The crab cakes, crusty on the surface, hint of dry mustard and cayenne. The centers are so creamy, you hardly need tartar sauce, although the housemade condiment is lovely. Dredged in cornmeal, rockfish and whiting turn gold, crisp and steamy after a swim in canola oil. Platters and combination plates come with bread and two sides; hand-cut french fries and collards made sans meat tend to round out my meals. Expect to find locals and tourists, worker bees and VIPs, at one of the most democratic draws in town.
2 stars (Good)
Market Lunch: 225 Seventh St. SE.202-547-8444. marketlunchdc.com .
Open: Breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday. Mains $5-$27.
Prices: Mains $5-$27.
Sound check: 77 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published Aug. 28, 2019.
Market Lunch may be the only thing in town that brings both parties to the table
Points to consider when you find yourself in the line trailing from the counter at Market Lunch on Capitol Hill: (1) It might be half an hour before you place your order, but once you do, you’ll have your food in under five minutes. (2) The guy ringing you up and dispensing advice, founder Tom Glasgow, only takes cash. (3) If it’s breakfast, ask for blueberry-buckwheat pancakes, and come lunch, there’s nothing finer than fried fish or a crab cake — or better yet, both.
An institution as vital to the rhythm of Washington as those buildings lining the Mall, Market Lunch has fed and watered customers since 1978. That’s when Glasgow’s father, Charles, a wholesale seafood distributor, bought Boones Lunch inside Eastern Market and tapped a cook from Duke Zeibert’s, the legendary downtown power restaurant, to helm the grill. The name “Market” was selected for the simple reason that the six letters fit neatly on top of “Boones.” Not even a fire in Eastern Market’s historic South Hall in 2007 could disrupt service; the business simply set up shop in a vast tented space across the street until it could return home to the Victorian building designed by Adolf Cluss, also responsible for the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.
With the demise in recent years of such democratic draws as C.F. Folks, the lunch-only, opera-playing downtown cafe that went on to be named a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic, Market Lunch remains that rare and wonderful thing: a dining destination that attracts locals and tourists, worker bees and VIPs. Glasgow, who never seems to take a day off, treats everyone the same. I’ve seen him patiently explain to a young family what and how much they should order, and I got personally reprimanded for approaching the counter from the wrong direction. (Hey, there were only six people in line and I hadn’t been in awhile.)
Rules posted on the wall conjure a brusque New York deli but make possible a seat (there are 32) around the single tall table. “No reading of newspapers or laptops when we are crowded,” goes one edict. “No saving seats,” directs another. The owner, a carnival barker with better manners, lets his clientele know exactly where he stands. There’s a tiny American flag waving from a plastic blue crab near the cash register, sometimes a timely protest on the chalkboard menu. “Change gun laws or change Congress,” the sign read one day this summer.
The signature Blue Bucks are superb pancakes: tender, mottled with fruit, nutty in flavor and best eaten with genuine maple syrup. If you’re partial to something on the savory side in the a.m., consider an omelet with crusty potatoes or the Brick, a weighty breakfast sandwich built from your choice of eggs, meat (go for scrapple), fried potatoes and American cheese to bind the beast. The shrimp and grits could easily headline the menu of a restaurant with linens on its tables. The Southern classic is finished with a combination of beef stock, water and butter that gives the dish extra oomph.
Customers who haven’t hit the queue recently should know the crab cakes have changed — for the better. Because so many people were ordering them to go, uncooked, Glasgow removed raw eggs from the recipe. Now, crusty on the surface, they hint of dry mustard and cayenne. The centers remain so creamy you hardly need tartar sauce, although the condiment, made from scratch with ground capers and Worcestershire sauce, is welcome.
Dredged in cornmeal, rockfish and whiting turn gold, crisp and steamy after a swim in bubbling canola oil. They are fried ideals and require nothing fancier than a squeeze of lemon. Platters and combination plates come with two sides and bread. Experience has taught me to ask for the hand-cut french fries and glossy collard greens, made sans meat and lovely in their simplicity. If Glasgow thinks you’re ordering too much food, he’ll tell you. The afternoon I added a barbecue sandwich to my already jumbo request, the owner fairly pleaded, “I’ll give you a taste of the barbecue!” Juicy with shredded pork, the sandwich gets its sting from red pepper flakes, tamed by a dollop of nicely crisp coleslaw. The puffy rolls are baked in the slip of a kitchen. You can watch them turn from dough to delicious as you wait for your number to be called.
Were you expecting the Key lime pie of yore? Sorry, this old-timer doesn’t do dessert. Glasgow prefers that people not linger. If they want something sweet, he says, they can stroll over to the bakery in the food hall. “I want to be a market player.”
Visiting late is a strategy that can result in “no more hamburgers today, no more soft shells,” as a staffer has been known to call out. Yet a recent midafternoon visit, populated by a fleet of postal carriers on break, gave me an idea of how happy the nonstop crew behind the counter must be. The workers taking out the trash were singing.
Not long ago, former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt created a small stir when she came to pick up lunch. A few diners who recognized her asked to take photos. After the crab cake devotee left, Glasgow came over to the table to confirm Pratt was a regular and to share some good-natured gossip with a clutch of diners, an anonymous critic included. (Later, by phone, he said it was fine for me to pass along the exchange, which I confirmed with Pratt.)
“I’m surprised,” he told us. “She usually forgets her money in the car. Then I have to remind her, ‘Sharon, don’t tell people you keep your money in your car!’ ”
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