Photos by Jeff Martin, Words By Ashley Wright
If you’ve lived in the District for any amount of time, you know that there are several debates in which DC denizens engage on a regular basis. Does DC have any good Mexican food restaurants? (Various California comparisons ensue.) Can you get authentic Chinese food in the city? (Go out to the suburbs.) Does DC have any good pizza? (Various New York comparisons ensue.) Is DC part of “the south”? While the conclusion of this particular debate has not yet been agreed upon, Lance London’s newly opened restaurant, Carolina Kitchen, is making a strong case for “yes.”
Full of warm personal touches and fantastic art curated (and occasionally created) by London himself, the sprawling two floor Rhode Island Row restaurant serving southern cuisine (“Don’t call it comfort food!”) is awash in warm golds, deep chocolate browns, and pop art flare. Every single piece of art and memorabilia in the space was hand-chosen and placed by London. He works closely with an architect to plan and execute every inch of the restaurant’s decor.
The antique German mugs displayed in their own case near the bathrooms? London went around Germany himself collecting them. The massive iron horse statue in the corner, presiding majestically over the room on its own pedestal? London went to the antique show where it was being sold, bought it, then built the custom platform on which it rests specifically for Carolina Kitchen.
“Everything here has meaning to me. Everyone’s like ‘Oh, that’s nice!’, but to me, I went through a lot to get this.”
In addition to collecting the incredible art around the restaurant, London designed many aspects of the decor himself: “All the railings in [the bar] were customized – I drew them and then my architect turned around and refined them.” London also helped design many of the 3D art pieces throughout the space, like the LED-illuminated mural of jazz greats presiding over the to-go line. The result is a unique blend of eclectic, homey pieces. There’s a balance between London’s southern charm and the more refined, urban aesthetic to which DC restaurant-goers have become accustomed.
London also has an eye for layout. “I made something called the inside curbside pick-up so you can actually get the food, then keep rolling on out the door.” Upon entering Carolina Kitchen, patrons have a decision to make: They can either be seated by the hostess and eat in, or they can meander through London’s take-out line, a cordoned-off path that begins near the front door and leads patrons seamlessly through the main dining space without interrupting the experience of the people sitting down.
This strategic use of space is echoed in all areas of the Carolina Kitchen. The three areas of the restaurant – the main room where patrons enter; “The Tunnel” with its 38-foot high ceilings, marble panels, and London-designed wrought-iron details; and the King Kong room, a loft-like upstairs area with plush leather seating that overlooks the bar in The Tunnel – transition into one another seamlessly, the aesthetic of each room echoing the one before and then evolving into its own unique space.
London’s eye for detail, his personal touch, and his vibrant personality are echoed in the southern menu available at Carolina Kitchen. If the concept is successful in Rhode Island Row, London will be making his case for DC’s status as a southern city for years to come.