Restaurateur Bo Blair and chef David Scribner are printing money in Spring Valley. At least it looks that way every time I drop anchor at Millie’s, the longtime business partners’ winsome new seafood restaurant in Northwest Washington. An offshoot of their seasonal retreat of the same name on Nantucket, and a sibling to such District draws as Surfside and Jetties, Millie’s pulls in an estimated 800 diners a day.
Seeing is believing. The two-legged traffic at Monday lunch approaches Saturday-night levels at a lot of other restaurants.
The surge can be explained by a paucity of places to eat in this slice of the city, affluent as it is. (Not since “The Official Preppy Handbook” have I encountered more WASPs.) A resident can go to BlackSalt or Et Voila! only so many times, darling.
Surely the atmosphere helps attract a crowd, too. Rows of umbrella-shaded picnic tables out front signal a relaxed vibe, while the interior, all clean lines and streaming light, does a great job of evoking a waterfront restaurant without overdressing itself in nautical props. The owners estimate they poured $2.5 million into converting a former Chicken Out. Capacious blue booths running down the center of the dining room give patrons a view of the gleaming open kitchen, above which hang neat rows of paddles acquired from a canoe company in Minnesota. On the wall is a compass rose, from which the distance between Millie’s and popular beach destinations around the world is revealed. Floating above diners’ heads is a pristine rowboat from the 1900s.
In the end, though, it’s the food and drink that will keep Millie’s busy, even when the picnic tables are brought inside and the temperature drops. Scribner, 49, has come up with a genius menu that acknowledges the tacos and quesadillas that fly out of the kitchen at the original Millie’s while addressing the wishes of a Washington audience and more than one food fashion. Tuna poke and beet-and-avocado crostini look right at home here.
Big, colorful, interesting salads? A heap of mixed greens decked out with grilled shrimp, diced mango, crushed peanuts, crisp bean sprouts and a sweet chile vinaigrette make an appealing “Great Point.” Sandwiches that take you on a mini-vacation? Maine lobster in the lightest of binders is barely contained in its buttery toasted roll, a treat embellished with a summery corn-and-grape-tomato salad. Fish sticks aren’t just for kids, evinced by rockfish in a coat of cornmeal and dropped off with okra fried in the same batter. A dunk in aioli tempers the heat.
The kitchen’s cause is aided by an exemplary bar. Millie’s pours refreshing daiquiris and potent “frosé” (frozen rosé, better than it sounds) in a space dressed with tall tables and glass garage doors that roll up in good weather. The effect is akin to eating alfresco. More than once, I expected to turn around and see (sea) water.
Here and there — on a mural outside and in a photograph above the bar — diners encounter the late namesake. Millie Jewett was a local legend on the island, revered for her free spirit and passion for the sea, qualities that earned “Madaket Millie” the highest civilian rank from the U.S. Coast Guard.
The tacos won’t be mistaken for those of, say, the esteemed El Sol, but they’re nevertheless tasty, especially two-ply corn tortillas enclosing meaty grilled rockfish striped with lime-kissed sour cream and built up with peppery corn salad invigorated with cilantro and a white balsamic vinaigrette. Like most items here, the quesadillas tilt generous. Served in thick, pie-like wedges, they are filled with the likes of marinated chicken, tangy goat cheese and sweet, soft onions, a combination billed as 40th Pole.
Five fried shrimp sharing their toasted baguette with sliced tomatoes and a slathering of spicy remoulade are a lot of po’ boy to get your mouth around. You can do it! Easier to tackle is the plate’s shredded kale salad, sweetened with orange and flattered with almonds. As for the crab cake, I’m more enamored of its glossy brioche bun and that corn-and-tomato salad than the soft seafood patty itself, which gets lost in the finery.
The original Millie’s doesn’t do entrees. The spinoff recognizes that some of its clientele want the kind of formality that isn’t demanded by customers in swimsuits or just off a boat. For them, there are a handful of main courses expected to change with the season. Get the sauteed soft-shell crabs while you can. They’re two sweet specimens, showered with capers and joined by bright green spinach and red potatoes, a trifecta of simple good taste. Crisped scallops on a bed of cheesy grits, sprinkled with crumbled bacon, get a nice finish of cider brown butter. Blair calls the seared yellowfin tuna his pick of the bunch, and you can taste why. The combination of slices of rare fish arranged on sticky rice with shaved fennel and a pinch of watercress is light but substantial, and I love the way pain meets pleasure in the wasabi creme fraiche on the plate. Crushed toasted sesame seeds and lime juice excite the eating, too.
A stack of booster seats and picnic tables scaled for small fries are as encouraging to young families as the kids’ menu selection, every dish inclusive of a beverage and fruit. Junior might be bummed not to see french fries; this is a kitchen whose interesting sides tend to be green or light, sometimes both.
One way to move diners efficiently from entree to exit is to forgo a dessert menu. Millie’s offers something sweeter, however: an ice cream window outside, a detail that turns adults into kids and kids into consumers with colorful rings around their mouths. (Purple suggests they’ve asked for blueberry ice cream. Pink implies strawberry.) Offered in a dozen flavors, including coffee and “birthday cake,” the ice cream comes from Gifford’s of Maine and can be scooped into a cup or a sugar or waffle cone. (Sprinkles go by the name “jimmies,” another nod to the Northeast.) Save for the also-new Salt Line overlooking the Anacostia River, no Washington eatery feels more like a day at the beach right now.
With Millie’s, their most ambitious and alluring destination to date, Blair and Scribner have succeeded in giving the neighborhood not just another place to eat, but a community center and a break from the day-to-day. Good for them if they’re raking it in. The guys are creating lots of smiles in the process.
More in Food:
For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4866 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Open: Lunch and dinner Wednesday through Monday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $7 to $26, main courses $16 to $29.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.