Thomas Downing was the oyster king. In 19th-century New York City, white customers knew the African American restaurant proprietor for his much-touted seafood specialties. What they didn’t know: Downing used the elite oyster bar’s basement to house people fleeing slavery, as a stop on the underground railroad. Today, you can order an oyster pan roast celebrating Downing at the Sweet Home Cafe, located inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Divided into four regions, reflecting the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the North States, and the Western Range, the cafeteria pays homage to the rich African, Native American, Caribbean, Latin American, and European influences in African American cooking. From a Gullah take on the Hoppin’ John (a traditional Southern New Year’s staple) to Western-style pan roast rainbow trout with cornbread and mustard green stuffing, visitors can sample executive chef Jerome Grant’s playful takes on regional cultural classics.