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There’s a rock ‘n’ roll vibe to Hamilton Johnson’s new downtown restaurant, Honeysuckle, where the chef uses Nordic flourishes and modernist minded compositions to elevate classic Southern cuisine. (Image: Michelle Roberts)

You'll come for the food and stay for the art at Honeysuckle

There’s a rock ‘n’ roll vibe to Hamilton Johnson’s new downtown restaurant, Honeysuckle, where the chef uses Nordic flourishes and modernist minded compositions to elevate classic Southern cuisine. The alternative attitude starts with Johnson himself, a walking tattoo art museum. Hundreds of colorful pieces are etched onto every surface of his body – from sparrows and stars to tumbling dice and butterflies. His first tattoo honors his late mother: an angel hovering over her initials. Of course, there are plenty of food-focused tats – from a beet and a slice of Key lime pie to a waffle fry and a Vidalia onion.

These tattoos were the inspiration for the entryway installation by Rick Bach, whose work is a mind-bending blend of surrealism and Mexican Day of the Dead iconography. The Pittsburgh-based artist translated Johnson’s ink – including his tats of an upside down umbrella and an anchor – into painted wooden cutouts, which are attached to the wall to form a large mural extending from the top of the steps down to the basement-level restaurant. The phrase ‘chop suey,’ which is written across the top of the chef’s fingers, also makes an appearance. “My mom was very Southern, so she referred to any kind of Asian cuisine as chopped suey,” he explains.

Bach created a giant companion piece, which consumes the ceiling over the communal table at the front of the restaurant (the price tag for the pair was $20,000). Giant alien-like heads with saucer-sized eyes, tombstones (one reads, ‘This party sucks’) and booze bottles are the primary images, though if diners look closely, they’ll find all sorts of tiny details, like the silhouette of a demon in a tower window or a stick of butter accompanied by the Icelandic phrase, “Afran mea smjörid,” which literally means “On with the butter.” “It’s their way of saying ‘Keep on keepin’ on,” says Johnson.

There’s even a miniature portrait of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, Johnson’s all-time favorite artist and his go-to at karaoke. In an elevated portion of the main dining room with elegant mother of pearl walls, there’s a photograph of the flamboyant singer, wearing a hat shaped like a bundle of bananas, taken from the band’s video for “I’m Going Slightly Mad” “I like the picture, because it’s weird and crazy, and it’s tied into food,” says Johnson.

There is a pair of black and white photographs on the walls of locally born artists. The first is of Roberta Flack with a young Michael Jackson, taken from their “When We Grow Up” music video. The other is of Shawn Brown, lead singer of D.C. hardcore band Dag Nasty, and also one of Johnson’s tattoo artists.

A black and white portrait of Miles Davis dominates one side dining room – “I like listening to him in the kitchen when ****’s hitting the fan,” says Johnson. “It keeps you grounded.” – while another small dining room boasts shots of Lou Reed and David Bowie. The latter picture of Bowie sporting an eye patch in his Ziggy Stardust era is printed on aluminum for its “cool shine” and presented in an ornate wooden frame sourced from Paris. The price tag for that picture alone was $7,000.

Johnson feels an affinity with the Thin White Duke and the outsider characters he created. “I’m pretty out there,” he says. “You have to be kind of weird to be in this profession. I like doing things outside of the norm – different flavors, different textures.”

There’s still some wall space left, so the chef is considering adding further portraits of Pat Benatar, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and the Clash.

He just doesn’t ever want to go overboard with the décor. “I don’t want it to be a theme restaurant,” he says. “I don’t want it to be a Hard Rock Café.”

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