The story of Barracks Row mainstay Banana Cafe begins in 1992 — with an artist.
Jorge Garcia-Meitin Zamorano was painting in his Capitol Hill apartment when he got the call. His friend, Jaime Vargas, had opened a restaurant nearby. "Come on by," Vargas said. "We’ll have a coffee."
Vargas invited Zamorano over to the Lone Star Cantina, a Tex-Mex restaurant situated at the corner of 8th and E Streets Southeast. The friends talked, and the place started to fill up. Seeing Vargas struggle to meet demand in the newly-established business, Zamorano offered to help. And Zamorano’s offer wasn’t exactly that of any random, well-meaning friend — the artist actually had a long history in the restaurant business.
Born in Cuba, Zamorano’s family moved to Puerto Rico when he was just a year old. He grew up there, watching his grandmother rule the kitchen and helping his grandfather make afternoon mojitos with fresh mint from their garden. Later, while a student of marketing and finance in New Orleans, the young Zamorano landed a job at the landmark Commander’s Palace. "I needed money," he says. At Commander’s Palace Zamorano worked his way from a food runner on up — experiencing all parts of a fast-paced, exciting business. He couldn’t get enough.
He did burn out on New Orleans, though, and moved abruptly to D.C. in 1986. Here, Zamorano continued his work in restaurants — he was the food and beverage director of the Henley Park Hotel until the day he decided to quit, paint and travel. But Lone Star Cantina beckoned him back in. He started helping out more frequently until, sometime in 1993, Vargas announced he was going to shutter the restaurant. Business was slow — Barracks Row wasn’t considered a very "nice" neighborhood at the time.
But Zamorano had taken a liking to the spot. So he bought the restaurant in two installments, and set about making it his own. Banana Cafe was born. "People were like, ‘Are you crazy?’" he says. "But, you know, I was young."
Zamorano remembers the practicalities of dealing with a downtrodden neighborhood well. "Every morning I was pushing all the drunks and cleaning the liquor bottles out of the way," he recalls. He remembers having to offer to walk patrons to their cars at the end of the night in order to entice them to Southeast.
But Zamorano worked hard to make Banana Cafe a place worth the trip. He hung his artwork on the walls, and invited his artist friends to do the same. He established a piano bar upstairs, with music seven nights a week. He hired an 18 year old line cook as head chef — a man who is still cooking at Banana Cafe today — and got the kitchen cooking his grandmother’s recipes. "Having the Cuban and Puerto Rican food was pretty unique," he says. Today’s cocktail menu features the very mojito he helped his grandfather prepare all those years ago.
Slowly, the restaurant picked up regulars. And slowly, the neighborhood began to change as well.
Now, Banana Cafe stands out more for its old school charm than its pioneering ways. The multi-colored walls harken back to a more vibrant time in restaurant design and the menu doesn’t change much because the regulars have grown attached to their regular orders. "When people come here they know what they want already," Zamorano says. "If we touch anything on the menu people freak out."
That means dishes like Cuban sandwiches and ropa vieja are here to stay. The plantain-focused mofongo is a particular favorite with customers seeking comfort food. There are nightly dinner specials, and the still-operating piano bar has its own roster of deals, appetizers, drinks, and theme nights, from live piano acts to karaoke nights.
Zamorano says it’s a challenge to keep up with the changing restaurant industry, with social media demands and the increasing number of options for customers. "I miss the old times," he said, "but that’s because I’m getting old." In general, though, Zamorano knows the restaurant is lucky to have a steady roster of regulars, people he considers "like family."
Zamorano himself is hands-on, and works six days a week at Banana Cafe. And yes, this means less time for some of those things he’d really love to do, like paint. But restaurants are still in his blood. "It’s never boring," he said. "Every day that I get up I’m excited about coming to work. It has been a fun ride."