Many restaurants will say they're one, big happy family, but do they have the photo album to prove it? John Fulchino does. He co-owned Cashion's Eat Place for 12 years with Ann Cashion, the restaurant's namesake and James Beard award-winning chef.
As Fulchino flips through the album, he retells Cashion's history— now 20 years long. There's a blurry photo of Ann at work in the kitchen from opening night. The next page is a photo from prison. As Fulchino tells it, the pair had a "brilliant" and business-savvy friend with somewhat of a past. But that didn't matter because the friend helped them write a business plan from jail.
Really, this photo album contains much more than just memories. It's a collection of stories that brings D.C.'s dining identity into focus. Pictured are the chefs, managers, farmers and food purveyors who helped elevate the city's food and restaurants during the last 20 years.
Cashion, herself, says she's guided by a style of cooking that is inspired by the region. To her, the original 1995 menu still represents Mid-Atlantic food at its finest. For those who would like a taste of nostalgia, be sure to visit the restaurant during the last week of May. Cashion's will serve dishes from the first menu to mark the milestone anniversary. These include organic oven-roasted chicken, veal sweetbreads and wild mushroom ragout served over polenta.
The week also includes a special homecoming. After nine years, Cashion will return to the kitchen and cook a three-course dinner (tickets available here). She will be working alongside the restaurant's current owners, chef John Manolatos and Justin Abad. Both were hired by Cashion and Fulchino and eventually took over the restaurant in 2007. Under their management, the restaurant name and concept have stayed largely the same, but they've tweaked the menu. In a few weeks, they'll also give the space a new facelift.
Eater sat down with the full legacy of owners: Ann Cashion and John Fulchino (the past) and Justin Abad and John Manolatos (the present) to learn about the dynamic forces at play in this restaurant — tradition and change.
What was it like when the doors first opened?
Ann Cashion: Well, I remember the party. The party was for family and friends, and that was just one of the nicest evenings ever. It was very emotional. Everybody who came through the door was so excited for us. I have to say we were well-received. But we had to develop a clientele, and then of course, internally we had to get the staff and get them up-to-speed. That was a little challenging because we lost a lot of the early staff, but John [Manolatos] was there from day one.
So what was your job at that point?
John Manoloatos: Pretty much whatever was needed. It was what everybody else didn't want to do, and there was a lot to do. We didn't work off recipes per se, so there was a lot of instruction. Verbal, quick instruction. The other cooks here were experienced, and I was trying to learn, so it was a bit confusing at first.
John Fulchino: I was actually painting a wall in the far corner when John walked in the front door and asked me for a job. He asked me if the chef was in. He actually thought that I was a laborer... and I kind of was [laughter].
JM: Yeah, I had no idea who he was. I was actually working up the street at a delicatessen, and I heard about the restaurant. At that point, Ann — to me — was just some lady. But, working under Ann taught me so much. It was her method. I was working with the whole animals and learning how to cut and prepare it. You had to be willing to adapt because this was not a stagnant menu.
What was your driving motivation with the menu?
AC: It was the restaurants that I had come to love from France and Italy. The food was specific to place, and so the ingredient pool was part of the scenery and culture. There was a lot of respect for traditional dishes, and you would find the same dishes in many of the restaurants because that's the way people loved to eat. It was an allegiance to cuisine there that I loved. My idea was to create a restaurant that would feel like that but be reflective of this area... From the beginning we were trying very hard to figure out who we could buy from in the region.
JF: Go to the Dupont Circle farmers market and mention Ann's name, and people will start bowing down. People really know her, and she was one of the early people to adopt what you would call farm-to-table.
AC: But, I couldn't have done this without my people from the beginning. So many cooks came out of this kitchen. John is a notable and still here. There was Gillian Clark [previously Colorado Kitchen and The General Store], Katsuya Fuksushima [Daikaya], Brad Walker [Boundary Road], Sam Adkins [Sally's Middle Name].
How did Cashion's start in the first place?
JF: We were doing a lot before we opened this restaurant. Ann and I helped to open the first Austin Grill in 1988, then in 1991 we opened the second Austin Grill in Alexandria. We then went on to open Jaleo and hire José [Andrés]. We then bought Cafe Atlantico which was originally here, and we opened Cashion's in 1995. So, this space was a Dominican nightclub and it was hot, hot... I remember putting up the menu box during construction and a man walked by and asked: "You going to have dancing?" and I said "No, no, just full on good food." I remember he said, "You're never going to make it!"
Q: Talk about the biggest changes you've seen since Cashion's first opened 20 years ago.
JF: The biggest difference is that on 18th Street there were a lot of good restaurants. I would say, now Adams Morgan is much more a bar and nightclub scene. But, this was a place to come get really good ethnic food. And, we were a bit off the beaten path because it was what we wanted to curate food-wise.
Q: How did the change in ownership come about? Was it something you played a role in even after you handed over the keys to John and Justin?
