Stewed okra is “the dish you never liked as a child.” Chitlins (pork innards) are “the escargots of soul.” Spare ribs are “little bones” and chicken is “gospel bird.”
Reading the menu is almost as much fun as eating at Washington, D.C.’s flashiest new restaurant, W.H. Bone & Co. “This is the first time Southern cuisine has been served in the North in a first-class atmosphere,” explains owner and All-America wide receiver Darryl Hill.
The clientele ranges from prominent politicians to local jocks overall, a 50-50 racial mix—and the menu features three types of Southern cooking: soul, plantation and Creole.
Hill, 34, has educated himself on the roots of Southern cooking (a subject he discussed over dinner recently with Alex Haley). “The master took the roast and chops,” Hill says, “and left the scraps of the pig, the innards, feet, stomach and joints (or hocks) to the slaves. They learned how to make these things tasty.” Beef and fish were rare, and chicken was served only on Sunday (hence “gospel bird”).
Patrons at W.H. Bone (for Washington Ham Bone) wolf down one and three-quarter tons of chitlins a week and 300 pounds of spare ribs and 150 pounds of greens every day. Entrees are rather expensive ($6.50 to $12.50), but the portions are so big that Hill cheerfully hands out doggie bags. Not long ago Sen. Barry Goldwater, a regular, took home a surfeit of country ham and corn bread and ate it for breakfast next day.
Hill became a restaurateur in a roundabout way. Raised in Washington, he learned cooking from his father, who ran a trucking business, and grandfather; his mother is a schoolteacher. By 12, Darryl was preparing all the family meals. But his real passion was sports. He won a football scholarship to Cincinnati’s Xavier University, transferred to Annapolis and eventually graduated from the University of Maryland in 1965. As Maryland’s first black football player, Hill often needed police protection when he competed against other Southern colleges. After college he tried out for the New York Jets, then returned to Washington as a small-business consultant. Later he become a partner in a chain of more than 40 dry cleaning outlets.
Hill was enticed into creating W.H. Bone by his love of Southern cooking and the city’s need for a bistro with a black ambience. His hunch was right. The Bone is now worth $600,000 and grosses $30,000 a week. But, Hill says, “It’s the last business I would advise anyone to go into. Competition is keen, entry is expensive and the failure rate is high.”
Hill maintains his athletic build (185 pounds at 6’1″) but still enjoys trying out new recipes on his second wife, Janet, and his three children. To cut down on commuting time, the Hills recently sold their house in suburban Potomac, Md. and bought a four-bedroom Spanish-style house in an affluent neighborhood five miles from the Capitol and the restaurant. Janet, 25, a stockbroker, made one important contribution to the restaurant—its name. (Darryl affectionately calls her “Ham Bone.”)
Judging from the customer response, W.H. Bone & Co. may be the prototype for a franchise operation. For now, Hill is building the reputation of the original. How can he go wrong with delicacies like Bar-B-Que Pig Tails, Foots à la Mudbone and New Orleans Dirty Rice? Like it says on the menu, “Bone Appetit.”