-- 4414 Benning Rd. NE. 398-6994. Open: Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturday noon to midnight, Sunday 1 to 11 p.m. Closed Monday. Cash only. Reservations available for groups of eight or more. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: buffet lunch $8.95 Tuesday through Saturday; buffet dinner $14.95 Tuesday through Thursday, $15.95 Friday through Sunday. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip $20 to $25 per person.
LIMA BEANS AND HAM. Blackeyed peas. Whole okra, cooked but still firm . . .
For a southern city, Washington is short on soul food restaurants. While it's not true -- as outsiders seem to think -- that the Florida Avenue Grill is the only one, there are but a scant few, and their menus are limited.
Yet just over the bridge on a quiet stretch of Benning Road in Anacostia is soul food heaven. It's the Chef's Table, a spacious free-standing restaurant that bears a strong resemblance on the outside to the early Hot Shoppes and Howard Johnson's. Inside, it has a small full-service dining room and a bar, but most of the space is devoted to a buffet.
Down-home crab cakes, shredded, breaded and spicy, deep-fried but not greasy. Cajun catfish coated with not-too-hot red and black spices. Fried fish still crisp and light. Fried shrimp, spiced shrimp, shrimp and seafood creole in a tart-sweet tomato sauce . . .
The buffet stretches between two rooms that are dimly lit and highly decorated, one with hanging plants and blown-up photos of food, the other with heraldry and brass. The tablecloths are vinyl, but a soft, textured vinyl. This is a casual restaurant, but not T-shirts
and shorts casual. You are there not just to eat a lot, but to dine, to relax over a pina colada so large and garnished with fresh fruit that it looks like a party all by itself.
Collards, tangy with vinegar. Macaroni and cheese, soft and gooey. Creamy macaroni salad. Turkey stuffing made of cornbread crumbs . . .
The welcome is warm, the feeling is neighborly, and the service is efficient. You are encouraged to return to the buffet as many times as you like, and your empty plate is cleared away while you are refilling. The most welcome part of the service, however, is that the buffet is kept well stocked and attractive, with no scrawny near-empty platters or unappetizing spills left unattended.
Potatoes, real ones, mashed with gravy or almost-mashed in potato salad. Syrupy and fragrant sweet potatoes . . .
This buffet is 30 items long, even if you don't count the salad bar and the dessert displays. It's home-style food, and nearly all of it is made in-house -- the breads, the salads, the best of the desserts. The vegetables are almost all fresh. This is far from thaw-and-serve food. Lunch, at $8.95, is stunning. Dinner, at $14.95 to $15.95, repeats much of lunch and adds spareribs, short ribs, fried seafood and chitterlings.
Fried chicken, just the legs, lightly floured before frying. Beef ribs. Glossy, sticky barbecued pork ribs. Pork chops with or without gravy. Pigs' feet, pig innards, glazed ham . . .
Every dish is labeled, and lest you think that what you see is the total repertoire of the Chef's Table, rows and rows of labels are lined up inside the kitchen entrance. There are plenty of possibilities for other days and other seasons.
Warm apple and peach cobblers shouting of cinnamon. Soft and fluffy bread pudding. Banana pudding covered with rows of vanilla wafers. Revolving shelves of pies -- sweet potato, Boston cream -- and layer cakes. Wedges of watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew with rosettes of whipped cream. Orange and green gelatin with wreaths of cream. A freezer full of ice cream cups.
I could wish that the fried chicken legs were less soft and stringy on the inside, that the meatballs went lighter on the breading and salt, that the seafood creole didn't include factory-made "crab," that the corn on the cob was cooked for half the time or that the asparagus was always firm rather than just sometimes. It would be nice if the biscuits were more flaky and the corn muffins less sweet. In fact, I could wish that most things were less sweet. But those flaws are easy to overlook in such an array, and rare is the buffet that serves green beans so bright and crunchy, okra that's far from gummy, fried scallops and shrimp that have remained crusty and also juicy. The frying itself, from the crab cakes to the chicken legs, is light and grease-free. And even such simple dishes as tuna salad with diced red onion show unusual flair.
Much of what is served in the Chef's Table buffet tastes like family food,
the result of handed-down recipes. It's not pristine, made-to-order com- pany cooking, but the kind of dishes
you'd expect at a reunion if your family were from the South and very large and hadn't yet discovered carryouts. It is what we like to remember as real American cooking.