Lizzie Smith

I Won’t Be Back

Three newish Hyde Park restaurants fail to meet basic expectations

I enjoy food. The second I finish the last bite of my breakfast I’m contemplating what I’m going to have for lunch. I have a liberal palate with no dietary restrictions, and I appreciate most flavor profiles. I can chow down with glee at a she-she poo-poo-laa white linen tablecloth reservations-only restaurant, or get my grub on just fine at the hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, as long as the food and the vibe are good. There are few deal-breakers for me when it comes to a meal, so if I tell you there is a place where I’ve eaten but I won’t be back, you may want to listen. Draw your own conclusions, of course, but here are some of mine.

Nando’s Peri-Peri Chicken is an international chain restaurant operating over one thousand restaurants in thirty-five countries. I visited their Hyde Park location, which opened on 53rd Street in early 2017.

The décor of bright warm colors, large bold patterned chandeliers, and dark wood set a festive and welcoming mood. The staff was friendly and helpful as they guided me through the menu, showing me how to order for my first visit. I had grilled chicken with two sauces and two sides. The food was tasty and the wait was reasonable. Nando’s is not a full-service restaurant. Patrons order at the counter, then carry a number to their table for a server to bring the food.

While I was enjoying my meal, I read on the menu that Nando’s originated in 1987 in South Africa. Immediately I got a little heartburn—seriously. All I could think about as I chewed was how South African apartheid did not end until 1994, a whole seven years after the restaurant originated. That didn’t sit well with me. So at the end of my meal, I spoke with the store manager. I told him it was my first visit to a Nando’s and for the most part my experience was good, but that I couldn’t help but wonder just what were the Nando’s founding father’s feelings (say that fast three times) about South African apartheid back in 1987, when they were opening the first Nando’s restaurant in Johannesburg. The answer would determine whether or not my first visit to Nando’s would also be my last. It’s worth a mention that there are still products and services I haven’t purchased in over thirty years, because the corporations stayed on the wrong side of South African divestment back in the 1980s.

I was hoping to hear some rehearsed corporate response employees had to learn during training for the three or seven diners like me who would ask this question. But instead I got a blank stare, followed by an “I don’t know, but you are welcome to contact corporate to ask.” Wrong answer. I needed a “let me find out for you”—but that was not what Nando’s was serving.

So I emailed corporate. They replied that they received my email and that it takes time for them to reply to emails. As of printing time, it’s been fifteen days without a reply. I take that to mean they don’t know how to respond because they were likely thoroughly enjoying the white privilege of minority-ruled government-sanctioned apartheid in 1987 South Africa while they were building their chicken empire. But have a statement, Nando’s. Say how awful apartheid was and how you knew it wasn’t right and how you regret that brutal time in your nation’s history.

At the time the Weekly went to press, the Nando’s website boasted an “Everyone is Welcome page where people are asked to join with them on January 20—Inauguration Day—when fifty-percent of the net proceeds from Nando’s six D.C. locations would go to D.C. Central Kitchen, a thirty-year-old nonprofit founded to help break the cycle of hunger in Washington. But it doesn’t say if this was to happen on the last Inauguration Day in 2017 or if it will happen on the next Inauguration day in 2021. Other sources make it clear this was for Inauguration Day 2017, but Nando’s website remains unclear and outdated. I give Nando’s an Okay for their food but an I Won’t Be Back for their ambiguous politics.

Bibliophile is a bar, bakery, bookstore, and restaurant, also on 53rd Street, which opened this past fall. I told you at the top of the page how much I love food, and here is where you need to know how I love books and smart cocktails almost equally as much. I couldn’t wait until my and my best gal pals’ schedules synched so we could visit the unique new establishment.

Lizzie Smith

One late-night Saturday in January, the three of us ventured out to Bibliophile, where we were greeted by a lukewarm welcome and whisked to a four-top in the back of its sparsely filled main room, though there was a comfy booth in the front window. No big deal. We asked for the booth and were seated there instead. But strike one. Most people want to sit at a booth. If there is a booth available, offer the booth, please.

