James Beard Award-winning chef Michel Richard was always larger than life – a visionary culinary innovator with an infectious joviality. Though he passed away in 2016, today, on what would have been his 70th birthday, we’re looking at how his legacy lives on at his Washington, D.C. brasserie, Central Michel Richard, which combines French bistro favorites and elevated American comfort food. Critics continue to be charmed by the renowned chef; it was recently named the #34 restaurant in the city by Washingtonian, while Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema gave it a glowing 2 ½ star review this past fall.
Central – as regulars simply call it – is more than a decade old, a milestone achievement for any establishment, but especially for one whose namesake is no longer living. The fact that it continues to soar is a testament to the team Richard left behind. His longtime business partners – Larry Shupnick and Chipp Sandground – are still involved, while general manager and beverage director Brian Zipin oversees the operations. Executive chef Tony Roussel helms the kitchen, and Richard’s protégé of 15 years, David Deshaies, remains a partner and creative force. “He can see a dish through the eyes of Michel,” says Zipin of Deshaies. “He knows how Michel plated and the textures he loved.”
There was never any discussion of closing the restaurant in the wake of Richard’s death. “We all wanted to keep it going to keep Michel’s voice in this city,” says Zipin. “Since he’s not around, I’m even more sensitive about ensuring everything is just the way he would have wanted it. We’re most proud of the consistency. Our OpenTable reviews are as high as they’ve ever been.”
The chef still literally looms large. An oversized portrait of Richard occupies a wall at the far end of the main dining room, while his cookbooks are for sale in the front of the restaurant. The menu still boasts a number of his classic dishes – from his trademark fried chicken that continues to be the restaurant’s biggest seller and a towering burger topped with a crunchy cheese tuile and a poached tomato to a chocolate bar inspired by a Kit-Kat and an “eggceptional” lemon meringue pie that looks like sunny yolks sitting in halved shells. “It is approachable food, but with bold flavors and a lot of whimsy,” says Zipin.
Not all the classics are still available, such as the long-loved lobster burger, which was taken off the menu over a year ago due to the rising food cost. “Do we want to charge $40 for a lobster burger? No,” says Zipin. “Or do we want to do something with inferior ingredients? No.”
Now the restaurant offers a shrimp burger and is considering bringing the lobster burger back as a summer special.
When Richard’s iconic dishes are 86’ed from the lineup, guests are very vocal about their disappointment. “When we took the frisée salad off the menu, people flipped out,” says Zipin. “We brought it back. Any time you make a change, there’s an uproar. People love what they love.”
The menu continues to be an evolving proposition. There are newer dishes devised by Roussel and Deshaies as well, such as fork-tender calamari standing in a pool of spicy tomato sauce, Moroccan-spiced lamb shank pastilla (pictured below), and a hearty spaghetti bolognese.
There are two simple cardinal rules for any item that’s added: “It has to be fun to look at and taste good,” says Roussel.
Additionally, the restaurant redid its happy hour offerings a couple of years ago and rebooted their brunch program more than three years ago, while Richard was still alive. “Both have been great for us,” says Zipin, adding that they expanded the restaurant’s reach.
Though there are no plans to extend the chef’s legacy by opening further locations, the flagship still has numerous years left on the lease and isn’t going anywhere. “Michel really loved this restaurant,” says Zipin. “He was very specific about what he wanted Central to be and we’ve stayed true to that vision. I want it to keep living up to his memory.”
Photo credit: Joy Asico (food).