A year after introducing gourmet sausages served in vintage lunchboxes and candy-covered milkshakes to Shaw diners, financial analyst turned Halfsmoke founder Andre McCain is giving all-day weekend brunch a go with burger-laden cocktails and over-the-top meals.
The self-styled restaurant, which celebrated its first anniversary earlier this fall, continues to advocate against adulthood. “Don’t grow up, it’s a trap,” remains prominently displayed inside the retro eatery. And that same spirit has carried forward in the new menu offerings, which are scheduled to debut Friday, November 24.
Eater caught up with McCain to find out what he’s learned from his first year as a restaurateur. Part of that growth involves branching out into breakfast fare. Expect ‘grammable dishes such as Butterfinger-crusted banana pancakes; a twist on chicken and waffles featuring sugar-dusted tenders and red velvet funnel cake; and a truly bonkers $20 bloody mary that’s a meal in itself: it’s topped with sweet potato tots, French fries, mac ‘n cheese bites, corn dogs, sliders, and grilled chicken wings with celery. The brunch items will be served from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday; the regular menu will also be available.
The restaurant plans to reward those who order one of the new brunch selection this Friday with free bottomless mimosas.
Read on to learn how McCain created the brunch of his childhood dreams, and what else the neighborhood restaurant has planned for year two.
What surprised you during the first year?
Andre McCain: It's been very surprising to see the diversity of demographics that are attracted to the restaurant. We've gotten just as much business from non-millennials as we have from millennials.
What did consulting chef Bob Kinkead bring to the table when you opened?
AM: Bob, who has been around Washington for a long time but he’s also a James Beard award-winning chef, helped to really bring both a local Washington flavor profile to the menu but also an international flavor profile as well. He put together combinations of things that I would never have thought would go together. Like olive tapenade on a sausage.
What’s the top seller, and what’s your personal favorite?
AM: It's still the half-smoke, the Briggs & Co. I think that most people when they come find that to be the safe option. Usually the second time, they'll get something else.
Our salad is my favorite, the Bahn Mi mixed greens with red curry, ginger mayo, and basil. It’s a Thai chicken sausage. That was a Bob Kinkead creation.
Have people been more attracted to the sugary treats — like the crazy shakes, funnel cakes — or the regional favorites, like Phillips crab cakes, wings with mumbo sauce, or a traditional half-smoke sausage?
AM: It depends on the season. The good thing about having been open a year, you start to understand how seasonality impacts not only what you should offer on the menu, but what customers react to. In the warmer months, they're more interested in the milkshakes and funnel cakes. Then in the cooler months, it was definitely a lot more savory products.
What’s the toughest lesson you’ve learned about operating a new restaurant?
AM: You’ve got a lot of restaurants in the city, which has helped to turn Washington into a top-tier dining city, but it certainly puts a strain on the labor force. Really what we’ve done is tried to emphasize our culture, starting first with the employees and revolving around this notion of "Don’t grow up, it’s a trap.'“ This idea of fun and happiness.
What’s new for Year 2?
AM: Our all-day brunch menu is designed to break the rules of how diners are sort of forced to consume food and when they can consume food but also reconnect back to how we thought about eating food and enjoying food as kids.
A lot of the menu items are designed to evoke that sense of fun and nostalgia and freedom and flexibility that makes you decide, "Hey, I can have a grilled cheese, or a chicken and waffles, or a pancake regardless of what time it is."
Tell me about this $20 bloody mary
AM: It's a combination of a bloody mary and a meal. On top of it, you've got sweet potato tots, corn dogs, chicken wings, a slider — all these things that give you the opportunity to try a lot of different items from the menu without having to make a commitment to one or the other.
What’s the deal with the brunch menu item names (like T-G-I-F Cinnamon Toast Crunch French Toast)?
AM: The names are things that when you read them, for most millennials especially, should connect you back to the happiest memories of your childhood. Like TGIF; I remember being glued to the TV on Fridays from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on all those shows.
Do you feel like the restaurant is pretty Instagram friendly, going along with the millennial theme?
AM: You've gotta take into account, “How will this be perceived on Instagram?” Most of our audience spends a portion of their day consuming content on Instagram. If you want to reach them and connect with them, then you've gotta create food that is appealing for Instagram. That certainly is a new way to think about menu design that wasn't always the case in terms of restaurants.
Anything else happening in year 2?
AM: We have a 60-foot patio that really works well as a second type of concept, so we're looking at some things on that end. We've gotten a lot of requests for catering, which wasn't necessarily part of the business plan, whether it’s birthdays or team celebrations or office lunches on a Friday. We're going to be rolling out a major catering program.
This interview has been edited and condensed.