On May 17th, Washington, D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj was honored with The Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award for his outstanding initiative that increased the profile and success of Metropolitan Washington dining. In celebration of this honor, contributor Nevin Martell spent an evening shadowing Bajaj as he oversees the restaurants in his Knightsbridge Restaurant Group.
It’s 8 p.m., so Ashok Bajaj is enjoying a single macchiato in the front lounge of his upscale Italian restaurant, Bibiana. Every evening around this time, the powerhouse D.C. restaurateur, who owns 10 of the city’s buzziest spots, from modern-minded Indian showstopper Rasika to the Oval Room, a New American white tablecloth stunner by the White House, enjoys an espresso boost to power him through the rest of the night.
The James Beard Award nominee needs it because every night he visits every one of his restaurants. It’s the culmination of an already impressively packed day. His work begins around 8 a.m. at home when he checks his email and exercises. He leaves a little after 10 for the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group offices next door to Rasika in Penn Quarter.
In the entrance hallway, there’s what Bajaj calls his “power wall,” featuring photos of him with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. A picture of him alongside Joe and Jill Biden dominates one wall of his office overlooking D Street. His desk is covered in neatly arranged paperwork, some related to the second location of Bindaas, an homage to Indian street food, which is set to open in October on Pennsylvania Avenue in Foggy Bottom. “The best part of my job is coming up with new concepts,” says Bajaj, before jokingly adding, “Running them can be the tough part.”
Though he sets aside two hours around lunchtime to be here and work, much of his day is spent at his restaurants – taking meetings, going over menu changes, and addressing operational and staffing issues. “Some people work from home, some people go to the office,” he says. “For me, these are my workplaces.”
His evening tour of his empire almost always begins at 701, a two-block stroll from his office. Tonight when he walks in the upscale American restaurant, he greets the manager on duty and does a walk through of the kitchen, saying hello to cooks prepping for service. After a quick chat with the chef, he nips out a side door onto the patio. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, I’m not needed,” he says. “Things run well. If I’m needed, I’ll stay. If I’m not, I’m gone.”
Next up? NoPa, an American accented brasserie, where he takes a seat at the bar. Always nattily dressed – tonight he’s in a deep blue suit with polished black leather loafers – Bajaj could be mistaken for a lobbyist or a power broker from the Hill. In a town defined by politics, Bajaj is a master of gracefully accommodating both sides of the aisle. “They’re not Republicans or Democrats; they’re guests,” he says.
He ticks off some regulars at his various restaurants: New Jersey senator Cory Booker (D), Tennessee senator Alexander Lamar (R), Virginia senator Mark Warner (D), and Tennessee’s junior senator Bob Corker (R).
After a brief check-in with the manager, Bajaj walks out the door and heads southward again. As he’s striding down 8th Street, he hails a figure walking towards him, “Senator Corker, I was just talking about you.”
The men shake hands and Corker sings his praises of 701. “I love it,” he says. “I don’t know how many salmons I’ve had in there – an ocean full.”
Picking up a black Benz from a nearby garage, Bajaj drives east to Rasika where he illegally parks across the street. Though his valets watch his car wherever he goes, it doesn’t mean he’s immune from meter maids. One year he paid more than $7,000 in parking tickets. From there, he journeys to Bibiana for his espresso, then on to the Oval Room and The Bombay Club, before driving northward to Cleveland Park, where Bindaas and Ardeo + Bardeo live side by side.
“I never thought I would have ten restaurants, ever,” says Bajaj, who employees roughly 500 people. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but my passion wasn’t there.”