AC: There was no sort of transitional role for us. We were focused on Johnny's Half Shell. There wasn't any need for us to stay in it. John and Justin were ready. Now, I don't think I was quite psychologically ready to sell, or put Cashion's on the market, but I knew it was in the right hands. I remember saying to myself, "Now is the time." And, you know, we obviously trusted them. The name on the front still reads "Cashion's." This was a very unique situation.
Justin Abad: And, you know, this is one of the most vivid memories that I have. It was us closing the deal. That was our day one. It was a Wednesday. It was July 11th , and we were sitting at the table in the front window. The four of us and our banker were there. So the five of us sitting up there, and we were telling stories, and I mean just laughing and crying. And, then we get up from the table and the banker reminds us that we still have to sign the papers officially. I remember looking at John, and being like "Are you kidding me? We just did this?" Then, we held a menu meeting at 5 p.m. and our doors opened at 5:30 p.m. for dinner service. It was practically seamless. Because remember, I was still the manager here... meanwhile though, we talked about this for a while, and the transfer was based off conversations a year in the making, so we had time to prepare for it too.
Q: Talk about the challenges that you guys faced after the business transferred in 2007.
JM: This city was changing when we took over. There was a lot more competition with the restaurant industry. Then, 2008 happened. The market fell apart. People started tightening up their wallets. It got really tough for us here. We also saw a trend in the way people were eating and dining out.
About a year ago, we went with a more casual eating environment. The menu changed from a traditional appetizer and entree variety to small shared plates. You know, before, we were proud to give people two and half hours to sit and eat and enjoy themselves. But, that no longer is the case. There's been a mindset shift in the way people dine out.
JA: The way that people dine has certainly changed. From my perspective as a manager in the dining room, it took us a little longer to recognize that change than most.
AC: I also reject that change fully by the way.
JA: [laughter] Listen, the way we learned about what a good restaurant should be was from Ann and Johnny. They taught us that a restaurant needs to be based on a culture of hospitality. It's about the guests having an experience with the people around the table. That, in my opinion, has dropped out of fashion. It's not as important, and it's not a high value for a lot of operators today.
JF: You know, I think dining in America is at a critical point. I question where it's headed. It seems to be much more about entertainment than the food experience. And, for someone who cooks traditionally and with restraint — I ask, "Is that going to get lost now?" Trends in this city seem to be exploited. Everyone wants to try the latest and greatest thing, but is that where the focus should be? It's a quandary that we are in right now. I don't think D.C. is a real food town, like New Orleans, and I think this is a city susceptible to trends. There are a lot of trendy, mediocre restaurants that we are dealing with right now.
JA: That being said, I think D.C. is striving to be a food town. I also think D.C. is becoming slightly less transient. It's starting to get roots, and the culture is evolving.
Q: Ann, what will you be doing in the kitchen later this month? Will you be cooking up nostalgia at Cashion's?
AC: Yes, there's definitely nostalgia here. We actually looked at some of the original menus, not to replicate each course, but to draw inspiration. We definitely are trying to make a connection to the past. John will be doing what he does now. I see my role as being the ghost of Cashion's past. You know, there will be people at this dinner that ate here in the early days. And, food memories are very powerful. I want them to run into that experience again on the plate. So yeah, it's going to be really fun. I am so looking forward to it.
Q: There are changes going on here, including with the space, right? What does the future look like for Cashion's?
JM: First off, when Ann is in the kitchen, you know it's going to be a blast. And, as far as the food, a lot of what Ann does is already ingrained into me. It's what I've always done. The whole time I've worked here, there have been things on the menu that are iterations of the original.
And, there are larger changes ahead. It's going to be exhausting. We never had the chance to physically build something. I built a repertoire of food, but the house that you live in, we didn't really build this. We want to make a nice splash of change.
JA: Yup, we are redoing the entire bar. The bar top as well as the bar back. In the main dining room, we will tear down the main wall and reveal the exposed brick. Integrate the pictures and the portraits that are here, and have a muralist put a representative piece that encapsulates John's philosophy on food and cooking. We'll be replacing chairs and tables. Redoing the bathrooms. It's a little bit of a facelift. But we're still going for that funky elegance look. What won't change is the sign outside. That isn't going anywhere.
Q: Finally, Cashion's will be turning 21 next year. What will be the restaurant's first, legal drink?
JM: I would say it would be a Montenegro. Because before this whole trend of Amaro bars, I was drinking the stuff. And, throwing it up mind you, in this restaurant's bathroom once.
JA: Mine would be a throwback to something that inspired me about wine: Domaine Tempier, Bandol, Rosé. I would have a glass of that in celebration. I didn't understand the wine then, and I'm growing to understand it now. And, that's how I feel about this restaurant too.
JF: For me I'm just an old-fashioned dude, I would just fix a nice margarita. Fresh squeezed margarita with salt is where a 21-year-old should start.
AC: For me, it's wine too. Because I think wine has been part of this whole adventure. And, I believe if it were my choice, I would be drinking one of Laurence Faller's from Domaine Weinbach. Her wine is just wonderful.