Where the tourists are
America Eats Tavern plays to easily satiated hotel guests.
Words by Stefanie Gans Photos by Jonathan Timmes
They weren’t sure why I wanted to order wings. But there it was: $12 for a plate of buffalo-sauced chicken. At the Ritz-Carlton. It felt like a moment I wanted to have.
The wings were good. A snappy crust reveals tender white meat. The bright orange sauce played it safe; it’d rate on the medium-hot scale. The only tell of its less humble kitchen origin is the garnish of whole celery leaves—no stalks—and instead of thick dressing in a plastic cup, scant blue cheese crumbles dot the wings, melting into the exterior for bites of boldness. My dining companions were still curious about why I ordered bar food from America Eats Tavern. But then we enjoy a blue cheese and mushroom burger, cooked to a soft, pub-style medium-rare on a big, squishy bun, that’s meaty and messy and just right. America Eats Tavern is playing to the common denominator, playing to tourists.
The restaurant is on the fourth floor with no grand entrance to welcome street traffic. America Eats is for the travelers, for those who cannot bear to leave their rented dwelling in seek of comfort, of something familiar, of something fried.
I wanted to be that person who takes the elevator down a few floors and orders wings, the most American of bar food staples—from a José Andrés restaurant.
That’s where the story starts. How does Andrés, one of the world’s most famous chefs, a Spanish-born cook who settled in the United States capital and became a citizen last year, celebrate his new country? He creates America Eats Tavern and pulls historic dishes—from Jamestown’s shrimp and grits (1607) to California’s Cobb salad (1936)—and retools for today.
The menu details the dates and sources (cookbooks, restaurants) of dishes, which makes sense when the restaurant started as an accompaniment to the 2011 National Archives’ exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.” The pop-up restaurant closed in downtown D.C. and reopened in McLean in June.
But does this teachable meal mean we have to pay $2 per wing? Why would Andrés, who can more or less perform magic (see: minibar) stumble into a cursed hotel space?
It’s where local legends—Fabio Trabocchi (Maestro), Michel Richard (Michel)—didn’t stay in business for more than a few years, playing into Ritz’s personae of pricey, fancy food.
Instead of elbows, a mac and cheese packs long, thin vermicelli noodles into a patty shape, succumbing to a creamy cheese sauce, described as a pudding on the menu. It’s easy to like, especially with the salty, nutty crisp cheese atop. A less successful starter, peanut soup, tastes like leftover cereal milk —not even ripe chunks of fig can save.
Mutton arrives with fried oysters, cottage fries (uninteresting home fries) and oyster “catsup”, one of five flavored ketchups. Braised lamb neck from the Shenandoah Valley is both rugged and buttery. Unlike other restaurants’ attempts at frying this bivalve, here the oyster’s sea-notes shine through the batter. It’s a dish of muted colors but filling flavors.
Beautiful scallops, blackened a la Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Lousiana Kitchen, were first seen in 1984 says the menu, but this interpretation gets stuck in decade’s past obsession with foam. Minus the too salty airy bubbles, the creamy corn paired with pickled kernels and the seared mollusks make a lovely dinner.
Salmon, flushed in ruby-red, is silky to the touch, but for $28, sliced cucumbers as a side leaves you hangry. (Speaking of hungry-plus-angry, paying $6 for a bread basket where sourdough slices are chewy instead of crusty doesn’t start the meal on a generous or delicious tone. Biscuits are fluffy, but better, skip it altogether.)
The end, though, is sweet. Where too many restaurants destroy dessert—a.k.a. deconstruct it with a crumble here and quenelle there—America Eats Tavern presents a simple slice of carrot cake. You will leave the Ritz with cream cheese frosting all over your smiling face.
America Eats Tavern
Don’t leave without a slice of cake.
Appetizers: $6-$19; Entrees: $13-$45
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean