Anita Baker is singing to me from across the room, and a plate of whiting, hot from the fryer, awaits my knife and fork. Around me, people drink $4 beers (it’s happy hour) and look as comfortable as if they were hanging out with friends at home.
All’s well in the world whenever I find myself at the Hitching Post, among Washington’s few sources of Southern cooking and, at 52, one of its most enduring places to eat.
Do I miss seeing the founders, Al and Adrienne Carter, in the dining room, him deveining shrimp from the comfort of a booth and her ferrying beers from bar to table — my last image of them in the flesh? I’d be offering alternative facts if I said no. The couple retired from the business seven years ago, but not before leasing the restaurant to someone Adrienne calls “a nice young man,” Barry Dindyal, owner of the late Indian-accented Fusion and a neighbor who counted himself a fan of the pig’s feet soup.
It’s reassuring to know the Carters (he’s 85, she’s 75) don’t have far to travel if they want to check in on the place, across from President Lincoln’s Cottage in Petworth. They still own the building and live upstairs.
“We’re supposed to be on diets,” says Adrienne. “And Al doesn’t drink anymore.”
When Dindyal took over, he closed the place for two months to give it a coat of fresh paint, add tables to the front porch and swap the coin-operated jukebox for one that’s connected to the Internet. Wisely, he kept much of the menu intact, in part by retaining, at least early on, one of the Carters’ veteran cooks.
“It had been there so long, and had such a loyal clientele,” including radio personality Kojo Nnamdi, says Dindyal. “I didn’t see the need to change out.” The whiting is made pretty much the same way it always has been. Moistened with an egg wash, the fish is dredged in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika and dried garlic. The fillets emerge from the fryer steamy and crisp, and if you get them with steak fries, which you should, you’ll be tickled to see they’re hand-cut and bronzed with the help of paprika.
Dindyal is a native of Guyana who grew up eating Indian food (his great-great-grandparents were from India) and once worked for Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which includes such well-known D.C. brands as the Bombay Club and Rasika. The background explains the inclusion of “fried spinach” on his menu. I don’t have to taste the salad to know that the spinach dappled with sweet yogurt and tamarind chutney was inspired by Vikram Sunderam, the James Beard Award-winning chef whose palak chaat is among the most copied plates around. Dindyal makes the dish his own by adding collard greens to the mix.
Appetizers and larger plates tend to blend together on the menu; the former category includes a bacon-laced salad of romaine hearts and $14 grilled lamb chops, a concession to customers who might enjoy a smaller portion of lamb at a friendlier price. If I wasn’t starting with the fried spinach, I’d tuck into a bowl of neck bones and lima beans, offered as a sepia-toned soup. It’s both homely and homey, thanks to bones cooked in a smoker and beans lending creaminess. Like hard-shell crabs, neck bones require a little effort to enjoy, given that some of the prime eating is in their nooks and crannies. Do yourself a favor and dig in (and around).
The fryer is your ally here. Along with the aforementioned fish (including catfish), which can also be ordered as sandwiches, the kitchen turns out fried chicken — Adrienne’s go-to dish “on occasion,” she says — in a similar golden coat. Dindyal also whips up jerk chicken, spiced to please fans of the Jamaican staple with allspice, cayenne and the charcoal over which the chicken is cooked just so.
Ribs are Al Carter’s entree of choice. His successor seasons them with a dry rub, cooks them over charcoal and finishes the meaty ribs with a thick, coffee-colored barbecue sauce that hints of cayenne and relies on more brown sugar than I prefer. Even so, the pork is nicely smoky and falls easily from the bone.
Entrees come with a choice of two sides, making them good deals. As one would expect of a Southern kitchen, there are coleslaw (nicely creamy) and potato salad (bound with sweet relish). The collard greens are pleasing, even without the traditional sting of vinegar or the addition of meat. The chef uses garlic and onion to make them available to vegetarians. Mashed potatoes and warm cabbage are straightforward and satisfying.
The Hitching Post remains a bit of a throwback, not always in ways that square with #MeToo. A jokey sign posted near the bar says men won’t get service without a shirt or shoes. As for ladies: “No shirt/Free drinks.” Mid-meal one night, something else felt amiss. Am I the only patron conflicted by listening to Michael Jackson in the wake of the “Leaving Neverland” documentary?
I’m even more bothered by the fact that this otherwise fine corner restaurant isn’t accessible to more patrons. The stairs leading to the front door and the tight passage in the dining room block wheelchair users, among others, from enjoying the 45-seat community center.
If there’s consolation, it’s carryout. Then again, you really want to experience the Hitching Post in person. Anita Baker and fried whiting are best savored together, in the house that Al and Adrienne built — and that Barry has helped enhance.
Hitching Post (Good) 200 Upshur St. NW. 202-726-1511. thehpostrestaurant.com. Open: Dinner daily, lunch Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Small plates $7 to $14, entrees $16 to $28. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Stairs leading to the deck make wheelchair entry difficult, and tight seating poses a challenge to patrons using mobility devices.