Eatonville restaurant and Eatonville, Fla.

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

In Eatonville the town (outside of Orlando, population 2,400), there are porches where stories are spun, so naturally there must be a "porch" in Eatonville the restaurant (just off V Street NW, 250 seats) where visitors from the town might sit a spell with customers.

"This is a first," says N.Y. Nathiri, pleasantly stunned to see this trendy urban take on her rural home town. She rocks her green wooden chair on the rough wooden boards of the porch that's tucked beside the swanky dining area of the Washington restaurant.

She's wearing a black T-shirt that says "Zora!" and carrying a burlap bag that says "Zora!" She's just arrived from Eatonville, also the home town of the great Harlem Renaissance novelist with the incandescent personality, Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston used to collect yarns she heard on the porches of Eatonville, and those porches turn up in her books. She died in 1960 in such poverty and obscurity that her grave was unmarked, but today her following is passionate.

Nathiri, 60, had heard rumors of this other Eatonville. Zora pilgrims to the town kept recommending the restaurant. Nathiri had to see for herself. From her perch on the porch, she takes in the big Day-Glo murals inspired by scenes from Hurston's work, the enlarged quotes of Hurston's words, the painting of Eatonville itself. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, could look around here and think her work is almost done.

"It's an incarnation of Eatonville that is very 21st century," she says. "It's cultural preservation across generations and in another setting."

Eatonville, meet Eatonville.

The Florida-D.C. nexus

"Most people think it's a play on the word 'eat,' " says Andy Shallal, the restaurant owner, who opened Eatonville in May.

What it really is, though, is a devout and profitable evocation of spirit and ideals intended to appeal to Washingtonians' pride in their town's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance and to national culture overall.

Hurston wrote some of her earliest stories and poems in Washington while a student at Howard University. She enrolled in 1919 at the age of 28. She also worked as a waitress at the Cosmos Club and as a manicurist at a black-owned barbershop near 14th and G streets NW, where her clients were white politicians, journalists and businessmen. "I learned things from holding the hands of men like that," she later said.

This weekend was an excellent time to take a deep plunge into the spicy and somewhat self-congratulatory nostalgia of it all, swap stories, pull out well-thumbed paperbacks, get all confused about which Eatonville you meant when you said Eatonville. It was a three-day mini-Zora fest in Eatonville (est. 2009), a cultural appetizer for the main event -- the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, coming to Eatonville (est. 1887) in January.

Although their town is often described as the nation's first incorporated municipality founded by African Americans, Eatonvillers are used to their square-mile patch being overlooked by outsiders, dwarfed as it is by the Disney empire nearby.

So when the mayor of Eatonville, Bruce Mount, bursts through the doors of the restaurant Sunday afternoon, this Eatonville is almost too much for him, even though he's been here before.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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