Founding Farmers Tysons and Family Meal draw the masses with basics and buzzwords.
Words by Stefanie Gans Photos by Rey Lopez
As I pushed away chicken bones, leftover green beans and mac and cheese to eat a doughnut, I found “E Pluribus Unum.”
Along with an eagle and navy and gold accents, the plate at Founding Farmers Tysons looked like it belonged at a state dinner instead of a crowded restaurant in McLean. Actually, dishware at government functions probably doesn’t need to be as heavy-handed in messaging.
This crowded plate, dinner with dessert on one circle of porcelain, is probably not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they bestowed this Latin phrase—out of many, one—as a motto for our country.
Yet here is fried chicken, sides and a Jefferson Donut, a replica of the famed Cronut that’s stuffed with vanilla cream. It mimics the chicken and waffles phenomenon popularized on menus more than five years ago. At least, that’s what our waiter implied by comparing it to the waffle-included version of the dish at Founding Farmers’ first location in downtown D.C.
The combination of battered bird and waffle works because the doughy carb acts as a mitt for the chicken and syrup. The doughnut does not: Try balancing a chicken thigh on a fluffy pastry.
Because of the doughnut’s sweet vanilla interior, it doesn’t mesh with the savory fowl. It is, however, more like what I assume a TV dinner is meant to be: protein, vegetable, carb and dessert all in one place.
To be fair, the chicken, though not spicy as the menu claims, is surrounded in a tight batter that is pleasantly crunchy. The meat, juicy. The gravy swings too sweet, and the sides (clumpy mac and cheese, dull green beans) are completely forgettable. The doughnut—the dessert still vying for the title of the-new-cupcake—is delicious. Can all doughnuts contain flaky croissant-like layers within?
Out of many options on this plate, there’s not one cohesive mouthful. This particular item portrays the restaurant’s concept. It grabs from menu buzzwords: Southern food, comfort food, trendy food.
This concept of co-opting what is trendy for mass-market appeal isn’t only under the domain of Founding Farmers, a collection of restaurants with investors from the North Dakota Farmers Union and a corporate chef in Dallas.
Things are fine at Founding Farmers. The food is good enough. There is a range of sandwiches and entrees with varying price points, and just about anyone can find something to eat. It’s the new version of Cheesecake Factory, a version with farro-arugula salad and oysters on the half-shell.
Instead of being an uptight version of a burger, Founding Farmers’ meatloaf is packed loosely. It’s herb-filled, tender like a good meatball. The mashed potatoes are sufficiently buttery and creamy.
The bartender seemed not to remember why the Southern carbonara is named after a region not known for Italian influences. (There was no description on the menu.) He said: “It’s our version of a carbonara. There’s squash, green beans and asparagus.”
It arrived, instead, with peas and bacon. Its noodles are best eaten while distracted by conversation, which works well here since Founding Farmers attracts many of the business attire-clad for dinner and drinks. It’s so crowded that at 7:45 on a chilly, rainy Monday night, the wait for two crept above an hour.
While not as busy in Ashburn, Family Meal pulls in exactly what it is designed for: all those Loudoun County families who want better food in a laid-back setting.
Ashburn’s Family Meal, also recently opened, replicated its Frederick, Maryland, location (there are also Family Meals in Baltimore and Richmond) and plunked one into the suburbs of Northern Virginia, and it also plays into this idea of pulling headlining ingredients into a familiar-looking menu.
Family Meal, from “Top Chef” contestant and Maryland-native Bryan Voltaggio, employs a similar paradigm of menu buzzwords—kale Caesar salad, farro risotto, pimento mac and cheese, gingerbread doughnuts—but what springs from the kitchen feels truer to the spirit of chefs playing with food and less about corporate dictating what sells.
A pastrami sandwich filled with smoked beets passes for the deli meat, though I have no idea how it manages that feat. Between slices of rye, plus Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and mustard, the mind is fooled, and for the better.
Another trick: turning chicken pot pie into something hand-held and bite-sized. Creamy inside with a Ritz cracker crust, these little balls capture the hominess of pot pie without being overly heavy or rich. It might be better than the original.
Though an example of an unnecessary “put an egg on it” (why isn’t there a vegetable instead of another protein?), the shrimp and grits is a gorgeous dish. Shellfish broth, flavored with shrimp, tomato, brandy and butter, boosts this above so many uninspired versions, as does the smoky, spicy andouille sausage.
Desserts at both restaurants nod to the familiar. Founding Farmers pays homage to the state with a dense Virginia peanut butter mousse pie dotted with peanuts—a layer of chocolate ganache above, a graham cracker crust below.
Family Meal turns out a tender oatmeal cream pie with plenty of cinnamon and makes you feel all the warm and fuzzies Little Debbie’s marketing team could never pull off. It’s even better than the brownie sundae: a fudgy (not cakey) brownie sprinkled with chocolate-coated corn flakes.
It’s emblematic of the restaurant’s point of view: Classic with a twist. Entice the middle with kicked-up comfort. Familiarity with some farro.
Founding Farmers Tysons
Get there early, or better, make a reservation: This place is slammed all of the time.
Appetizers: $4-$15; Entrees: $9-$48
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily; brunch on the weekends
1800 Tysons Blvd., McLean
Breakfast is available all day.
Appetizers: $4.99-$10.99; Entrees: $10.99-$24.99
Lunch and dinner daily
20462 Exchange St., Ashburn