D.C. has been in the spotlight for a number of reasons in the past year, the most nonpartisan of them all being the growing restaurant scene. Given that it’s the capital of our nation, the city has long been a center for diverse, international, and cultured clientele — but only recently have restaurateurs begun to take notice of this captive audience, with big-name chefs like David Chang and Daniel Boulud opening concepts in the heart of the city, and other restaurants, like Bombay Club and Doi Moi, setting new standards for the ambitiousness and creativity of the dining scene. Just this past year, in fact, the Michelin Guide launched its first ever D.C. edition, a surefire indication that the city is a bonafide culinary destination.
“D.C. is the capital of the world, so people are coming here no matter what,” says Ashok Bajaj, a D.C. restaurateur whose portfolio includes Bombay Club and Rasika (a favorite of former President Obama’s), among others. “It’s not New York or San Francisco in terms of the number of restaurants, but it gets the same amount of traffic because you’ve got all the culture, museums, politics, and the diplomatic visits. It’s an exciting place to be as a chef.”
As a center of politics and deal making, D.C. is also always in need of restaurant locales for doing business, and there’s no shortage of customers who are willing to pony up for a great meal. Another benefit of having a restaurant in the center point of government: you are getting a brand-new audience every two years, thanks to elections, so there are plenty of opportunities to make an impression on a fresh, eager dining clientele.
Also, even though D.C. is the place where laws are passed, regulations that affect restaurateurs are significantly more lax than in other cities. Take alcohol laws, for example — only in D.C. can restaurants buy directly from vineyards or distilleries and not have to go through a wholesaler, who may not have their favorite varieties. “We call it the wild west of wine,” Morgan Fausett, director of operations for the Fat Baby restaurant group in DC (encompassing Proof, Estadio, Doi Moi, and 2 Birds 1 Stone), says. “It really opens up a whole array of opportunities for businesses.”
The biggest downside of the dynamic nature of the city? Maintaining regulars. Fausett says that you might have a congresswoman frequenting your spot for a year or two, and then she will rotate out of D.C., and you’ve instantly lost a regular. Even for a restaurant like Proof, which has been around for about a decade, she says the struggle is there.
It’s also a particularly tough city for first time restaurateurs. According to Celia Laurent, co-owner of Kinship and Metier, D.C. landlords tend to be significantly more biased toward longstanding chains, especially in the more tourist-y areas around the White House, and they are less willing to take a risk on a non-corporate concept. This can make it tough for new, ambitious spots to lay down roots in the city.
Of course, the biggest complaint among restaurateurs: the sheer number of road blockages and shutdowns due to noisy motorcades and political events. While these are usually brief and not super disruptive to the area, it is a very D.C.-specific annoyance.
Tips for Success
Go for the suburbs. Central D.C. can be tempting, as that’s where all the wealthy politicians are wont to congregate for lunches and dinners, but Laurent says the suburbs are the way to go. “There are a lot of new neighborhoods and residential populations that are in desperate need of new restaurants,” she says. Plus, she adds, people in the city are more willing to travel for a restaurant than they used to be, so you’re not going to be exclusively reliant on local residents. [Read more…]