May 31, 2016

Why D.C.’s Chefs Keep Gambling on Tasting Menus

Tasting MenuBill Miller, a D.C.-based real estate broker who largely works with restaurants, has seen [the desire to experiment with a menu] play out in the chefs he’s worked with over the years. Ambitious cooks constantly tell him they just want a small place where they can literally have a hand in making every dish.

But I tell them you can’t really make a lot of money doing that, and they’ll look at me like I’m crazy,” he says. These days, many don’t even talk about rent at first, Miller says. But eventually the whole picture has to come together — location, pricing, a concept diners will show up for — to make sure the restaurant is financially viable.

 

Given the country’s general move to more casual dining and away from white tablecloth destinations, tasting menu-centric restaurants can seem like a throwback concept. But in Washington, D.C., this particular type of restaurant has managed to persevere through economic downturns and changing trends, even if there have been casualties along the way. Why has the tasting menu-centric restaurant remained such a fixture in D.C.? Eater investigates.

Fine dining destination 2941 was suddenly bringing in much less money in 2011 than it had in previous years. The Falls Church restaurant had been a longtime destination for both business lunches and special occasion dinners, and tasting menus were core to its business. The loss of revenue was so dramatic that chef Bertrand Chemel and his team closed for a few weeks to regroup. “We had a slow decline and we needed to react,” the chef says. One of the first things to go? The emphasis on tasting menus.

It all started during the economic downturn of 2008. “Businessmen had two or three hours for lunch before, and now they don’t have that,” Chemel remembered. Before the downturn, 50 percent of 2941’s sales were from tasting menus. Then that number dropped to under 10 percent. 2941 wasn’t the only D.C. restaurant to experience such a drop, and some never recovered — over the past few years, such restaurants as Rogue 24 and Eola (two ambitious tasting menu restaurants that had opened in D.C. in 2011) have since had to close, unable to sustain the concept.

And yet, this hasn’t stopped new tasting menu-centric restaurants from continuing to debut in Washington. Both tasting menus (set courses, often with added serving theatrics) and prix fixe menus (set courses, but with some choices within them) are more popular than ever today in D.C., especially inside new restaurants. There’s been a definite resurgence just within the past year alone. Nick Stefanelli opened Masseria in the buzzy NoMa neighborhood; the slick Italian restaurant offers only three-, four-, and five-course prix fixe menus. Aaron Silverman’s brand new restaurant Pineapple and Pearls offers only 15-course tasting menus for $250, while lauded former CityZen chef Eric Ziebold is doing a similar model ($200 for seven courses) at the just-opened Métier. Some tasting menu-­centric restaurants, from Johnny Monis’ acclaimed Komi to Minibar, the most expensive check in town, have weathered economic downturns and remain draws (Komi is still a particularly tough reservation to snag, even 13 years after opening).

It isn’t only long-established chefs who are betting on tasting menus today in Washington. One of the most highly anticipated new dining destinations comes from 26-year-old Top Chef contestant Kwame Onwuachi. At The Shaw Bijou, he plans to raise the bar even higher with an ambitious 17-course menu at an eight table restaurant, available only through a ticketing system. The experience will command more than $150 per person, and require diners to fork over not just serious cash but also two or three hours of their night. Yes, Onwuachi has an impressive stint at Eleven Madison Park under his belt, but he’s never actually worked as an executive chef before. And a tasting menu-centric restaurant can be the quickest way for a chef to establish a level of prestige by guiding diners through a signature experience stamped with his or her own distinct vision.

Fixed price meals aren’t actually anything new. They were the norm until the modern restaurant arrived in the U.S. in the early 19th century, and many French restaurants continued to offer them even when a la carte service became fashionable. The influence of nouvelle cuisine, which was popularized in France in the 1960’s, eventually trickled down to American restaurants and ushered in the beginnings of the modern tasting menu in the 1970’s. Peter Pastan took a chance opening Obelisk in 1987, and it still lives on today, serving a five-course Italian dinner every night near Dupont Circle.

The city’s most famous restaurant of the tasting menu variety opened more recently. Minibar by José Andrés started service in 2003, one year after 2941 opened its doors in Falls Church. Back then, the avant-garde destination was a six-seat counter located inside Cafe Atlantico, another restaurant owned by the chef (the restaurant got its own dedicated home in 2012).  Andrés is famously a disciple of Ferran Adrià of the now-closed El Bulli in Spain. That restaurant helped to usher in a new type of free-form tasting menu that borrowed from the Japanese tradition of kaiseki. It also had few rules and limits and included plenty of serving theatrics and ceremony. To this day, tasting menus everywhere typically unfold in acts with small bites comprised of surprising flavors and textural wonders.

