oysters on the half shell, ceviche, lobster sliders, aguachile-style Gulf shrimp, and smoked fishes.
The “Breads and Things” section encompasses everything from toasts to small sandwiches—a “dinner Benedict” with braised lamb shoulder, a “Motordog” topped with curried ketchup and pickled chilies, and a Reuben with pastrami-style smoked salmon and Thousand Island cream cheese. On the “Vegetables and Grains” part of the menu will be farro risotto and crispy oyster mushrooms with lemon tarragon tahini. Republic fans will be happy knowing Wells’ beloved ancient grain salad will be making a return. “I don’t think I have a choice,” he says. “People would crucify me if I didn’t.”
“From the Wood Grill” features meats, seafood, and vegetables, such as tiger prawns with mojo criollo, citrus-brined cabbage steak, and lamb kebabs with goat cheese tzatziki. Planned desserts include orange and Meyer lemon tart, banoffee trifle, and rotating sorbets.
The name Motorkat was proposed by Justin Kaplan-Markley, director of operations for Zinnia and Takoma Beverage Co. Brown and Wells’ immediate reaction was a hard no; it was never going to happen. “One of our first discussions about naming was that it was going to be nothing to do with Takoma,” says Brown. “There’s already Azalea City Nails, Takoma Beverage Co., and Roscoe’s Pizzeria. We didn’t want to do anything like that.”
(Roscoe the Rooster was a beloved scamp who roamed Takoma Park and now has a statue in his honor in the center of town; Azalea City is a nickname for the town.)
But like Motor Cat herself, the idea grew on them, ultimately winning them over. Aside from the name, the biggest nod to the local celebricat will be a replica of her signature helmet hanging behind the bar, which is getting a refresh and a few more taps, bringing the total to 10, which will showcase local brews.
Other updates are in the works, including a newly minted drink rail running parallel to the bar, a private dining room for 10 by the kitchen, and a coat of dark green paint on the walls. There will now be roughly 80 seats in the dining room, 25 in the bar area, and 50 on the patio. Wells is excited about a new walk-in and that the grill will be extended by a foot. One notable element will remain the same: the neon sign hanging on the back patio from Video Americain, the tenant prior to Republic.
The restaurant will be open for dinner Tuesdays through Thursdays, and for lunch and dinner Fridays through Sundays; brunch will be part of the game plan once they’ve settled in. The goal for the restaurant is for it to be an easygoing neighborhood spot that works well for nicer occasions. “If you wanted to show off with family that’s in from out of town, you can do it here,” says Brown. “But if you want to stop in on a Tuesday after getting off the Metro, that works, too.”
All pictured menu items are subject to change without notice.
Motorkat, 6939 Laurel Ave., Takoma Park; motorkat.com