In 2009, Andy Shallal hosted a "Top Chef"-like contest to hire a person to lead the kitchen at Eatonville, a planned Southern-themed restaurant named for the hometown of writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston.
The contest didn't pan out as Shallal expected. The winning chef was fired before he ever cooked a single dish at Eatonville. The whole convoluted affair was laid bare in a cover story for Washington City Paper back when I worked there. Nonetheless, the restaurant survived, sometimes even thrived, despite the shaky launch.
Fast forward more than six years: Eatonville, a pioneer on 14th Street NW, has been overshadowed by flashier newcomers to the restaurant row. Shallal hopes to correct that with the help of celebrity chef, author and "The Chew" co-host Carla Hall, who served as a judge during that original contest in 2009. This time around, Hall and Shallal will conduct tastings with five finalists on Jan. 22 to determine who will be the executive chef of . . .
Mule Bone, the concept that will replace Eatonville at the corner of 14th and V streets. Eatonville's last day of service will be Sunday, Jan. 17; Shallal expects to reopen as Mule Bone in mid-February.
Hall, who recently developed the Southern-leaning Page at Reagan National, is "not going to be the chef" at Mule Bone, Shallal said during a phone conversation. "We're going to give the first stab at the menu to the [new] chef. . . The reality is Carla is not going to be here all the time, so the chef has to own it."
Mule Bone, named after a three-act play written by Hurston and Langston Hughes (the inspiration for Shallal's Busboys and Poets chain), will remain a Southern-minded restaurant, but one that the owner hopes will not rely as much on the deep fryer.
"We want to turn it into something more accessible," Shallal says. "Accessible food that is lighter in nature, healthier."
Hall will not be a financial partner in Mule Bone, Shallal says. "Not yet," he adds. She will help select the chef and provide "tweaks" to the final menu, but not create original ideas for it. Shallal also hopes that Hall — clearly the marquee name tied to the new concept — will "use Mule Bone as a playground for herself."
Carla is "someone I've always admired. I love her spirit, and I love her approach to food. She has a love affair with food and how it impacts people," Shallal says. "We have that in common. I see food as a vehicle for collaborations and to bring people together.”
One reason why Shallal feels Eatonville became played out on 14th Street is because of its bar program. Or lack of a robust one. Shallal expects to hire a mixologist to oversee an expanded bar program.
"We want to do a very solid happy hour," he says.