Open Monday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday until 11 p.m., Saturday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations not necessary. Parking lot. Appetizers $2.75 to $5.95; main dishes $8.50 to $17.50, average about $10.
I'd know that fried chicken anywhere. It had been three or four years since I'd tasted the fried chicken at Faces on Georgia Avenue, but it sure brought back old times to be eating fried chicken at RSVP.
Why do they call it RSVP? Maybe because people didn't show up when it was W. H. Bone, then an Italian restaurant before that. But here they go again at Waterside Mall, with another down-home-and-elegant dining combo, chitterlings and chandeliers. It's not the environment you would expect for fried chicken, but that doesn't make it taste any less juicy, any less crispy, any less lovingly made.
The some goes for the spareribs, big meaty ones, dripping with barbecue sauce and about to fall off the bone. These are not smokehouse ribs, but restaurant ribs. And for restaurant ribs they are really good -- spicy but not burning, sauce-heavy but not over-whelmed. RSVP does several down-home things very well: fried sea trout was one day as moist and sweet and lightly crunchy as one dreams of fried fish being (though another day the crunch was there but the sweet freshness missing). And broiled, it's no less juicy or delicious, in this case seasoned with chili powder.
Seasoning is not subtle at RSVP. The crab imperial is as spicy as any deviled crab. A bit heavy, but nevertheless good. In fact, all the main courses were good when we visited RSVP, except the Virginia ham, which was mild-to-tasteless cured meat that no Virginian would own up to, and served in a sweet nothing of a canned pineapple topping. Fried seafoods, steak -- a decent one, nicely marbled -- and pork chops -- a bit tough but homey and drenched in onions -- complete the entrees, the steak sharing one of the top prices -- $11.95 -- with chitterlings (only lobster thermidor and seafood platter were higher).
This is a main-course place.The appetizers are overblown menu prose translated into quickie cold plates. Shrimp cocktail ($3.95): tough, dry tasteless. Fruit plate ("Fresh as can be, bearing forbidden fruits of the season pining for 'Wate [sic] Watcher'" -- $2.75) would have been okay for a luncheon plate, but was odd and disappointing as an appetizer: a few slices of apple, orange, grapefruit and honeydew around a scoop of cottage cheese with a cherry on top. Chicken soup is pretty good, tasting as if it started from a can but went through many steps and additions of chicken and seasoning before it was issued from the kitchen. One would expect so at $2.75. And then there's a salad, a mountain of romaine with a few shreds of hearts of palm and plenty of mushrooms, certainly meant to be shared by several people, at $5.95.
Main courses don't stop with the meat of fish; one of RSVP's assets is a choice of eight vegetables, from greens to red beans and rice. The red beans are mixed in with the rice, sometimes with a lot of cayenne, other times with no spice but mushrooms instead; in either case, they would be considered heretic in New Orleans.But they are good, as are the blackeyed peas, sweet potatoes and potato salad, at least when it hasn't been refrigerated too long. The canned green beans are well seasoned but not rescued; the macaroni and cheese has an endearing creamy blandness. When RSVP puts enough soul into its soul food, you get some very good cornbread. Other days, it's just soft white rolls.
On the other hand, a soul food restaurant doesn't traditionally have a wine list. And the short list at RSVP has some astonishing old-fashioned prices: a Pouiully-Fuisse for under $20, a Chateau St. Jean riesling for $11, a Behringer chardonnay for $12.
Dessert is not as extensive as the menu implies: there have been no cobbler or pecan pie. But the sweet potato pie was fine, with some crunch to the cruse and undertone of molasses to the filling.
Service is both formal -- black-tie waiters and waitresses -- and friendly. Couldn't ask for nicer, though even on an empty night it can be hard to catch someone's attention. And the room, behind and upstairs from a bar and disco (which you have to walk through to get to the dinning room), is remarkably quiet, considering the high-decibel entertainment below. Warm, soft pink decorates walls and the upholstered chairs, along with some art works worth attention and some architectural embellishments that could be from a Victorian demolition. While not quite sumptuous, the surroundings are pretty and decorative, right down to the twists of orange slices and cherry tomatoes that often garnish the plates.
RSVP is about the most upscale soul-food restaurant around, and one of the few black-owned downtown restaurants. It is also among the handful of eating places near Arena Stage, which makes us wish it were open on Sundays for pretheater dinner. Some of its prices are high -- $16 for a fried seafood platter, for instance -- but the best dishes, the fried chicken and fish, are $8.50 and $8, respectively. If you are going to the theater or if you're seeking a post-dinner disco, the convenience is well worth the price. And if you learn for chitterlin;s, sweet potato pie, greens and blackeyed peas, price is not the point.