This type of multi-course meal requires something more than just lots of money and an empty stomach to enjoy it. Diners also need the ability to concentrate over the course of several hours to appreciate the nuances of this seemingly endless parade of small dishes, not to mention verbose explanations from the waitstaff and sommeliers.

According to Joshua Hermias, head chef at Minibar, there’s really no better place than D.C. to find people willing to geek out on this type of intellectual exercise that can involve 25 to 30 courses served over several hours in surprising vessels or with unconventional utensils. At Minibar, one of the staff’s goals is challenging the diner’s perception of what food can be with culinary demonstrations bordering on science experiments that accompany the meal. “There’s this appetite for interesting, intellectual experiences,” he explains. “We can help provide that as much as a lecture at the Smithsonian or a briefing at a think tank.”

WHY CHEFS LOVE THEM

Chefs highly value the level of consistency a tasting menu offers. Cooks get intimately acquainted with their mise en place and learn how to execute a dish flawlessly over time. Eric Ziebold says it gives the kitchen much more control over timing, benefiting both the chef and the diner. “You have much more control over the food that’s coming out,” he says. “Which means that you’re in a position to deal with other ways of making your guests feel like they’re having a luxurious experience.”

The prix fixe format is indeed a strategy for overcoming logistical obstacles at Masseria, an independent restaurant with only 70 seats. The transitioning NoMa neighborhood has never seen a restaurant of this level of ambition before. “We need to generate a certain amount of revenue for the night,” explains chef Nick Stefanelli. “Let’s say you come in and you want to have five courses or you come in and then you just want to have a salad. If we expect you to be here for three hours and you just have a salad, it destroys the table[‘s projected revenue] for the night…” A fixed menu means the restaurant knows how much money is coming in for the night, making the tasting menu-centric concept more financially feasible, especially in a smaller setting.

Removing the element of the unexpected also creates more room for chefs to experiment. Stefanelli finds diners become more adventurous eaters with the multi-course format, giving the kitchen more flexibility to work with diverse ingredients. Minibar takes it even a step further —€”  some of their dishes are in research and development for up to two years before reaching the dining table.

Bill Miller, a D.C.-based real estate broker who largely works with restaurants, has seen that desire play out in the chefs he’s worked with over the years. Ambitious cooks constantly tell him they just want a small place where they can literally have a hand in making every dish. “But I tell them you can’t really make a lot of money doing that, and they’ll look at me like I’m crazy,” he says. These days, many don’t even talk about rent at first, Miller says. But eventually the whole picture has to come together — location, pricing, a concept diners will show up for — to make sure the restaurant is financially viable.

It’s clear the ability to experiment is part of the appeal for Onwuachi as he talks about his big plans for The Shaw Bijou. “I’m able to get as creative and wild as I want and make sure the dish is technically sound before it even goes to the diner,” he said. “That’s one of the best parts —€” the creative license.”

THE TOUGH SELL

The hardest part of the tasting menu format is actually convincing diners that all this focus on creativity is worth the higher price point. There are more restaurants in D.C. right now than ever before, and plenty of them offer a great meal for only $50 or so per person (not to mention the city’s expansive array of cheap eats destinations). That means the food and experience at places like The Shaw Bijou needs to be three times as good — and it should arguably be at least five times as good at Silverman’s Pineapple and Pearls.

While chefs, of course, can’t always make millions retiring off one ambitious restaurant, opening a successful tasting menu spot is often the quickest route to culinary stardom. Establishing a reputation seems to matter more today to young chefs than making money. Even Onwuachi admits this is true. “Usually they become institutions, like Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, and the French Laundry because they have this liberty to get very creative,” he says. “That’s when the magic happens.”

Although The Shaw Bijou might seem like a risky business move for a first-time executive chef, it has the potential to skyrocket Onwuachi to fame if his culinary artistry meets expectations. In fact, it’s easy to forget that D.C.’s most famous chef, José Andrés, wasn’t that established back in the days before he opened his most critically-acclaimed restaurant 14 years ago. “If you boil it down, [Onwuachi] is doing his version of Minibar,” Miller says “and he’s either going to rock everyone’s world or not.”

In general, the majority of restaurants are more likely to play it safe, rather than going all in on the tasting menu — they may offer a tasting menu option, but will still balance that offering with an a la carte menu, or open a dual-concept restaurant which has multiple types of restaurants under one roof. Take, for example, Alphonse’s on U, which is a casual Italian restaurant downstairs with the tasting menu-centric Nonna’s Kitchen upstairs — and even Nonna’s just added an a la carte option to its own offerings. Tasting menus are also still available at 2941, even after Chemel’s post-downturn changes to the place, and remain popular with diners celebrating a special occasion.

“He’s either going to rock everyone’s world or not.”

Not every tasting menu restaurant can ultimately stand the test of time. Just recently, the ambitious Secret Chopsticks in Rosslyn opened first as a tasting menu-only Chinese restaurant with four menus, than moved to a la carte with a single tasting menu, and then closed — all within the span of less than a year.

Not far from the future site of The Shaw Bijou stands the now-shuttered Rogue 24. Chef R.J. Cooper generated plenty of buzz before the restaurant opened in 2011, even doing pop-up previews in New York to promote it. The restaurant earned generally good reviews, but critics didn’t seem overwhelmed and noted some misses during the course of the hours-long meals. The restaurant stubbornly offered 16- and 24-course tasting menus for years, but added an eight-course option less than a year later and eventually offered a la carte. The restaurant shuttered its doors by the end of 2015.

WHAT TODAY’S DINERS WANT

It’s worth pointing out that the owners of Rogue 24 became embroiled in a business dispute that likely contributed to its ultimate demise. But the restaurant also opened in 2011 in the midst of the recession and an atmosphere that was generally quite antagonistic towards tasting menus. It was the same year that 2941 began struggling. Over the next two years, tasting menu haters (writers like Corby Kummer for Vanity Fair and New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wellswere loudly voicing their dissent.

Today, a younger generation with different attitudes and preferences is driving dining trends. According to a 2015 study by Restaurant Marketing Labs, millennials are the group that spends the most on dining out, even though their incomes are smaller. D.C. and the surrounding suburbs have most recently added more millennials to the population than any other American city, according to data from the last census.

Millennials are the group that spends the most on dining out, even though their incomes are smaller.

According to Miller, their preferences are the driving force behind dining trends in D.C. right now. “Millennials have a new take on how they want to spend their time and what they want to spend,” he says. Instead of restaurant institutions housed in the glass downtown office buildings of yore, millennials want to check out the newest and hippest spots in town, often housed in more unique settings, he says (a recent report from real estate research firm JLL also saw massive growth in such burgeoning neighborhoods as NoMa and Shaw due to millennials). Pop-ups, which often feature tasting menus, offer the most novel and ephemeral dining experiences possible, often at a high price tag, and they’re everywhere in D.C. lately. Tasting menu-centric restaurants are chasing that same group of diners.

By their very nature, stylish eateries like The Shaw Bijou set in row houses or townhouses require a smaller square footage footprint than the restaurants of the past. These types of properties are usually only available in transitioning neighborhoods. Yet cool communities like Shaw and NoMa (two of the most popular among millennials) don’t necessarily offer the best mix of office workers, nightlife, and residents to guarantee customers for multiple meal periods like lunch, dinner, and late night dining. They’re usually limited only to serving dinner, which reduces money-making opportunities. This factor, combined with a smaller square footage, kitchen, and fresh food inventory, makes chefs look to the tasting menu when developing business plans.

The strategy has worked for Masseria so far.  Right now there is so much demand that the restaurant can get away with requiring diners to order a minimum of four courses on the weekend instead of the three minimum required during the week. “On the weekends, people tend to want to eat more,” Stefanelli explains. “They want to linger longer…It gives people the option to really experience more of the menu, too.”

This all goes against traditional restaurant industry thinking. Diners usually prefer restaurants with flexibility in dining styles, environments, and price points, so it’s always a gamble when a chef makes them play by his or her rules. “The more you force customers to do what you want to do, the riskier it is,” said Miller said.

But chefs like Ziebold and Stefanelli are proving that at least some D.C. diners are willing to show up and travel on that journey with them — and with their restaurants’ small number of seats, fixed menus, and higher prices, they’ve developed a model that can survive in D.C.’s competitive market. Time will tell if newcomers like Onwuachi can do the same.

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