On September 24, D.C. will welcome the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, where visitors can find exhibits featuring Harriet Tubman's lace shawl, Chuck Berry’s Cadillac—and a expansive restaurant meant for communal feasting.
Manning the 400-seat Sweet Home Cafe is chef Jerome Grant, who is no stranger to cooking for crowds (he hails from the National Museum for the American Indian, which has its own ambitious restaurant, Mitsitam Cafe). Meanwhile, celebrity chef and television host Carla Hall has already been on board for years in a consulting capacity as the "culinary ambassador" for the project.
"We are looking forward to telling the story of African American culture through food," he said during a media preview event on Wednesday.
Take the Thomas Downing-inspired New York City oyster pan roast, named after a free African-American man who operated a renowned oyster cellar that doubled as an Underground Railroad stop in the 1800s.
When Hall was first picked to be involved in the museum's restaurant component, she says her worlds collided. "I’m a resident of D.C., I’m African American, and I’m in food," she told Eater. Now she is "drawn to tears" seeing the cafe finally come to fruition.
Hall's also a fan of the last-minute name change from North Star to Sweet Home Cafe (due to similarities to an Ohio cafe), switching from a "destination" name to one that conjures images of a "comforting, gathering place," she said. "It’s a place to decompress. After you see the museum you want to talk about what you experienced," she said.
Some dishes will be designed for sharing, like the $28.50 "Gospel Bird" family platter that includes buttermilk fried chicken, mac and cheese, collards, and buttermilk biscuits. When visitors cash out, they can take a seat at long tables in a cavernous living wall-lined space.
Buffet bars are named after geographic regions that inspired the dishes they serve. "The Creole Coast" has candied yams and gumbo with duck and crawfish, slow cooked with Andouille spices atop Carolina rice. "The Western Range" has pan-roasted rainbow trout. Find brunswick stew at "The Agricultural South" section, while "The North States" serves baked beans. The regional breakdown mirrors the offerings at the American Indian museum's Mitsitam Cafe. Also expect beer from D.C.'s Atlas Brew Works, and ingredients from sustainable sources and African-American farmers. Many dishes are vegetable-centric, much like soul food tends to be. Hall notes her own newly-opened Southern Kitchen in Brooklyn is also very vegetarian-friendly, with all-vegetable sides.
While diners won’t find Hall's famous Nashville-style hot chicken at the museum (none of the dishes served are her recipes), Hall does have some favorites, including the Gulf Shrimp and stoneground grits. She’s also a fan of the "smoking hot" Caribbean Style Pepper Pot because of chef Grant’s close connection to the meal. "It means so much to him because of his roots. It’s like getting to know him through his dish," she said.
Grant will travel to Jamaica with its embassy next year, so expect him to import some ideas he gets there to the cafe. Also on his radar: making take-home meals for the holidays.
Some numbers: Entrees will be priced from $8 to $18; the cafe has a staff of 35; the lengthy kitchen spans an eighth of a mile; at peak season 2,500 to 3,000 meals will be made per day; and the menu will rotate four times a year. As for the 400,000-square-foot museum itself, it's been 13 years in the making; there are 3,000 artifacts in 12 inaugural exhibits.