Washington has seen a number of popular restaurants fade to black during the pandemic. But the death of Johnny’s Half Shell hit some of us especially hard. Wherever in town the owners served crab cakes and grilled squid, along with relaxed but informed service, Johnny’s epitomized the definition of a neighborhood restaurant. Forgive me for writing about a place you can’t eat in, ever again. But 20 years is practically forever in the unforgiving restaurant business, and I didn’t want any more time to pass before paying respects to a standard-bearer that fed us so well for so long.
Yes, Johnny’s is gone. Forgotten? Not on my watch. How could it be? Johnny’s was typically the first place to pop into my head on a rare night off from reviewing, after returning from vacation or whenever visitors came to town. A day spent name-checking monuments and museums followed by a perfect piece of rockfish and some dish with the table-hopping Fulchino always left my guests with a good feeling about Washington. Wherever else in town I was eating fish or seafood, Johnny’s was inevitably the bar by which I judged it.
You can’t throw a net without snaring a crab cake in Washington. Cashion made the exemplar. It was mostly sweet jumbo lump crab, with whispers of mustard and Old Bay Seasoning and just enough cracker meal and mayonnaise to hold the prize together. (The mayo, housemade and designed specifically for the dish, was markedly bright with lemon and vinegar.) The exact recipe was a closely guarded secret, but part of the petite crab cake’s charm was the restraint deployed by the chef. Good seafood doesn’t need much adornment.
Johnny’s menu was full of class acts. Cashion’s filé-forward, roux-less gumbo had us scraping the bottom of the bowl. The chef bothered to buy fresh squid and clean it herself before throwing it on the grill, zapping it with chiles and lemon and finishing it with arugula and fried shallots. Grilled lobster was as wonderful for its kale-streaked spoonbread as the seafood, sweet-smoky with a “Johnny’s spice” that ran 20 ingredients long and resembled a more fragrant Old Bay. Really, a fan ran out of fingers counting the hits, which treaded beyond surf to include crisp chicken wings cooled with a creamy tarragon dip and rabbit dappled with Creole-mustard sauce.
Leave it to Cashion to come up with the hot dog of a ballpark’s dreams. Her all-beef sausage was billed as coming from “Baltimore,” although it originated in Chicago. Whatever. What I remember is a snappy, bursting-with-juices link tucked into a toasted poppy seed bun, accompanied by a pile of delectable crisp fries and toppings that included mm-mm-good blue cheese and shaved onions — a lot of joy for $6 in the early days. (The small kitchen in Adams Morgan wasn’t designed to accommodate the link’s hungry audience, except on typically slow Monday night, known as “Bun-day,” or if you were young enough to order off the kids’ menu. )
In keeping with Cashion’s simple but memorable style, pastry chef Valerie Hill offered diners banana cream pudding tufted with meringue and apple crumb pie lashed with golden cider sauce. Even after her departure from Johnny’s, though, the menu dared you to leave dessert crumbs — impossible in the case of her legacy lemon chess pie.
Modeled after some of the country’s cherished seafood haunts, notably Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco and the late No Name Restaurant in Boston, Johnny’s Half Shell made a gentle splash with its design: Naugahyde-upholstered booths, a marble-topped bar and an aquarium at the original and a handsome raised bar and oyster counter in Adams Morgan. From beginning to end, the restaurant was a haven for people who live to eat and the occasional boldfaced name. Fulchino remembers carding a young Reese Witherspoon in Dupont Circle — “I had no idea who she was,” he says — and getting a hug from former U.N. ambassador Susan E. Rice when Johnny’s returned to Adams Morgan. The restaurateur, a former hockey player in his native Massachusetts who glad-hands like a pol and is never without a grin, considered himself the entertainer at Johnny’s. “I enjoy making people feel good,” he says. And so he did.
Sadly, some once-promising restaurants end their runs as shadows of themselves. But my debut review of Johnny’s pretty much mirrored my last; Half Shell was full bliss. I don’t recall seeing Cashion in the open kitchen on many visits to Adams Morgan, a reality explained by a daytime schedule that found her preparing for the night and a right-hand man, chef Jorge Rubio, who knew her taste and exactitudes. Rubio started as the salad maker in Dupont Circle and worked his way up the kitchen ladder, following Cashion around town. Twenty years teaches a guy how to master a menu.
No restaurant is perfect, and I’d be remiss to gloss over some uneven meals during Johnny’s time on the Hill. As much as Cashion and Fulchino hoped to retain the neighborhood character in the move, some facts got in the way: The business ballooned in size, from 60 to 300 seats and from 1,800 square feet to 10,000. “Our goal was to move the Half Shell, not open a new restaurant,” Cashion told me after the change of address. The audience was different, too, indicated not just by the cheat sheet of politician’s names and faces at the host stand, but by the way the country’s representatives and others used Johnny’s more as a meeting hall.
“They didn’t understand the nuances of Ann’s cooking or my music,” Fulchino told me after the restaurant was moved to Adams Morgan. Sweetly, the digs were familiar, having previously hosted the owners’ former American restaurant, Cashion’s Eat Place, which they sold to veteran employees and which went dark in 2016.
Cashion and Fulchino are down to a single restaurant now, Taqueria Nacional in Mount Pleasant. (Its same-named sibling on T Street NW closed in December when the owners couldn’t come to terms with their landlord.) Fulchino recently bought a used car from his sister in Boston to assist with the taqueria’s delivery orders in Northwest DC. “He’s the driver and I’m the navigator,” says Cashion.
Is there any chance Johnny’s might return? While the owners say their landlord would like them back, whatever follows will not be a singular seafood restaurant. Fulchino says it wouldn’t be sustainable in a post-covid future.
The owners say they’re not the types to acknowledge their own special occasions. But they considered making an exception for their restaurant’s 20th anniversary and inviting fans for a party last April. The pandemic popped their balloon.
Cashion still wants to honor Johnny’s Half Shell. Her best, safest idea is to self-publish a calendar with a dozen photographs, plus recipes, of the late restaurant’s most popular dishes. We might never gather again in such a happy spot to eat some of her simply perfect dishes, but a record of its glory days would go a long way toward recapturing the flavor of the place. And yes, Cashion promises to finally share the recipe for her crab cakes.
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