Since the start of the pandemic, and despite my ongoing reviews of takeout and delivery options around the area, I’ve made a habit of tying up at the Hitching Post. I appreciate the long run of the Southern restaurant, opened in 1967 by Al and Adrienne Carter across from President Lincoln’s Cottage in Petworth. And I admire the rat-a-tat consistency of the place, even after the Carters sold it eight years ago to Barry Dindyal, owner of the late Indian-accented Fusion nearby. Dindyal retained the bulk of the original menu, incorporating some of the Carters’ recipes with ideas of his own. Veteran customers chomping into the fried whiting will recognize the crust seasoned with dried garlic and paprika, for instance, while the saucy beef ribs have been replaced by pork that gently falls off the bone.
A native of Guyana, the restaurateur grew up eating Indian food, memories of which are sprinkled throughout the list. If I don’t start dinner with three fat steamed shrimp draped with habanero-hot mango sauce, chances are, I’m easing in with a bountiful fried spinach salad that pays tribute to the palak chaat made famous by Rasika chef Vikram Sunderam. The twist at the Hitching Post is the inclusion of fried collards in the warm salad, dappled with sweet yogurt and tamarind chutney.
In a world where few things are stable, Hitching Post remains a stalwart. The place has its quirks, all diner-friendly. Lamb chops listed as a starter? Some folks appreciate a little meat at a fair price. The founders don’t just feel present, they are close. Al, 86, and wife Adrienne, 76, still own the building and live above the shop. Neither comes to the restaurant much — their health and the pandemic keep them upstairs — although Adrienne says that Dindyal has offered to bring them food anytime they ask. (She’s refrained from her beloved fried chicken, but has accepted masks and hand sanitizer.)
If the Hitching Post were a contest, then Kojo Nnamdi has me beat on the number of meals under his belt here. The WAMU radio personality says he has been frequenting the restaurant for 25 years and enjoys an average of four meals there every week. (Sure enough, I’ve tagged him on every recent visit, despite a masked face and his back to my table on the patio. “My voice gives me away,” says the melodious broadcaster.) Like me, Nnamdi champions the Indian-style spinach and fried whiting, which he’s inclined to chase back with 15-year-old El Dorado rum from his native Guyana. Like me, Nnamdi wasn’t sure what to make of the building on the corner of Upshur Street NW and Rock Creek Church Road when he first drove by. “I wasn’t sure if it was a house or a restaurant,” he says of the two-story structure with the wraparound porch. Al Carter tells me he didn’t put up a sign for a while, hoping to make the Hitching Post look more like a gathering place than a business. Job well done, sir.
When he was getting acquainted with the Hitching Post, Nnamdi says the bar was frequented by “two groups, mostly men.” One side found White visitors from the nearby Old Soldiers’ Home. The other side collected Black seniors from the neighborhood. As the night wore on and the drinks went down, the groups got to know each other and started mingling. Nnamdi laughs when he recalls the night he watched a Black patron escort a tipsy White customer back to the veteran’s residence at the Old Soldiers’ Home.
Today, few people walk up the stairs without acknowledging the assembly on the porch, where a neighborly vibe dominates. “Do you mind if I smoke my cigar?” a stranger seated nearby asked — not just me, but everyone seated outside. The reaction? No one minded. “Thank you for bothering to ask,” a woman said. “Most people don’t.” Little acts of kindness are infectious, in a good way.
Dindyal has refreshed the inside with orange booths and the exterior with flower boxes in the same shade. “Orange is my wife’s favorite color,” he explains. The important details, like the music, haven’t changed, however. The coin-operated jukebox has been replaced by one that’s connected to the Internet, but the songs by Anita Baker and Marvin Gaye are as tried and true as the counsel on a sign in the bar: “Eat, drink, relax, repeat.”
At this point, I think I’ve eaten my way through the menu several times. Observations: The fried pickles, all crunch and tang, benefit from the same nubby jacket as the fried chicken — a single spear is appetizer enough for me — and the thin-cut pork chops shored up with mashed potatoes channel a kinder, gentler era. I challenge you to find a better, cheaper crab cake than the gently spicy prize tucked into Dindyal’s $14 sandwich. Entrees come with a choice of two sides and you can’t go wrong with any of them. It’s a treat to see such a small kitchen bother making its own steak fries, dusted with paprika, and vegetarians will welcome collard greens that get their flavor not from pork but from onions and garlic. There’s no getting bored here, not when Dindyal throws into the mix jerk chicken, a frequent special whipped up on a grill parked outside, or jazzes up his dusky gold shrimp curry — coconut milk emboldened with ginger and turmeric — with clams, fish, maybe a lobster tail. Happy hours seem to be going the way of community seating. The Hitching Post powers on with deals on Monday starting at 4 p.m., when beers go for $4 and burgers, good ones, cost $6.
I’ve sworn off star ratings since March, figuring a pandemic is no time to hand out grades. Writing about a place these days is pretty much my endorsement of the business. But I’d be remiss if I failed to tell you that drinks sometimes show up ahead of water and dishes occasionally mosey on out from the kitchen. The Hitching Post feels like it could use an extra set of hands some nights. Then again, a lot of restaurants are short of staff these days and really, where’s the fire? Netflix and new puppy can wait. Your patience will every time be rewarded with careful cooking and a respite, however brief, from the state of the world.
“Leaving me so soon?” a server asks when we request dessert to go. Parting is such sweet sorrow, less so when you know there’s moist lemon cake, sunny with lemon zest in the frosting, in your future.
In the dark weeks after restaurants closed except for takeout and delivery, Dindyal considered shuttering. His low point was the day in March when the restaurant took in just $100. But his wife, Ana, pitched in to help out, business picked up and he’s now planning to put a roof over the porch and set out heaters for whenever the weather turns. People are still uncomfortable eating indoors, and rightly so. The Hitching Post needs the extra space, but not as much as some of us need the Hitching Post. As restaurants go, it’s my lifeline.
Leaving the Hitching Post makes me feel grateful. Sometimes it makes me wistful. Always it leaves me full, in every sense.
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Unrated during the pandemic
Hitching Post 200 Upshur St. NW. 202-726-1511. thehpostrestaurant.com. Open for takeout, indoor and outdoor dining 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Delivery via Uber Eats. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $18, main dishes $14 to $29. Accessibility: Exterior stairs discourage wheelchair users. Call ahead for curbside pickup.