For most of us, July 4th is a day to sit back and relax as we celebrate our nation’s independence.  For Jose Andres, not so much.  The outgoing head of the ThinkFoodGroup has a busy Monday lined up, what with the opening of his new America Eats Tavern and his work with the National Archives’ “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?” exhibit. We even got an inside tip on what he’ll be doing that morning (which we’ll share after the jump).

America Eats, conceived as a complement to the exhibit, is a pop-up restaurant that has possessed the body of Cafe Atlantico on 8th Street, NW in Penn Quarter.  The restaurant features seating on three levels and a significant facelift that focuses on iconic American images and artwork.  And although the menu is not yet complete, Andres has promised a bill of fare that will serve as a history lesson on a plate, featuring historically significant American recipes along with background information on where, when and why.

We had a chance to drop by the restaurant yesterday and take a look around.  They’ll be working around the clock between now and lunchtime Monday to make sure it’s all ready to go, but what we saw was already well on its way to completion, and there are some decorations that will make you stop and smile no matter where you enter the story of America’s dietary history.

Details and photos – including an impromptu chat with Archivist of the United States David Ferriero – after the jump.

When America Eats opens for lunch on Monday, guests will be treated to “Chef Jose Andres’ unique take on traditional American classics…native ingredients and some long-forgotten dishes.”  Cocktails will get the historical treatment as well, with bartender Owen Thomson serving up classics beverages going back as far as the pre-Colonial era before bringing it back to their heyday of the early twentieth century.  With this much attention to detail and tradition, the concept seems like a lock for foodies and history buffs alike.

Walk in the front door, and you’ll see plenty of evidence of the collaboration between the National Archives and Chef Andres.  Display cases will feature memorabilia from the Archives’ collection alongside antique cookbooks from Andres’ own library.  Walls are decorated with reprints of classic propaganda posters encouraging smart eating (Vitamin Donuts, anyone?) as well as blow-ups of black and white photos from the Archives.  Tilt your head back as you walk toward the bar, and you’ll be blown away by the hanging array of paned windows and frosted glass recreations of iconic food images.  Walls are washed white, but the exposed beams that run above the bar alternate red and blue to stir your inner patriot as you drink.

Tucked away on the second floor, minibar will go about its business as an island of Andres’ mad genius while the Americana flows around it.  No word on whether any of the more experimental dishes from the America Eats menu will make appearances on the minibar menu, but that kind of crossover definitely took place with Atlantico so diners may want to be on the lookout.  At the very least, press has referenced Andres’ famous take on cheesesteaks as an America Eats menu item…hopefully there will be more along those lines on the finalized menu.

The phone lines are already burning up with folks making reservations for Monday and the following days, but the goal is to accommodate walk-ins as well.  After all, there’s a high likelihood that folks who check out the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit at the National Archives will want to head over to the restaurant and experience some of the foods for themselves.  And that would be perfect in the eyes of the organizers.  According to Chef Andres, “It’s so important to know what the government has done – sometimes great, and sometimes so-so – to shape the way Americans eat.”

After our walk-through, we happened upon an impromptu meet-up between Chef Andres and national Archivist David Ferriero at the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market.  It was great to see the shared excitement of the two men – they’re both exceedingly passionate about this project and what it has done to raise people’s consciousness about the government’s role in our food and food’s role in our history.  Ferriero was kind enough to talk with us about the relationship between the Archives and Andres, and he said he has been consistently impressed with the chef’s level of involvement.  He recounted to us Andres’ excitement upon seeing an Indian treaty that contains the first printed reference to pawpaws.  It’s piqued his interest in the native fruit, Ferriero said.

The Archivist also shared some of the Independence Day activities that will be going on and, in the process, gave us a hint as to what Andres will be doing Monday morning before opening America Eats.  As is traditional, the day’s festivities will begin with a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, before a parade marches along Constitution Avenue from 7th Street to 17th.  The very first float in the parade this year will be that of the National Archives, and naturally they’re going to be highlighting the “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?” exhibit.  Chef Andres is expected to be the special guest on that float, according to Ferriero.

It seems like such a shame that this much thought, effort and creativity have gone into such an ephemeral concept.  America Eats will only be around for six months, closing with the exhibit and making way for a long-anticipated expansion of minibar.  Don’t get us wrong – we love everything about this and can’t wait to work our way through the menu.  The jury’s still out on whether we’ll do it chronologically…but we’re just dorky enough to try.  But this seems like a concept that could succeed long-term.  Fingers crossed that it makes enough of an impression to have ThinkFoodGroup considering a reprieve!

America Eats Tavern
405 8th St., NW
Washington, DC
America Eats Tavern on Urbanspoon