A devilishly handsome gentleman with a late-night radio DJ voice introduced himself as our server and told us about the concept of books and booze, combined with desserts and light bites. My gal pals and I each forgave strike one. What was there not to love? We were in a room full of books on shelves as high as the ceiling could go, with desserts and cocktails. Some of the cocktails were named after classic novels. He gave us a moment to look at the menu. When he returned, my two pals each ordered desserts and asked for a recommendation on which drinks to pair with them. I ordered the To Kill a Mockingbird cocktail, a decadent concoction of Kansas City–style bourbon, orange spice tea syrup, allspice bitters, and lemon. I think Harper Lee would have been proud, and to make her even more proud, I asked to pair it with a copy of her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of the same name, rather than with a dessert.

My cocktail arrived first with a side of explanation about how DJ, let’s call him, was having a little trouble locating a copy of the novel. He then invited me to get up from my table, leave my drink, and peruse the walls and walls of shelving to find the book myself. DJ went so far as to remind me that Bibliophile sells books, but that he would ask some of the staff to try and locate a copy for me to have at the table. Oh boy. Strike one was reinstated and compounded with strikes two and three. Really dude? First off, the three of us were all well aware that the establishment sells books—you told us in your intro-spiel, and besides, there are signs posted throughout the room that read: WE SELL BOOKS. Secondly, I already own the book; I don’t want to buy the book, but I do want the experience of holding my To Kill A Mockingbird cocktail and a To Kill A Mockingbird novel simultaneously. And for thirds, where the heck are our other two cocktails and desserts? Duh? We sell books, man bye.

Time passes. DJ doesn’t come back. A new server, a young lady with a nonchalant, couldn’t-care-less demeanor brings the other two drinks, but only one dessert. We ask about the whereabouts of the missing dessert. If looks could kill, there would have been mockingbirds all over our table. She leaves. DJ returns. He asks what seems to be the problem. We explain. He tells us he thought our one friend was still deciding about her dessert—ahh, no, she ordered it. The experience continues to tank when I suggest how it might be an idea to have a surplus of the titles on hand behind the bar, to go with the cocktails of the same name.

DJ let me know that they had tried that but what ended up happening was that people were only buying those books and none of the other hundreds and hundreds of books they have available for purchase. What DJ and Bibliophile missed was how many more drinks would have turned into appetizers and other desserts—that my girls and I would have ordered had we been able to flip through the pages of the novel—at our table. We each would have found our favorite passages and read them aloud. We would have talked about the places we thought the book was better than the film and vice versa. We would have discussed the present day Tom Robinsons in the news. We would have gossiped how Scout and Dill were said to represent a real-life Harper Lee and Truman Capote. And on and on we would have gabbed like the book nerds we are, while amassing a sizable tab. But what happened instead was that the three of us sat there each nursing our one drink, waiting to see how DJ and Bibliophile would make it right, while trying not to go all Boo Radley!

We were made to feel like Bibliophile had made up their mind about the type of experience their customers were going to have and left no room for any other experience a customer may have wanted to have, regardless of how much it would have been within reason for them to make it happen. I wasn’t asking them to split an atom. I was asking for a book in a bookstore that serves a cocktail by the same name.

I felt dismissed. The desserts were not all that. I Won’t Be Back.

Red Fish Bleu Fish, located on the Harper Avenue side of the building at 51st and Lake Park that’s anchored by Whole Foods, makes three for three Hyde Park misses. This place couldn’t even get coke right. Caramel-colored fizzy water with no syrup—none, nada, zilch—came to our table masquerading as a cola. When this was called to the server’s attention, he explained that the machine needed to be recalibrated or something, and that he would gladly exchange the beverage for another. I took that to mean that he knew the drink would be foul when he poured it, but poured it anyway in the hopes that no one would mention it.

