Hurston’s hushpuppies

Nightlife on U Street has always been steeped in history — think Ben’s Chili Bowl surviving the 1968 riots or Duke Ellington playing Bohemian Caverns. And in a corridor where local culture is practically a spice in restaurant pantries, Eatonville fits right in.

In fact, the new Southern spot from Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal literally reunites Washington with a little-known local woman: author Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, Fla., before attending Howard University in 1918.

Hurston’s image smiles down on Eatonville diners from hand-painted murals on the walls, while framed quotes from her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God lend a literary flavor to the décor. But her aesthetic influence goes beyond the visual.

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From the service to the cuisine, Eatonville reflects the warmth and appreciative pace that made its namesake town an essential part of Hurston’s character. She was so enamored of Eatonville that she (falsely) claimed it as her birthplace — and after a few visits to Shallal’s laid-back boîte, you may become similarly attached.

Eatonville’s charm rests in its cautious embrace of Southern staples. The usual suspects are represented on the menu, but most have been liberated from the oozing oil and tongue-dulling over-cooking with which they’re often associated.

Fried catfish, for example, becomes pecan-crusted trout in the capable hands of Eatonville chef Rusty Holman. As comforting as the saltine-cracker breading and flaky texture of the former can be, the contrast between sweet nuts and the salty, hearty fish elevates Eatonville’s take to a new level. (If you’re still craving catfish, it’s available on a po’boy sandwich made with deliciously crusty fresh rolls.)

Shrimp and grits, another ubiquitous soul-food item, is remixed by Holman into two standout entrees, though its traditional iteration is available at Sunday brunch.

The etouffee, a buttery stew best described as a Cajun paella, is generously spiked with fresh tarragon and studded with pieces of shrimp and crawfish as large as ping-pong balls. It manages the curious feat of tasting even better as it thickens and cools, particularly on summer evenings.

Still, rice is no substitute for the dense, creamy texture of well-made grits, and Eatonville’s do not disappoint.

You can tell a batch of hand-mashed potatoes by its mix of lumps and silky puree, and Holman gives his grits the same consistency, adding pinches of melted cheddar and fiery jalapeño. Hunks of whitefish and tangy jade collards give the “fish-and-grits” unexpected depth.

Rhapsodizing about Eatonville’s down-to-earth, almost healthy take on Southern — there are four salads on hand, with nary an iceberg lettuce leaf in sight — would not be complete without crediting its servers. U Street kitchens are highly conscious of their place in Washington and African-American history, but not always of the need to make customers feel at home.

Eatonville’s staff, by contrast, is easygoing and knowledgeable. Waiters and hosts confidently fielded questions about Hurston’s life, the ingredients in sauces and the Mason jars that are used instead of glasses. (If you’d prefer to enjoy a microbrew in a regular pint glass, they can accommodate you on that as well.)

As it happens, I would never have chosen the restaurant’s single best dish without a recommendation from a server. The term “hushpuppies” tends to strike fear in the heart of any waistline-minded diner, but Eatonville offers a single corn fritter that’s refined enough for Jose Andres or Michel Richard to love.

The center of the hushpuppy is carved out and replaced with a melted “fondue” of tiny rock shrimp and frizzled leeks. With a cap of crispy batter nestled on top, the appetizer almost looks like a solid block of fried dough — until it’s cracked open to reveal the molten filling and a dousing of sweet-and-sour sauce.

The fried green tomatoes are a lighter choice, not to mention those four salads, but the hushpuppy is the single best thing on the menu.

Taking a close second place is the crab burger, essentially a breaded crab cake bursting with fresh shellfish and herbs. Served with a peppery shock of pickled onions and arugula alongside a refreshingly de-mayoed cole slaw, the burger is a perfect mate for one of Eatonville’s bracingly strong mint juleps.

Its only fault is a curious French brioche bun that should have been eschewed in favor of the crusty bread the kitchen uses for po’boys.

A few more pitfalls present themselves. Eatonville’s cocktail list is priced too high for the food and dominated by overly sugary variations of the sweet-tea-and-booze mix favored by college students. Beware of the ice-cold, limp “hash” of sweet potato and sausage that arrives beneath an otherwise lovely cut of mahi-mahi, glazed in a smoky-fruity pear cider barbecue sauce.

Lastly, funky artwork and spacious design can’t mask Eatonville’s strange misuse of its outdoor space. Al fresco dining near the hustle of U Street is a precious commodity, but the restaurant nips conviviality in the bud by lining up umbrella-free tables in the direct sunlight of its patio.

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Meanwhile, an inspired Hurston-era “front porch” where drinkers can nurse their juleps and peach cobblers from rocking chairs is installed inside rather than outside. Moving the porch outside would make for a better brunch experience while enticing more pedestrians in from the sidewalk.

Yet it’s easy to see Eatonville growing into its prime real estate and becoming a fixture for uptown’s diverse, gourmet crowds. Shallal told the Washington City Paper that his new outlet aimed to reunite Hurston with her onetime collaborator Langston Hughes — the namesake of Busboys & Poets across the street.

He has already accomplished that mission. Eatonville retains the budget- and customer-friendly ambience of its neighbor while delivering flavors several cuts above traditional soul food. If Hurston could return to her old neighborhood today, she would be impressed.