New America expands on the classic diner with help from artists

The giant poop tubes wrapping around the corner of Eutaw and Franklin are finally gone, freeing New America Diner [429 N. Eutaw St., (443) 388-8576] from the unsightly border it skirted in its first three months open for business. Owner Fiona Sergeant hopes to set up their outdoor seating, for which New America is licensed, as soon as the remaining roadblock disappears.

With experience in the kitchens at Clavel, Bottega, and Woodberry Kitchen, Sergeant started plans for New America about two years ago, a year after graduating from MICA as a sculpture major.

Sergeant decided early on that the historic Charles Fish & Sons building would be the location for New America. With large storefront windows framed by black marble bearing the Charles Fish & Sons name in white art deco lettering, the space sits directly across from the long-artist-occupied H&H building and around the corner from Current Space; the string of galleries on Franklin Street; and the soon-to-partially-open, artist-run performance venue and studio building Le Mondo; among other Bromo Arts and Entertainment District landmarks.

The spot opened mid-January of this year, joining other new restaurants run by relatively young restaurateurs like Café Andamiro in Mount Vernon and PekoPeko Ramen in Charles Village.

In designing and creating New America, Sergeant pulled from several collaborations, often with other artists. To create the gorgeous wooden shelving that spans a wall from top to bottom, displaying an assortment of art and design books and ceramics, Sergeant worked with designer Patrick Caulfield, who later served up a special Vietnamese-inspired menu as a guest chef. Behind the brunch menu are Jaime Hacker, who is in charge of baking, and Rosemary Liss, who explores restorative cooking with her contributions to New America and whose art practice is often food-based and experiential. Photographer Tommy Bruce (whose photography, in full disclosure, graced the cover of our most recent Sex Issue) is working with Sergeant on a new dinner menu. Though an experienced chef herself (if she's exceptionally good at anything, she says, it's apple pie), Sergeant enjoys designing experiences above all else, and wants to open up New America's menu as a platform for collaboration and experimentation.

"I'm more interested in seeing what other people have to say, creating a stage for that," she tells me just after opening up on a weekday, sunlight pouring in through the large windows and illuminating the assortment of paintings on the walls and the blue and white checkered tiles on the floor. A New Jersey native of American and Chinese descent, Sergeant grew up in a town full of diners. So it makes sense that New America, in keeping with its name, would unite the classic, Norman Rockwell-esque dining aesthetic with a looser, yet-to-be-defined interpretation of "American food"—one with intersections in culture, drawn from but not tethered to nostalgia.

One might assume experimentation would lend itself to unusual, even outrageous dishes, but New America's offerings often draw their strength from simplicity. For brunch, diners can get their pancake, french toast, egg, breakfast meat, or biscuits and gravy fix. And, when my partner and I brunched in March, there were a couple less standard breakfast items like a braised dandelion tartine ($8.25), cheddar with house-made kimchi on bread ($9—naturally, called "kimcheese"), and a sweet and spicy salad of watermelon radish, claytonia, mint, and dill vinaigrette ($8.25). But even these dishes are prepared and presented with a no-frills, home-cooked sensibility.

My partner and I started our brunch with coffee ($2.75) served in speckled clay mugs, waiters on hand to refill as soon as they were emptied—which was often, as we found the bright, robust flavor particularly addictive. The beans, our server told us, come from Vent Coffee Roasters by the courthouse not far away, and are sold in bags by the register.

With five halves of fluffy white bread, the bananas foster french toast ($9.75) could easily feed two people, but I was compelled to clean from my plate the generous topping of warm, buttery brown sugar goo with banana slices on my own. Fortunately the side of chorizo ($3) arrived in a manageable serving so I survived the meal non-comatose, but just barely.

Also ambitious in her binge-brunching, my partner ordered the brunch burger ($13), a thick beef patty cooked medium between the butteriest griddled buns and layered with crispy bacon, white cheddar, tomato, lettuce, a fried egg, and pickled radish that added a pop of pink to the colorful tower of fixings. As she chomped down on the first bite, the egg slowly burst and dribbled onto the side serving of fried potatoes—it was one of those food porn moments you'd wish you could replay in slo-mo, and the look on her face told me it was as good as it looked. To satisfy her early morning sweet tooth, we shared a glazed blueberry cake donut ($3). Usually too sugary for my taste, donuts are a tough sell for me, but this one may have been my favorite part of our brunch: just sweet enough, dense but not heavy, and served warm with a delicate glaze.

In its early incarnation, New America prides itself primarily on brunch—and it should; I'm still fantasizing over that meal—but the spot is on its way to becoming a staple event venue and evening watering hole for the Bromo District. Sergeant's mission in creating a collaborative platform extends beyond the menu and has brought weekly film screenings and drawing nights (the restaurant supplies paper, crayons, pencils, and drink specials) among other special events. And they just got a mini pool table.

My first evening at New America was at the overflowing afterparty for The Contemporary's Michael Jones McKean exhibition opening, nearby at the Hutzler Bros. Palace (New America is next door to The Contemporary's office space). Visitors filled the spacious restaurant from the window seats to the bar overlooking the kitchen. Only in need of a snack, I ordered a couple oysters from the short, then brand-new bar menu. At $2 a piece, the bivalve meat was plump and refreshing; the only thing amiss was the absence of cocktail sauce, but the tangy mignonette paired well enough. I didn't expect to pop into a diner and get oysters with my coffee—not a recommended combination no matter the quality, but hey, I can't get around my late-night caffeine and seafood needs.

Then, in mid-March, poets Suzie Doogan, Michael Stephens, Grace Davis, Lily Herman, and Anna Crooks stepped up to the makeshift stage at the curved corner of the storefront windows and read from their work. Servers quietly buzzed around the filled tables carrying plates of burgers ($10) and glasses of wine. I'd never had a burger wherein the buns were the highlight, but here I was, fixated. And the beef patty itself—a big juicy mouthful dressed modestly with white cheddar and red onion—was of the best backyard cookout quality, but the buttery flavor of the griddled, sesame-sprinkled buns lingered on my tongue after the meal quickly disappeared.

I also sampled some of the offerings from the bar, a collaboration between Sergeant and filmmaker Matt Porterfield, who Sergeant says toys with "perfecting classics" while she likes to experiment with flavor and spice. The Ruby Slipper ($11), presumably named to reflect the glitter-dusted shaped painting of Dorothy's slippers hanging on the wall, was a glass of pisco, pink vermouth, and rhubarb shaken with strawberry, balsamic, and cracked pepper and topped off with bubbly. Between this and my burger on this freezing March evening, just a day after the winter's only substantial snow, I couldn't be more eager for summer flavor.

Sipping my cocktail as my attention shifted to and away from the poetry, trying to absorb as much of the stimulation happening around me as possible, the scene beyond the window pane kept catching my eye. As pedestrians hopped over the sewage tubes then encircling the corner, most would peer into the diner, eyes darting from the poet seated on the platform to the bar plates floating around. To get a closer look, several stepped inside to squeeze into the already-packed restaurant.

And there we have the promise of a much-needed gathering spot downtown: A highly visible, welcoming space with familiar yet memorable food to entice, engaging the neighborhood's artists and performers and unwitting passersby alike with the offer of cross-disciplinary platforms and programming—or just a really good cup of coffee and a donut.

New America is open for brunch Wednesday-Monday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and for bar service on Thursday from 5-10 p.m., Friday from 5-midnight, and Saturday from 6-midnight. Regular dinner service to come.

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