It was like being at a wake last night at TenPenh, the downtown eatery that has anchored the corner spot at Tenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW since July 2000. Chef and co-owner Jeff Tunks’s iconic house of Asian fusion served its last meal yesterday before closing down for good.
Hundreds arrived or ordered takeout for a final taste, many speaking highly of the dead. The kitchen crew estimated they cranked out 700 covers on the day, which began with a to-go order of one dozen cinnamon-sugar-dusted doughnuts with bittersweet chocolate pudding for dipping. Others told stories, many of which we hadn’t heard before.
“It’s been a melancholy day,” the chef said in between yelling orders to fire whatever hadn’t already been 86’ed. The chef worked the line for 1 1/2 months when TenPenh opened 11 years ago, and has logged long hours away from his regular gig at DC Coast during the past week to usher out the TenPenh era.
“For me, it’s been more of a party,” said co-owner Gus DiMillo, looking relaxed and boat-elegant in khakis and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. Co-owner David Wizenberg seemed happy and had a plan in place for everything to be packed up and trucked outta there immediately after closing. He drove much of the stuff to other restaurants in the Passion Food Hospitality group.
Arturo Ventura was stoic and kept busy. The 42-year-old Salvadoran native has worked as a food runner at TenPenh and at DC Coast from Day One. “I’ve served a lot of celebrities,” he said. His favorite: Gloria Estefan and her husband, Emilio. He’s heading back to DC Coast full-time.
Former chefs gathered Monday night at the restaurant for their own sendoff: David Guas (the organizer), Cliff Wharton, Peter Russo, Jason Andelman, Travis Timberlake, Jason Ramos and Chris Smallwood. (Hmm...could that have been why half the cocktails were already crossed off the menu by happy hour?)
You always learn so much when things come to an end. For example:
* Residing next to the FBI’s headquarters has been a mixed blessing over the years. That big ugly building with all the security cameras creates a dead zone along Pennyslvania Avenue.
* The TenPenh concept may not be dead. The owners are considering reviving it in another space, and so much of the Thai artwork and statues will be stashed in a warehouse. For now.
* Tunks’s wife, Katharine, will carry the TenPenh name with her wherever she goes. Her license plate is stamped with the restaurant’s name.
* A number of TenPenh’s signature dishes, such as the Chinese-style smoked lobster with crispy fried spinach (actually a vestige from Tunks’s days at the old River Club in Georgetown) and the wok-seared spicy calamari salad, already have or will pop up on menus at other restaurants in the PFH group.
* A good 90 percent-plus of the restaurant’s almost 90 employees have been placed in other restaurants in the group as well.
* The invitation to TenPenh’s July 2000 opening was an elegant folding Japanese hand fan, stamped with the restaurant’s information, which the owners had to order from an Asian company; it was tough to find a vendor in America who could print on the fans the way pr maven Simone Rathle had in mind.