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Sweet Home Cafe review: A lesson in how to make history taste good

The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.

Sweet Home Cafe

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The debut of the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture gives us another good dining strategy on the Mall. Like the Mitsitam Cafe in the Museum of the American Indian, the 400-seat Sweet Home Cafe divides its dishes into four regional menus. Each theme counts a star or two, although first among equals are the buttermilk fried chicken representing the Agricultural South; the oyster pan roast, a nod to the North States, zapped with chili sauce and Tabasco; and the barbecue buffalo brisket dolloped with peach-jalapeño chutney, a legacy of the Western Range and African Americans who once served as ranch cooks. Photographs depicting African American influence on U.S. agriculture, cooking and civil rights add a history lesson to meals that aim to honor home cooking.

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Sweet Home Cafe: 1400 Constitution Ave. NW.

Prices: Mains $10-$18.

Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.


The following was originally published Sept. 26, 2016.

The African American Museum cafe gets off to a solid start feeding a tough crowd

The lesson gleaned from opening day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture: People are willing to wait for fried chicken and shrimp and grits, the two most popular attractions at the inviting Sweet Home Cafe.

“Twenty-five minutes for the shrimp and grits,” a greeter at the cafe tells expectant eaters, some of whom head off in the direction of three other food stations.

“Anyone want gumbo?” calls out a cook looking to shorten the queue in front of the menu representing the Creole Coast.

"I want everything," a woman behind me says to her companions.

Me, too, which is why I’m here with colleagues to help me take a big bite out of the underground cafeteria, reached via a serpentine staircase beginning on the ground floor. Sweet Home takes its cue from the nearby Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian, which divides its dishes into four regional themes. Earlier this month, the executive chef from Mitsitam Cafe, Jerome Grant, slipped into the same job at the new Smithsonian venue.

Over the weekend, he figures, he fed 8,500 visitors.

3 recipes for American American Museum dishes you can make at home

The best memories from the dozen or so entrees? One, from the Agricultural South menu, is the aforementioned buttermilk fried chicken, moist beneath its garlic-and-paprika-spiked skin. Another highlight is the oyster pan roast, from the North States menu. Made to order, the dish gathers tender oysters in a cream sauce fueled with white wine, plus chili sauce and Tabasco for zip and color. Of the sandwiches, barbecue buffalo brisket, a notion from the Western range, drew interest not just for its tender slices of meat but also for zesty peach and jalapeño chutney beneath its brioche bun. Chicken also starred in another hit from the Creole Coast; it was rubbed with cayenne and other seasonings, then cold-smoked and striped with Alabama white sauce.

Good intentions were behind those shrimp and grits. Like much of the food, the dish was prepared in small batches (hence the wait) and started with high-quality ingredients (in this case, grits from Anson Mills). The seafood was what you might expect of a mindful restaurant. Sauteed in fat from tasso ham and finished with smoked tomato and caramelized leeks, the shrimp made a bold statement. The grits, on the other hand, shot blanks and had turned stiff by the time I paid the cashier and found a seat.

There were other wrinkles: dry barbecue pork, meh biscuits, dry stuffed trout, undercooked collard greens and a timid Caribbean-style pepper pot with undercooked and too-sweet beans. Son of a Gun Stew, a sepia-toned legacy of African Americans who served as ranch cooks, was more fun to say than to eat; we pushed aside the dense beef short ribs in favor of the winy Yukon Gold potatoes and other vegetables. An empanada, also representing the Western range, found me eating more of the crisp fluted wrapper than the underseasoned filling of black-eyed peas, corn and mushrooms.

More appealing were turkey grillades with fried apples (but not enough sage gravy) and Brunswick stew, a generous swamp of braised chicken, lima beans, corn and tomatoes.

Reviews from the assembly were mixed. Antonio Stephen, a pharmacist from Norfolk, gave his barbecue pork sandwich “a six or a seven,” noting it was only slighter better than what he might find on an airplane. On the other hand, the visitor rated the cafe’s sweet potato pie a perfect 10. (Indeed, of the desserts I tried, the pie, shot through with bourbon and fragrant with nutmeg, emerged as the prize. Ginger in the crust made a nice touch.)

Phyllis Wadley, who as a student in Atlanta marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “The gumbo is good,” albeit “different than mine.” Could she elaborate? “I lived in New Orleans for two years,” the Ohio resident replied, in a tone that suggested her time there was well spent. She gave the $14 entree “a solid B, because I was hungry.” She says she would have preferred a smaller bowl — and a lower price.

Across from her sat a Texas visitor who declined to give her name. Picking at some collard greens, the woman said the side dish was “acceptable for having been cooked in public” vs. a home, and that it could have benefited from the addition of a turkey leg. She, too, had waited for shrimp and grits. Her verdict? “I’m from Houston, and I make shrimp and grits that make you want to slap your mama!”

Grant, the executive chef, says he understands that his audience has high expectations and is likely to compare the cafe’s fare with their favorite home cooking. “We don’t want to send it out unless it’s right,” he says. There’s work to be done, but given the crush of diners, he and his team performed admirably over the weekend. The best dishes indeed had an agreeable homey quality, while the cooks behind the food stations occasionally played the role of curators in describing the items.

Although the dining room can seat 400 people, the space feels more intimate than the number suggests. Neat rows of plants on the walls help. So do strategically placed mirrors, especially those facing a single line of counter stools, allowing occupants to observe the dining room behind them. The stools can’t help but remind a diner of the 1960 sit-in protest of the whites-only policy at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., which is dramatically pictured in one of the large-scale photographs surrounding the room. Other images depict the African American influence on agriculture, cooking and civil rights over the years. The most local reference is a collection of photographs of Ben’s Chili Bowl, beloved purveyor of half-smokes. (The cafe’s half-smoke comes from Manger’s in Baltimore.)

The takeaway from a meal is best expressed in a quote on the wall from culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, who consulted on the cafe: “We have created a culinary tradition that has marked the food of this country more than any other.”