The eastern edge of H Street NE just got a little hotter with the January arrival of Lydia on H, a lively destination for spicy jerk chicken, juicy rum cake, and well-made daiquiris.
Its Malawian chef/owner Victor Chizinga, formerly behind the menu at U Street NW’s now-closed Bin 1301, makes use of the two-level space that formerly housed Halftime Sports Bar (1427 H Street NE). Lydia opened in early January with service across the first floor, where a bamboo-lined bar makes riffs on rum punch to go along with fragrant Afro-Caribbean fare parading out of an open kitchen.
A grand opening party is scheduled for Friday, February 4, starting at 5 p.m., with bottle service options still available.
Chizinga’s breakout project pays homage to his late mom, Lydia, who inspired him to cook at an early age while growing up in Africa’s southeastern country of Malawi. Some of her recipes live on at Lydia, like a curry chicken dish with potatoes, carrots, cabbage and rice.
“I want to introduce people to Malawi — it’s a small country and I want to put it on the map,” he tells Eater.
Malawi is known for its masamba — a compilation of kale, spinach, collards, peanut powder, onions, and tomatoes. Another veggie side that shines is made-to-order heaps of cabbage that regularly sells out. Its key ingredient is curry, but he declines to disclose much more.
“People love it,” he says.
Chizinga’s cherished vacations in the Caribbean, namely Jamaica, also inspire a menu filled with jerk chicken wings and sandwiches and salmon fritters. Mains include four-hour braised oxtail with jollof rice; grilled or fried whole snapper; and spicy alfredo penne pasta with sweet peppers and salmon. West African street foods like beef or chicken suya skewers are also in the mix. Hookah service and rotating DJs on the first floor also add to the laid-back atmosphere.
“We are not uptight. Whether you come in with a suit or sweats you’re treated like the same person — the food is just like that,” he says.
Last weekend, its second-floor lounge debuted for sit-down dinner and brunch service with a stage that hosts live jazz and entertainment. In mid-March, an adjacent upstairs speakeasy hidden behind a wall of books will open with classic cocktails made with Black-owned spirits.
Lydia represents a culmination of Chizinga’s 15-year hospitality career in D.C. The bartending vet also attended culinary school and started One Route Catering to service D.C. clubs and distilleries without kitchens.
“I’m bringing my whole experience of life and of work into one space,” he says.
A leisurely Sunday brunch on island time (1 p.m. to 6 p.m.) caters to industry schedules he experienced firsthand.
“When I bartended until 4 a.m., I wasn’t getting up at noon for brunch. I’ve always wanted a late brunch,” he says.
Chizinga says the H Street location is “just the start,” and he plans to open multiple Lydia locations in D.C. and beyond.
“A Lydia on the Wharf, a Lydia on U, and even Kansas City, where my wife [co-owner Erin Davis] is from,” he says.
Lydia on H is the latest exciting addition to the end of the Northeast corridor. Daru, Indian restaurant and cocktail bar and Eater DC’s 2021 Debut of the Year, opened around the corner last summer.
The party at Lydia will really get started in the spring, when a fenced patio out back comes to life. He’s calling it Lake Malawi Beach. A cement floor will be covered in sand, faux grass, and colorful chairs, looking up at a mural depicting a boardwalk and sunset. The alfresco setup plans to serve frozen cocktails and host taco Tuesdays.
Lydia’s current cocktail list includes the “Warm Heart of Africa,” made with the world’s first Afro-Caribbean rum blend (Equiano), coconut, grenadine, mango, guava and pineapple juice. It’s “about as laid back as it gets,” per its menu description. The first floor bar also offers regular mixology classes.
The upstairs speakeasy will exclusively serve Black-owned spirits, beers, and wines and provide lockers for members to store their own. The six-month membership model is $200 per person, he says.
The secluded bar will be outfitted with couches, billowing black curtains, dimly-lit chandeliers, and glossy Malawian artwork on the floor. One bartender at a time will stir classics like OId Fashioneds and Manhattans and customize drinks tableside with beet or apple syrups and bitters.