After more than six years on 14th Street NW, restaurateur Andy Shallal knew his Southern restaurant Eatonville needed a update. In that time, the corridor had changed dramatically with dozens of new bars and restaurants. Shallal felt a menu shakeup wasn't enough, so he closed Eatonville and will reopen the place on Friday as Mulebone, a Southern-American restaurant with more emphasis on the bar scene.
"It's hard for people to change habits, and in order for people to understand that we're really moving in a more modern direction and a direction that I think is more appealing to more people, we wanted to make it a bigger splash," explains Shallal, who also owns Busboys and Poets.
As he did when he first opened Eatonville, Shallal hosted a competition to find a chef for Mulebone. The original contest, documented in a 2009 City Paper cover story, was a bit of a fiasco with the winner never ultimately taking over the kitchen. Shallal still thinks a competition is a great idea for attracting people to the job and building excitement, but he admits it wasn't done well the first time around. "We were looking for the quality of the food as opposed to looking at the entire package," Shallal says. "A chef is not just someone who cooks, but it's someone that manages a group of people."
This time, Shallal says he and his panel of judges took into account the full package, and the competition was also much less of a public spectacle.
The winner was D.C. native Joseph Paire, who previously worked at Todd Gray's Watershed and Farmers Fishers and Bakers. Paire says he won the judges over with Texas shrimp with sweet potato biscuit and tasso ham gravy. The dish will make its way on the menu, along with other small plates like hot catfish tenders with buttermilk dressing and pickled shallots plus deep fried chicken skins topped with honey mustard, hot sauce, blue cheese, and celery. Entrees include a bacon-wrapped pork loin, buttermilk fried chicken, and a vegetarian quinoa and farro risotto made with cashew "cheese."
Whereas Eatonville was a straight-up Southern restaurant, Paire distinguishes Mulebone as an American restaurant with Southern influences. Paire also describes the new place as more social, with more shareable plates and also the addition of more communal tables. The restaurant will be open only for dinner to start, with lunch coming in about two weeks and brunch to follow.
The bar is also more central to the restaurant with additional high-top seating and more emphasis on cocktails, including a selection of punches. "Our bar had been really kind of a second thought," he says of Eatonville. "We wanted to make sure we up the game on our mixology program."
Shallal has also teamed up with Desirée Venn Frederic, the founder and curator of the Nomad Yard Collectiv, to integrate some retail into the dining room. Venn Frederic collects vintage and locally made clothing, furniture, and art and plans to set up "lifestyle vignettes" around the dining room with goods that diners can buy.
Still, some elements of decor, like the mural below, remain. And there's a common thread in the restaurants' names. Eatonville was the city where author Zora Neale Hurston grew up, and Mulebone gets its name from a play by Hurston and Langston Hughes, who served as the inspiration for Busboys and Poets.
Mulebone, 2121 14th St. NW; (202) 332-6432; mulebonedc.com
Photos by Jessica Sidman