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Inside America Eats Tavern, Opening On The Fourth Of July

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[R. Lopez, 6/30]

America Eats Tavern, the American food history-themed pop-up from chef José Andrés, opens over this Fourth of July weekend. Over the past two-and-a-half weeks, the chef and his team have transformed Penn Quarter's Café Atlantico space into this patriotic tribute companion restaurant to the National Archives' "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" exhibit. They've also built up a brand new menu that explores American history and serves up the classics in an elevated, Andrés way.

Of the restaurant's three levels, the main floor of America Eats Tavern is the most strikingly different from how things used to look at Café Atlantico. The first thing you see upon stepping into the main entrance is a chandelier of wood window frames — some filled with Rockwellesque black-and-white photographs — cascading down the open stairwell from the third-floor. SEED, the design firm that handled Andrés' China Poblano in Las Vegas, designed this centerpiece as well as the whole redesign of the space.

As you might expect, the new color scheme at America Eats is mostly white, with pops of red and blue in the ceiling slats and the artwork, which includes a modern art rendition of the American flag. The design team took out the old tables and chairs on the main level, replacing them with simple, neutral high-tops, stools and banquettes. Wooden cupboards display cookbooks, artifacts and Americana kitsch from the National Archives. The second and third floors, meanwhile, have held over the white tablecloths of Café Atlantico. And, not to worry — the six-seat Minibar returns unscathed after the construction hiatus.

And the menu. First up, at the bar, Owen Thomson still reigns as lead bartender at America Eats, but with a brand new cocktail menu that incorporates the mixologist's own twists on American classic drinks from the mint julep and the rickey to the Jack Rose and the martini. Thomson also added a few historical punches to the list, including Franklin's Milk Punch, a milk-and-citrus punch beloved by Founding Father Ben Franklin. (Yes, Thomson strains the curdling that occurs when you mix milk and citrus — and in a more technologically advanced way than Franklin did.)

Andrés and his team are still perfecting the menu, but the chef explains that the idea is to ask how American food evolved, bringing it back to its origins but in an elevated fashion. The dishes all come from early recipes found in the Archives and books like Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking and the White House Cookbook. And some recipes were even taken from fiction: America Eats Tavern was inspired by the Works Progress Administration's writer's project, which produced works like The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck, Andrés says, had a love for American cooking, as did Mark Twain.

The menu at America Eats provides a little history lesson with each dish — literally listing early historical references to the dishes. There's everything from a stew that President Eisenhower loved all the way to the gazpacho that the Clintons enjoyed in the White House. A shrimp in grapefruit cocktail from Rombauer's book replaces the traditional cocktail sauce, and the menu holds a host of oyster selections — including a pickled variety made popular in the 1700s when there was no refrigeration. A pickled white watermelon rind comes from Amelia Simmons' 1796 book, while pawpaw fruit has an early reference in an 1829 peace treaty — though Andrés says he first learned of the fruit trees from his daughter.

In a prime example of the elevation of classic foods, an 1847-era spoonbread is served with oyster ice cream and caviar. Andrés also seeks to replace blinis-and-caviar with hush puppies — served with American sturgeon caviar and corn butter. And though the chef says he never liked the idea of butter on seafood, his rendition of a clambake comes served atop a bed of seaweed with a dollop of butter foam, explaining that "Certain traditions you cannot fight with, but certain traditions you can improve upon."

Finally, there are the ketchups. Mary Randolph, author of the 1824 book The Virginia House-Wife, inspired a list of ketchups on this menu that go far beyond the typical tomato variety (though that's here, too). The ketchup rundown? Oyster, anchovy, mushroom, blackberry, gooseberry and tomato — the latter which Andrés notes early Americans thought was poisonous.

America Eats Tavern is already "significantly booked" for its debut week, according to a rep, but the restaurant aims to accommodate walk-ins as best they can. The ground floor will remain open all day starting at 11:30 a.m. daily and closing at 11 p.m. (Sunday-Thursday) or midnight (Friday-Saturday), serving more of the laidback classics like chicken pot pie, lobster rolls and more. The upstairs fine dining levels will be open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. Corporate sponsorship means that America Eats Tavern will donate all its proceeds to the National Archives when the pop-up wraps up in six months. Reservations can be made by calling 202-393-0812. Get in there, people of America.

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America Eats Tavern

1700 Tysons Blvd, McLean, VA 22102