Two decades ago, having leveraged his car as collateral to purchase a grand piano for the upstairs bar, Jorge Zamorano joked with friends, “if you ever see me pushing a piano down the street, you’ll know what happened.”
Not only would he never be seen straddling the roadway median strip hunched over 88 keys, Zamorano would quickly establish his Banana Café and Piano Bar as a widely beloved Capitol Hill landmark neighborhood business.
The Cuban-born and Puerto Rican-raised Zamorano was no novice to hospitality when he began helping a friend who had opened the then Lone Star Cantina in 1992. The lifelong figurative painter, who began experimenting with color and illustrating the human form when only 10, had worked in various capacities at fine-dining restaurants and hotels in New Orleans and Washington. Zamorano had recently left his position as food and beverage manager at the historic Henley Park Hotel to focus on his artwork full-time. However, he soon found himself increasingly behind the bar, serving tables or assisting in the kitchen – wherever he was needed.
Two years later he would take over the business, subsequently giving it a new name. A block south of Eastern Market Metro at 500 8th St., S.E., the prominent corner-located restaurant and bar grew in popularity with an ever-expanding clientele. More recently joined by a number of restaurant additions on the Barracks Row commercial corridor, Banana Café has stayed true to Zamorano’s vision and commitment – serving authentic Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican dishes in a casual and comfortable setting.
It was when he first started assisting at the restaurant that Zamorano met co-worker Darren Love. A couple for the ensuing 21 years, they continue to work alongside one another. “We’d never be able to take days off together if Darren was a manager,” notes Zamorano, “but he really has a feel for the workings of the place.”
“Darren enforces our rule not to discuss work at home,” he says, adding that he gives Love “a lot of credit for keeping me grounded in a stressful all-consuming business.” Love is also a mentor among the approximately 35 employees that include many longtime staff.
Both a fanciful décor and colorful plates of Caribbean and Mexican cuisine evoke a relaxed south-of-the-border and playful island ambience. Tall potted palm trees flank the entrance and bright umbrellas hover over a sizable sidewalk patio in warmer months. Vivid and nearly fluorescent yellow and lime interior walls and colorful artwork enliven the cozy main level dining area and intimate bar. Much of the art is customer contributed, acquired on trips to Peru, Panama, Puerto Rico, and other locales and gifted for display.
Dining seats fill up at both lunch and dinner with large groups of friends alongside smaller tables and spots for two. Brunch is served on both Saturday and Sunday, and the upper floor bar with seating is a lively hangout throughout the week. The upstairs also serves as a private event space – hosting congressional fundraisers, group receptions, and nearby Navy Yard office parties.
With a small stage for pianists and musicians to perform, the second floor is a Hill hot spot for happy hour conviviality and a karaoke destination several evenings a week. Video monitors also offer a game day haven for sports enthusiasts. “It’s a lot of fun upstairs,” Zamorano says.
While not getting to return to painting full-time, Zamorano finds time to put brush to canvas at his home studio. But providing the most pleasure nowadays are moments when those native to the cuisine savor homeland memories. “When that happens, I know we’re doing something right,” he says proudly.