Washington, D.C., dining, North Dakota style

WASHINGTON, D.C. During a whirlwind vacation in the nation’s capital this last weekend, I was able to book reservations with the flagship restaurant of three owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union. The place evokes both its location and its heart in its name, Founding Farmers.

First impressions

Even three days in advance, my preferred reservation time of 7:30 p.m. Sunday was already booked, but luckily 7:15 was open. A man who answered the phone when I confirmed my reservation on Friday, hoping to make an adjustment to accommodate an additional friend who would be in the area, assured me that the place is “always busy,” and its ranking as the most-booked restaurant in the D.C. area on OpenTable.com, a restaurant reservations website, confirmed the remark.

A reservation is strongly encouraged, as one man who put his name on this list was told the wait would be one hour and 45 minutes, whereas those of us with reservations had no real wait time at all.

There was a little trouble upon arrival at the restaurant, as two people originally slated to dine with Gwen, my companion on the trip, and me had to cancel due to illness and a fellow friend was getting to D.C. from Arlington, Va., a little late. You see, it’s company policy to seat only full parties. But that’s no matter, because as soon as he arrived we were escorted promptly upstairs the restaurant has two levels, with the very busy bar on the lower one and seated at our table.

The first thing you notice at the restaurant is the style and feel of the place. While some reviews online had said the restaurant is very loud, it didn’t feel that way on Sunday. There was noise from the bar area, which is to be expected, but my table was able to talk freely under the beautiful, white, ceramic, hanging lights made out to look like loose impressions of birds.

Drinks

Faye came to take our drink orders right away, with a server-in-training in tow. The water came, with a glass, old-style milk bottle full of water for serving ourselves more. More importantly, for those who drink, the bar is designed in the pre-Prohibition style and many of the liquors are made on-site, including the rye whiskey that my friend, Erik, had in his drink.

The rye taste was strong at first in his Ward Eight drink ($12), but balanced on the palette well after the first sip. Gwen had a Constitution ($12), a fruity, refreshing drink she claims to “love” and still talks about today. I had a Dark ‘n’ Stormy ($9), which is a well-known drink composed of rum and ginger beer. Although neither Gwen’s drink nor my own tasted heavily of alcohol, it was certainly potent enough to let conversation flow well.

I followed the meal with an in-house ale ($8), which was just fine. All the beers were listed only by type, such as ale and lager, and may change from day today. On the receipt it was listed only as “GLS Todays IPA.”

The drinks were recommended to us after Faye asked us a few questions to understand our preferred “flavor palette.” The restaurant regularly trains and tests their service staff on drinks and food, and our waitress was right on target in her training as far as the drinks went. Foodwise, we went with other things based on different conditions.

Food

For an appetizer we had “Farm Breads,” three thick, grilled ciabatta bread slices, with heirloom tomatoes and arugula pesto ($8). It was delicious, and I could have eaten the bread exclusively all night.

Our main courses were served immediately following our appetizers, and a little bit longer of a delay to allow for more conversation would have been appreciated, but as soon as we started eating we didn’t mind the speediness of the delivery.

Erik and I ordered exactly the same thing, Southern Pan-Fried Chicken and Waffles ($16), the most ordered menu item at the restaurant, according to Faye. It came with pasta and cheese as a default side item, and we both chose kale with pear slices as our additional side. This isn’t the first time we’ve discovered we have the same taste, although it is embarrassing each time.

The chicken was some of the best I’ve ever had. Pan-fried chicken when not done very well can easily become either too dry or overly oily and sloppy, but this was done very well. Our chicken came in breast form with attached leg, which was the only bone to be found. The meat was perfectly tender and had good flavor and texture throughout.

The savory taste of the chicken paired well with the sweetness of the waffles with a little syrup poured on. The syrup is warmed and stored in a metal serving cup that looks like one of those little milk cartons you get with public-school lunches, only smaller. The waffles were perfectly browned and crisp on the outside, though the syrup was able to sink deep inside. A forkful of both at once is the way to go.

Gwen, however, ordered a portion of three Baby Cheeseburgers ($9), an appetizer that comes in double the size for an additional $5, as her entree. I was allowed a bite of one and the hamburger was juicy and it tasted the way you’d hope a cheeseburger at a nice restaurant would.

Final impressions

Sunday in Washington was a wonderful night and I’ll remember it for some time to come. Founding Farmers restaurant worked out not only as a great place to eat in the capital but served me well in its atmosphere, which was perfect for reconnecting and having energetic conversation with old friends.

With its scenic location on the north side of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, well known as the home to George Washington University, it’s located far enough west of downtown to be a bit quieter but centrally located enough that you shouldn’t be surprised to see hipper congressional staffers and lobbyists ordering some amazing drinks between discussions on the upcoming farm bill.