It’s ironic that the tagline of Spike Mendelsohn’s burger restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery, is “say hello to fresh,” since Spike got kicked off Top Chef for trying to pass off frozen scallops on some of the most sophisticated pallets in the country. Needless to say, the judges noticed something was amiss with the scallops, and promptly sent Spike packing.
It’s because of flubs like that on season four of the famous Bravo reality show that I was wary when Spike Mendelsohn opened up DC’s Good Stuff Eatery back in July 2008. After all, Spike was more famous for his crazy hats on Top Chef than he was for his cooking prowess.
Now that Spike is planning on opening two more restaurants in DC – a Greek restaurant and a pizzeria – I thought it was even more important to take a look at Good Stuff Eatery, to see the kind of restaurant DC can expect from this celebrity chef. And from my dining experiences there, I think we can expect a greasy, crumpled bag of mixed…um…stuff.
The Good Stuff Eatery walks the line between modern chic and American nostalgia. The restaurant space itself, housed in an old row house on Capitol Hill, is a mix of modern design with retro details. The clean and open red and white decor is accented with large blown up photos and vintage-style signs explaining Good Stuff’s philosophy on food, along with a few not-too-subtle reminders of Spike’s supposed “celebrity” status. The space takes the simplicity of the 1950s and repackages it with 21st century savvy.
The same could be said of the menu, which serves up America’s favorites – burgers, fries, milkshakes, and salads – with a gourmet twist. The “hand cut” fries are topped with sea salt, while the “hand spun” milkshakes come in trendy flavors like toasted marshmallow and dulche de leche. You can’t just order a hamburger – you have to order a “farmhouse” burger. There’s even an Obama burger, served with foodie-friendly toppings like red onion marmalade, horseradish mayo, and blue cheese.
Usually I’m a complete sucker for these types of places. I’m the cash-strapped foodie that is Spike’s ideal target audience. I nodded approvingly when the menu specified that the French fries were “hand cut” and that the milkshakes were “hand spun,” even though I wasn’t really sure what that meant. Just looking at the menu is like a who’s who of trendy gourmet ingredients – burgers are topped with Vermont cheddar cheese, vidalia onion rings, and “dairy fresh” American cheese.
But staring at the menu was by far the highest point in our visit to the Good Stuff Eatery. The food Wonk the Plank and I ate in our two visits there was just okay stuff.
First of all, the restaurant has a problem with the way it serves its food. The place operates fast food style – you order and pick up your food at the counter. This would be fine, but there’s no “dine in” option; even if you’re eating at the restaurant (and there’s ample seating), you can only get your food “to go,” with everything wrapped in paper and placed in a paper bag.
This is a horrible way to serve food. As soon as the “hand cut fries” are placed in a paper bag, they become damp and soggy and stick together in an unappetizing mass. The burgers come out of their wrapping paper with squished, slightly sweaty buns. To make it even more bizarre, there’s a large sign in the restaurant proclaiming its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. So why serve the food in a manner that generates huge amounts of unnecessary waste?
The packaging would be more forgivable if the food was top quality, but we had an uneven meal both times we visited the Good Stuff Eatery.
I was especially disappointed with “Spike’s Five Napkin,” a burger served on a brioche bun and topped with cheese, bacon, a fried egg, and “Good Stuff Sauce.” The burger was nicely cooked, but the bacon was so salty that it overpowered all the other toppings. I couldn’t even taste the egg and cheese, which might have well been left off entirely. The brioche bun held up better to the packaging and was less squished than Wonk’s burger, but I couldn’t taste it through the salt, so it didn’t end up adding much to the dish. And as far as I could tell, the “Good Stuff Sauce” tasted like mayonnaise.
I had a much better experience with the “Colleti’s Smokehouse.” The onions, chipotle BBQ sauce and bacon worked together in a tangy, salty harmony, although the squished and untoasted burger bun didn’t add much to the equation.
Like the burgers, the fries were inconsistent and underwhelming. On both of our visits, the fries were soggy, probably due to their packaging. And on one occasion the fries were incredibly salty, to the point of being inedible. And believe me, I like salty food – usually I’m the person in the group insisting the french fries need more salt.
The milkshakes were the best part of the visit, although they also had consistency problems. On our first visit, the chocolate shake had a weird, “off” flavor that neither Wonk nor I could place. Thankfully, on the second visit the chocolate shake tasted fine and had a nice, thick consistency. Wonk ordered the Black and White milkshake, which was a hit both times; its rich vanilla flavor amply satisfied my sweet tooth.
Given that Spike is slated to open two new restaurants in DC, I think it’s high time to hammer out some of the problems at Good Stuff. Is it so hard to offer a dine-in option for people eating at the restaurant? Could they figure out a way to package the French fries in a cardboard holder? And could they figure out the right level of saltiness? Just a couple of tweaks could make a huge difference in the quality of the food.
The most frustrating thing about my entire Good Stuff experience is that DC needs more places like the Good Stuff Eatery – moderately priced restaurants that care about quality. But the bad thing about catering to cash-strapped foodies is that, even though they’re strapped for cash, they still pay attention to their food. Talking about “dairy fresh cheese” sounds great in theory, but if I can’t taste it because the burger’s too salty, then there’s no point.
Spike needs to take a couple notes from his Top Chef days and start paying better attention to the details of his food. If his food could match the quality of his branding, Spike could take Good Stuff from good to great.