1365 H St. NE 396-0991 Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Prices: Side orders and sandwiches 75 cents to $5, entrees $4.75 to $6.25. Cards: None accepted.
In the South, black-eyed peas are as much a part of New Year's Day as hangovers and confetti-strewn carpets. African in origin -- though a staple in the South for more than three centuries -- the vegetable is said to bring good luck.
Digging into a big bowl of black-eyed peas at French's Fine Southern Cuisine, a four-month-old family-run cafeteria, I was reminded of the dish's appeal. This was comforting, filling stuff, all the better for its cover of raw onion.
In fact, if peas and biscuits -- big, puffy ones, which are said to be homemade and taste like it -- were all you ever ate, you might leave satisfied.
But after having eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner there, French's Fine Southern Cuisine strikes me as an overstatement. Cloyingly sweet sweet potatoes, commercial mashed potatoes and canned gravy do not a fan of soul food make.
And neither does the steam table spread of fried fish, pallid liver and onions, and swiss steak. Macaroni and cheese is flavorless and dry, and crunchy rather than soft and soothing. Cornbread is dry as desert sand.
Thank goodness for breakfast; the food not only looks fresher, it tastes better. Start out with one of those warm, cake-like biscuits, and add to your plate some diner-style scrambled eggs, a dollop of pale but savory potatoes with onion, and perhaps a fat, crisp-surfaced fish cake, its moistness and mild flavor bolstered with chunks of crunchy green pepper.
The refreshingly pulpy orange juice serves to balance the heaviness of the food.
To be sure, one couldn't fault French's for portion size, which is as far removed from nouvelle lightness as can be imagined.
Even a member of the "Clean Plate Club" might have problems polishing off two enormous portions of moist and meaty baked chicken smothered in gravy, a mountain of mashed potatoes and a hill of greens, as this former constituent tried to do.
My only quarrel is that diners aren't allowed to combine any of the main dishes, which include a choice of two side dishes. So if you want to try the barbecued pork ribs and the chicken, for instance, you have to buy two strapping platefuls of both.
Southern-style soul food is the focus, but more attention seems to have been lavished on the look of the place.
Indeed, French's is perhaps the most welcoming sight on its block, a big square dining room trimmed in blue tile and wood, with floor-to-ceiling front windows that allow for lots of light by day. The wood walls are lined with a family album's worth of black and white photographs of the owner's ancestors, plus a handful of colorful paintings celebrating the black experience. If your neighbor bought a fast-food joint and dressed it up, French's is what it might look like: clean, friendly and bright. No less hospitable are the folks behind the counter, who might even sit down to a meal during off hours.
Yet another brightener are the background melodies: A welcome respite from Muzak comes in the form of taped music that can switch from soul to Dixieland jazz in the course of a meal, providing a pleasant fillip to a modest meal served at modest prices.Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.