Lizzie Smith

On the day I visited, I got the feeling there was only one person on the entire staff. The man who greeted us was the man who showed us to our seats, took our order, brought our food, explained about the soft drink machine, and was also the same man who was tending the bar when my party arrived. There was no other visible staff in the restaurant. Maybe they were there, but I didn’t see anyone else. But that would explain the quality of the food, too; it seemed like that same guy had to dash in the back between orders to pop precooked food into a microwave. You know when food is microwave-hot rather than flame-hot because it has supernatural steam wafting from it but is cold shortly after the second bite. You also know when something has been left over from some other day. The food’s taste and texture indicated both.

I ordered their Moroccan half-chicken and joked how it looked like some other kind of bird but not any chicken I had ever seen. The oddly textured fowl had a massively large breast and a teeny-tiny leg perched atop a mound of yellow rice with random olives scattered about. I tasted no robust Moroccan flavors, just the brine of olives. My friend ordered the shrimp fettuccine, only to fish out the shrimp from an orange-colored sauce that claimed to be lobster bisque but missed the mark severely.

Everything about Red Fish Bleu Fish, from the assorted breads, all of which all tasted the same, to the eerie emptiness of the room, made this my least favorite of the three restaurants mentioned. I’m calling Red Fish Bleu Fish “Dead Fish Eww Fish,” and I Won’t Be Back.

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Nicole Bond is the Weekly’s stage & screen editor and resident curmudgeon, as well as an excellent cook who takes food very seriously

11 Comments

  1. Seems to be the general trend with Hyde Park restaurants. Excitement builds, everyone waits for what will surely be a good place, place opens, crowds flood in, and….nothing. The food seems thrown together without love or affection, the prices are too high, and the service is cold. Here’s hoping the next place will get it right.

  2. On my visit to Bibliophile, I had excellent food and excellent service. But I won’t be back, either, because it’s too damn loud. I hate noisy restaurants in which you cannot have a conversation without yelling.

    (P.S. No, most people do not want a booth, at least not the people I know.)

  3. Nando’s gave me food poisoning, so I never went back. Gross!!!!!!! The Soul Shack wait was horrible, the girl at the checkout rude and the food was lack luster. She waited until I paid to tell me the expensive ass soul rolls had no meat in them that day. Ummm could you have someone state that at order time? I won’t be back. They should stick to the burgers, as I do like Mikkey’s. Let folks from the South do soul food and show southern hospitality in chicago. Overpriced and just ok. And yes, most people DO want a booth.

  4. Why are Hyde Park restaurants so bad, though? I mean, I fully agree they are generally bad for exactly the reasons stated here. But why can’t we have nice things?

  5. Your gross sense of entitlement and need to have your every whim catered to in order to virtue signal to your buddies that you have “transcended” mere human prejudice and are a pillar of “wokeness” makes you seem like the kind of insufferable client waiters dread. Imagine walking into a McDonalds, founded during Jim Crow, and having the audacity to ask this average counter person (possibly undereducated person due to socioeconomic factors, how dare you assume everyone has the same privileged academic background in prejudice as you) what they think of McDonald’s position on Jim Crow. Way to make yourself feel powerful and them feel ignorant and powerless by putting them on the spot to make your point. You feed your own ego by doing this and do nothing to improve the world around you. You destroy without creating anything better in its place.

  6. I enjoyed Bibliophile except for that the lighting was too bright. But after we requested to turn it down, it was fine. The drinks and desserts we ordered were delicious and I had no issues with the ambiance. I second Maya’s notion: no, most people do not want a booth.

  7. For weeks I passed Bibliophile on my way to and from physical therapy, often at prime after work hours. I never saw anyone holding a book or standing at the bookshelves, which led me to believe it was just a gimmick.

  8. If you want an excellent meal in Hyde Park go to Nella Pizza e Pasta. Been open a year and a half and not reviewed by this publication

  9. the ridiculous hilarity of this article has me laughing endlessly. please tell me what restaurants you do enjoy. the fact that you anticipated that the employee could answer the thoughts of the founding father’s view on apartheid during 1987 when it first opened.

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