A few historic cookbooks from Jose Andres’s personal collection are displayed inside a hulking glass case at his new America Eats Tavern in the former Cafe Atlantico space. The chef is attempting to explain each volume — a notebook kept by George Washington’s chef, a “Chemistry of Cookery” tome that proves Harold McGee didn’t invent that field — when he can’t stand it anymore. He suddenly wraps his arms around the glass case, gives it a big bear hug and yanks it off the stand. He wants to paw through his books and actually show me what he’s talking about.
It’s a classic Jose Andres moment, like when he pushed Anthony Bourdain’s head deep into a crate of peaches and commanded the “No Reservations” host to “smell it.” Andres is not a man who enjoys discussing anything abstractly. Whether food or history or cookbooks, the chef wants you to experience the subject in a direct, tactile way. He wants you to see and digest it yourself, so you can determine its relevance and importance.
America Eats Tavern would appear to be the brick-and-mortar embodiment of Andres’s personality; it is the chef’s attempt to make U.S. culinary history come alive for everyone who wanders into the multi-level restaurant. Andres says he has been working on the place “all my life,” a reference to his keen interest in American history and old cookbooks, but the truth is that he and his team at ThinkFoodGroup have been actively plotting the course of America Eats for only about six months. They’ve had even less time, about three weeks really, to transform Cafe Atlantico into this sensual exploration of America’s gustatory past.
“People ask me in Europe, when they do interviews . . . they ask me, ‘Well, how does it feel to be a cook in a country that doesn’t know how to eat?’ ” Andres says while previewing dishes and drinks from the America Eats menu. “It always touches a nerve, because Europe and the world think that America is no more than bad hot dogs and bad burgers. And America is so much more, and I think this is the place you’re going to get a sense that this is true.”
Andres’s new eatery is supposed to be a pop-up restaurant, a temporary operation designed to complement the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit at the nearby National Archives, which is scheduled to close on Jan. 3. But as with practically everything he does, Andres has pushed himself and his staff beyond almost all reasonable expectations of a pop-up restaurant, as if he knows he will be judged by a higher standard now that he is the reigning James Beard Foundation award winner as the nation’s outstanding chef.
The space, in Penn Quarter, is no generic pop-up shell, able to assume any gastronomic identity in a matter of days. Cafe Atlantico has been strategically re-imagined by Seed Design, the firm that created the interiors for Andres’s China Poblano in Las Vegas. The designers have installed a “scrapbook chandelier” at America Eats’s core, running from the ground level to the top floor; the chandelier is, essentially, a mobile of rustic window frames, some of which are outfitted with images from the “Uncle Sam” exhibit, including Norman Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving dinner painting.