A group of alums from acclaimed D.C. establishments like Spoken English and Barmini will join forces this fall at Bronze, a groundbreaking restaurant for H Street NE that aims to reimagine the history of the African diaspora through the lens of a fictional character named Alonzo Bronze.
Owner Keem Hughley, a 15-year hospitality vet and native Washingtonian, will plant the new project inside the former three-story home of Smith Commons. The 5,300-square-foot space will get a complete gut refresh and resurface as 150-seat Bronze in September (1245 H Street NE).
A 26-foot bar on the first floor will offer a large cocktail menu with spirits from all over the world. A newly enclosed back patio filled with leafy accents will sit on the second and third floors. A staircase wrapped in a cowrie shell pattern leads guests to a second-level dining area that swings “more traditional,” he says. “Not white tablecloth but a step right below.” Hughley personally tapped Barmini alum and Hanumanh mixologist Al Thompson to spearhead the bar program out of the restaurant’s top-level floor, which they’re calling the “Crane Room.”
“Al is one of the best bartenders in the city,” says Hughley, who’s a partner and director of sales at nearby Cambodian cafe and retail store Maketto.
Hughley started working with Foreign National founder Erik Bruner-Yang in 2016 as the head of events at The Line (Brothers and Sisters, Spoken English) and ABC Pony, which all closed during the pandemic. Bruner-Yang is a minority partner at Bronze.
American jazz composers John Coltrane and Sun Ra inspire the restaurant’s plans for a rum-heavy cocktail list with names like “The Night has a Thousand Eyes” and “Third Planet.” Wine will be sourced from North Africa, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and the Americas, says Hughley. Bronze also plans to highlight Black winemakers in the U.S. like André Mack, a nationally-recognized sommelier and budding Brooklyn restaurateur.
The menu is still very much in a conceptualization phase, with dish details revealed closer to opening. Brooklyn native and acclaimed Afro-Caribbean chef Toya Henry was brought on board to write the “food language,” says Hughley, and his team is searching for a D.C.-based chef de cuisine.
After working closely under Bruner-Yang at Maketto and Spoken English, she moved on to Brooklyn’s Michelin-rated Oxalis and refined her techniques during a two-year culinary tour around the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. She started supper club Pimento in 2018 out of her Brooklyn brownstone, cooking and hosting events for reps from James Beard Foundation and contemporary museum MoMA PS1.
Bronze embraces the “Afrofuturism” cultural movement, which uses a frame of fantasy to invoke a technologically advanced and hopeful future for the Black community. The movement and its aesthetics have been expressed across everything from food to art to fashion.
“The space is a vessel to create the legacy story of Alonzo Bronze from scratch, imagined as the future of a world-class hospitality experience,” he tells Eater.
Hughley, who completed Harvard Business School’s Disruptive Strategy course last year, says Bronze’s globalized menu is a representation of its made-up namesake’s conceptual story and his travels:
“Alonzo Bronze was born in Africa in the 1300s, and he is known as the traveler. For over 900 years, he has traded spices, ingredients, and cooking techniques on behalf of his motherland and its diasporic colonies. His voyages allow the people of the colonies to have access to the best resources known to the world.”
“Typical stories of people from the diaspora haven’t had an opportunity to have the compounding success over hundreds of years, like a Christian Dior, Tiffany’s, or these other legacy brands. We want to create a new brand from a legacy of a person,” he says.
Hughley’s mother is from St. Croix and his father is from the South, but his “collective DNA” is from Nigeria, he says.
“For us, the story of Alonzo Bronze is creating that bridge back to the motherland,” he says.
Bronze’s three distinct dining experiences on each level loosely draw from Hughley’s time at The Line, he says, between the mixed-flow floor plan, multiple touch points, and globe-trotting menus with a progressive bent and overarching purpose. Brothers and Sisters served American classics from Taiwanese and Japanese points of view, while Spoken English was a standing room-only space modeled after Japanese tachinomiyas. A Rake’s Progress up top went all in on all-local spirits.
Bronze is the third Black-owned restaurant to occupy the space. Howard alums Jerome Bailey and Miles Gray opened Smith Commons in 2009, flipping an old carpet warehouse into a cozy, brick-lined venue for cocktails, sliders, and wings. Chef Sammy Davis’s soul food chain Milk & Honey took over in early 2020 but closed during the depths of the pandemic.
Bronze’s Black-owned architecture group Drummond Projects is behind an array of modern and minimalist multi-family, mixed-use, commercial, and public art installation projects around D.C. and NYC. Bronze will integrate lots of sustainable elements not yet commonly used in the hospitality industry, says Hughley.
“Afrofuturism allows us to get in touch with our imagination and to create the story of Alonzo Bronze, shattering the limited notion of Black identity, create our own norm and tell the world to catch up to what it is,” he says.