C.F. Folks wins an America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation

February 28, 2013
Counter-intuitive: Owner Art Carlson understands the unique needs of the lunch crowd. (Matt McClain for The Washington Post). Counter-intuitive: Owner Art Carlson understands the unique needs of the lunch crowd. (Matt McClain for The Washington Post).

Art Carlson had a typically Art Carlson response when I asked him what it meant that C.F. Folks, his 32-year-old lunch institution, had just received an America's Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation.

"The beauty of being an American classic is that you don't have to produce very good food," says the 70-year-old (im)proprietor of C.F. Folks, which opened for business in May 1981.

Well, sure, the institutions that have scored an America's Classics Award are not mentioned in the same breath as Per Se, but the fact is, C.F. Folks does produce very good food. Just read Tom Sietsema's 2009 review of the place:

"Lunch counters are hard to come by in Washington. Good ones are scarcer still. It would be easy to applaud C.F. Folks just for being there, but Carlson and now [chef George] Vetsch don't play the nostalgia card to fill the 11 green stools, eight indoor tables and 24 al fresco seats. Instead, they win us over with equal parts eccentric charm and plates of food that taste as if they should carry more than a $13 price tag, which is the average cost of the six or so main courses that change daily."

But more than its food, C.F. Folks has created a space stamped with Carlson's idiosyncratic personality. It's campy. It's steeped in Americana. And, perhaps most important of all, it's committed to an ideal underneath the surface bluster. The ideal? To understand the unique demands of the Washington lunchtime diner: A person who wants quality, but wants it quickly and in an environment that's not carved out of corporate stone.

More than almost anyone, Carlson knows that such a place relies on its people to generate the right atmosphere. He calls it "the feel."

"There's a feel when you walk into certain places, and you want to be part of that feel," Carlson says. "It's the people in there who are generating a sense that you kind of like."

And just to be clear, Carlson says he is "thrilled" about the award, which the Beard Foundation gives to "restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community." Carlson and the other honorees (Kramarczuk's in Minneapolis; Frank Fat's in Sacramento; Prince's Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville; and Keens Steakhouse in New York City) will be recognized at the James Beard Foundation Awards on May 6 in New York City. Carlson will be there.

Here's what the Beard Foundation wrote about C.F. Folks in its announcement today:

"Art Carlson's weekday-only lunch haunt on Dupont Circle, open since 1981, is a 600-square-foot temple of honest cooking and good will. (The name combines the initials of Carlson and his business partner, Peggy Fredricksen.) The vibe is is loud and scrappy, and the food is delicious. Art Carlson, the ever-present host, is one of the last of a dying breed: a hands-on owner who schmoozes and teases his customers, often at the same time.

"The place, with its 11 counter stools, is comfortable in its age. Behind the long Formica counter, racks of cookbooks from Julia Child and fellow titans share space with scribbled postcards, a rattletrap stereo system, a collection of old political campaign buttons, and a jumble of knick knacks including a Presidential Barbie and dusty cans of Alpo and Cheez Wiz.

"The cooking is in the hands of George Vetsch, a veteran of a Zagat's worth of local kitchens. His standing menu is mostly sandwiches and salads. But the sheet of daily specials surprises and satisfies. Garlicky roast chicken with hand-cut fries. Mahi-mahi graced with an herbed cream sauce. Mexico gets its due with pork tacos jump-started with jalapeno-cilantro sauce. So does India, with chicken korma on basmati rice and sassy chutneys. Ditto Maine, by way of a lobster roll, slicked with basil mayonnaise.

"Carlson suffered a medical setback in 2010, but that hasn't kept the host from dispensing wisecracks and making change at his relic cash register. Waitresses in C.F.’s have embraced Carlson’s attitude. “Wanna dance?” a young waitress asked a customer after she bumped into him in the narrow eatery. “Ready to rock 'n' roll?” she greeted a party on the small covered patio."

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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