All words: Logan Donaldson
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
Some things have remained the same, but a lot has changed over at the Howard Theatre. DC Government officials, artist collectives, local business owners, and neighborhood iconoclasts came together to restore not only one of the staples of the U St Corridor but, frankly, one of the richest cultural landmarks on the eastern seaboard, jockeying with the Apollo Theater as the premier destination for African American talent. Restored and revitalized, Howard Theatre keeps its modest exterior, but inside, the renovations are enough to leave you aghast, spinning dizzy circles to absorb all the slick fixtures and chic accouterments.
Guess what? It gets even better.
New York chef and restaraunteur Marcus Samuelsson (James Beard award winner, cookbook author, and White House state dinner chef) has designed Howard Theatre’s menu to meet tradition halfway but also to take on new directions. “Some of the menu came from the music inspiration … Some came from where we are. Some came from the immigrant experience. Some came being close to the coast,” Samuelsson said recently in an interview with the Washington Post.
(cocktails listed clockwise starting from the upper left: Miles, The Bird, Django, Ella Fitz)
The cocktail menu is fun before you even take a sip. Linked with the musical masters that have passed through Howard’s halls, the spirits all come with a cheeky name. You’ve got sobriquets like Lady Day, Ray, The Bird, Ella Fitz, Satchmo, Miles, The Ellington, and Django that inform what you’re about to drink. My favorites were the Ella Fitz and the Bird.
The Ella Fitz is comprised of Beefeater Gin, pink grapefruit liquer, hibiscus flower syrup, and champagne straight up. It’s light, refreshing, and only semi-sweet despite the liquer and sizzurp teeming through it. The Bird was good, but I can imagine it being a turn off for some people. It’s composed of Black Tea Infused Jim Beam Bourbon, peach liquer, fresh lemon juice with a hint of honey, garnished with a lemon twist. If you’re a fan of tea, this is a treat.
The draft beer menu leaves a lot to be desired, but has decent basics. Out of four taps, your options are Coors Light, Blue Moon, Stella Artois, and Newcastle.
Almost all the food we were served I could recommend. The crab cakes are as solid as any crabcakes you’ll come across–not spectacular (it takes a lot to make an impression with crab in the Chesapeake basin, let’s be honest), but done just right: moist, savory, and with accents of cherry tomato and a light curry sauce offer some mild acidic spikes. The braised beef short ribs, that peel off easily in succulent hunks, come on a bed of sweet potatoes to supplement the maple sweetness of the meat. The creole catfish, along with the short ribs, is one of the soul food staples offered on the menu. The fish comes with a seasoning of paprika, salt, pepper, cayenne, onion, oregano, and thyme, all resting on an island of black eyed peas.
For smaller bites, go with the duck breasts with onion, ranch, and barbecue sauce or the roasted mix nuts. The combination of duck and ranch/BBQ might seem like an odd marriage of high and low ingredients, but trust me when I say we could not get enough of this. Similarly, there’s nothing exotic about a bowl of mixed nuts, but the fresh roasted herbs seared into the nuts and their glorious buttery texture send it over the top from an unassuming peripheral dish to being an item that gets your hand slapped away for being too gluttonous with your handfuls.