Traditional American cooking styles have been getting slick upgrades for almost as long as we’ve realized that we had traditions. I saw the trend of a chic new spin on Gulf Coast cuisine take off during my time in Houston. But in NoVA, I haven’t observed chefs taking as much advantage of our Southern roots as I’d like. Enter Matthew Hill.
Hill is best known in our region as the former culinary director of the Liberty Tavern Group. Last fall, he opened his first restaurant as a co-owner, with general manager Todd Salvadore. Ruthie’s All-Day is named for Hill’s grandmother, and the menu is inspired by her homespun North Carolinian fare. The macaroni and cheese, which Hill says is “definitely the most popular side” on the bill of fare, is a restaurant-ready interpretation of Ruthie’s evaporated-milk-and-egg-based recipe. And the crisp-topped casserole is one of the most appealing versions of mac and cheese in the region.
RAD’s food, most of which touches what Hill calls “primitive cooking methods,” including smokers and a wood grill, is almost uniformly excellent. The white-and-green interior is strikingly cheerful, if a little sterile. But just as reliably as warm, crumbly cornbread topped with honey butter goes to nearly every table, service seems to stumble. Across my visits, it was an effort to catch servers’ attention. On one trip, it took almost half an hour to get my bill after an evening of labored communication.
This could partly be due to the crowds that have started flocking to RAD as more potential diners have been vaccinated. “As the weather has improved, we’ve seen an uptick, especially on the patio,” Hill says.
It shouldn’t require a sunny day to savor so fine a roster of dishes. “We’re just making tasty food and trying not to get caught up in labels,” the chef says. That flexibility allows RAD to serve everything from down-home fried-chicken biscuits and brisket with a trio of sides to a popular yellowfin tuna tartare.
Though the dish is unusually upscale in theory compared with the rest of the menu, in practice, it fits right in with the other apps, say the mustardy deviled eggs or the shrimp-stuffed hushpuppies. A slim line of tuna dressed in white soy ponzu and laureled with nori rests next to a tangy avocado purée. Both are primed to be scooped up with warm-from-the-fryer waffle chips. Sure, it’s a raw fish dish, but it feels as homey as seven-layer dip.
At lunchtime, highlights include a crispy chicken sandwich flavored with avocado ranch. Another plate features a chunky mound of pulled pork with a waft of smoke adhering to its barky exterior. It’s paired with fluffy milk bread and Vaseline-glass-green cucumber pickle slices, but as with all the entrées at RAD, diners then decide on their two or three additional accompaniments.
The side options change regularly with the seasons and what’s growing in Hill’s South Arlington community garden plot. Crisp fries are flecked with fresh dill, an illuminating addition to the salty potatoes. Buttermilk biscuits yield their exterior crunch to a soft, flaky center. A citrusy arugula salad topped with shaved fennel and pickled onions is a bright counterpoint to the heavier sides. Smoked cauliflower baptized in benne seed–dotted tzatziki is substantial enough to be a meal on its own. The only disappointment among the sides that I tried was the kimchi dirty rice, which tastes more like the sweet peppers threaded throughout than the spicy cabbage.
Dinnertime entrées gravitate toward the wood grill. The strip loin, served sliced and bathed in a garlicky, chile-speckled chimichurri, crunches with char but quickly melts away. It’s worth its $43 price tag, making it the most expensive dish on a menu of plates that hang around the $20 mark.
But Hill’s tour de force is smoked Crescent duck. A four-step process is responsible for the rare breast. Before resting in the smoker for 15 to 20 minutes, it’s brined for three hours. This accounts for the meat’s luscious tenderness, but rendering in a pan followed by a trip to the grill is behind its crispy skin. That crunch withstands even a topping of astringent chowchow made with sunchokes and squash, among a garden’s worth of veggies, but nary a strand of more typical cabbage.
It would be a mistake not to end a meal at RAD with apple doughnuts. It’s remarkable that the hot, airy orbs don’t float away. Perhaps they’re bound to earth by the tart apples within, but the fried-to-order, sugar-dusted doughnuts are even better with a dip in housemade raspberry jam.
The crowds might make even the ample parking spaces tough to score, but this is a neighborhood joint that’s winning devotees beyond Arlington. Make a reservation comfortably in advance, prepare for slow service, and plan on a meal that not only brings Southern soul into the present, but also previews the big flavors to come in a delectable future.
See This: Cheerful whites with green wallpaper would fit in nicely as a backdrop for a Wes Anderson movie. The crowd that congregates inside and out is just as quirky.
Eat This: Yellowfin tuna tartare, smoked Crescent Farms duck, apple doughnuts
3411 Fifth St. South, Arlington
Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner; reservations only
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior