One of the most vibrant places in Washington is the Eastern Market at 7th and Independence, S.E., the oldest continually operating market in Washington. The market is liveliest on a Saturday morning, when the weekend Market Festival of craftspeople and artists is in full swing. Residents of pricey Capitol Hill townhouses mingle with locals from less prosperous southeast Washington neighborhoods and tourists. The market has an appealing bohemian quality crossed with a certain entrepreneurial élan.
A farmer’s market is set up outside under a long awning set before the brick building housing the South Hall Market, home to quality florists, butchers, delicatessens, fruit vendors, bakers, fish sellers, and, most notably, the Market Lunch.
On a busy Saturday, the line for the Market Lunch snakes through the hall and out the door, but don’t let this deter you. The line moves relatively quickly. Standing in it will give you ample time to survey what others are eating that looks good. My decision was made the instant I saw a patron hefting a huge fried fish sandwich– the fillets a golden brown and the crusty bread freshly baked on the premises. This noble sandwich is a mere $3.95. I had to give one of the three big pieces of fish to my bottomless-pit husband as it was more than I could handle. For an additional $1.50, you can add two "sides," such as a mound of French fries or tangy coleslaw.
The Market Lunch was opened back before the term "low-density lipoprotein" began to strike fear in the hearts of Americans. Almost everything on the menu is fried - fried perch, fried clams, fried oysters, fried shrimp – but there are also two types of crab cakes (shredded or lump) and savory North Carolina-style barbecue on offer, along with down-home accompaniments such as corn on the cob. For seventy-five cents, add iced tea (sweetened or un-), sodas, or lemonade (medium or sweet). The Market Lunch also serves homestyle breakfasts featuring grits, bacon, eggs, scrapple, and pancakes.
Everything on the menu is very reasonably priced, though be forewarned that this is not a place to linger. People come here to EAT, perching themselves on stools along a long crowded counter or taking their overflowing plates outside to one of the picnic tables. A hand-lettered sign declares. "No saving seats, no reading newspapers. Market Lunch patrons only. $100 fine for violations." I couldn’t help but wonder who enforces those rules; the friendly ladies behind the lunch counter didn’t look like candidates. The sign was more bark than bite, I decided, but the meaning is clear: eat your food and go about your business.
Some postprandial exercise was in order, so we strolled around the market, buying a teapot at the flea market across the street and eyeing straw hats, antiques, silver jewelry, oriental rugs, and watercolor paintings at the arts-and-crafts fair. As we left, my sole regret was that we didn’t live right around the corner from the Market Lunch.