In Washington, restaurants are thinking big


Chef de Cuisine Matt Hill prepares the seafood station at Range, the newest restaurant by Chef Bryan Voltaggio in Washington, D.C. (Stacy Zarin Goldberg)
April 25, 2013

At a big restaurant like Carmine’s in Penn Quarter, the extra-large meatballs aren’t the only thing that comes bulked up. For staff to serve the staggering 700 diners that can fill the restaurant at one time, muscles are practically a job requirement.

“They’re probably the most fit food runners on the East Coast,” said general manager Kristopher Diemar. “They can carry five or six plates that can be 50 or 60 total pounds of food.”

Strong and swift servers have become even more of a necessity in the past three years, with the opening of several mega-restaurants in the area. Carmine’s, which seats 700, opened in 2010, followed by the 1,000-seat Hamilton in 2011. Last October, Sterling’s 500-seat Bungalow Lakehouse opened its doors. And while its 260 seats (plus 50 more outside) are dwarfed by those behemoths, Stephen Starr’s Le Diplomate, which opened this month, is a huge addition to the 14th Street corridor.

During that same period of time, some of the city’s smallest restaurants — the 12-seat Minibar, the 27-seat Toki Underground — also have opened.

“Restaurants of size go in and out of cultural fashion,” said Clark Wolf, a New York restaurant consultant. “You’re more matured as a restaurant city than you’ve ever been, which includes a mix of size.”

Rustic pizzas, raspberry thyme bon-bons, and local brews whirl around Bryan Voltaggio’s bustling 295-seat restaurant in Friendship Heights. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

For some, growth can be attributed to the aftereffects of the financial crisis. The space claimed by Carmine’s was originally supposed to be a Balducci’s grocery store, but the funding fell through, giving the Italian restaurant chain a chance to create a restaurant even bigger than its locations in Atlantic City and New York (but not for long — the D.C. Carmine’s will soon be surpassed by a 28,000-square-foot location in Las Vegas). The Hamilton is a shuttered Border’s bookstore. Range, which opened last fall, takes up half of a floor in the rehabilitated Chevy Chase Pavilion Mall.

When retailers bailed, restaurants got the chance to go big.

“I wasn’t looking for a 14,000-square-foot restaurant; it came looking for me,” said Bryan Voltaggio, the former Top Chef finalist and owner of Range, who was presented the space by a real estate investment firm. “I missed that experience of an a la carte-style dining, but I wanted to do it in a new way.”

So Range, with nine kitchens, about 300 seats, a private dining room and an adjoining cigar bar was born — and later described by Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema as “more like an ocean liner than a restaurant.”

Large restaurants play a specific role in the D.C. political, social and economic ecosystem. Washington’s need for private dining — for conferences, large groups of tourists, family functions and, of course, political fundraisers — are another reason for the increased square footage. Politicians, NGOs and advocacy groups are critical to the health of large restaurants, which are eager to host their events.

Carmine’s caters to those groups so specifically that they built a private, Secret Service-approved entrance for VIPs. It has been used by such high-profile guests as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In the height of the political season last year, Carmine’s was hosting so many events that managers had to be wary of the political balance of the restaurant at any given time.

“Political parties are interesting because we get nervous about who’s going to be next to who,” said Jeff Bank, chief executive of Alicart Restaurant Group, the parent company of Carmine’s.

Spaces that can accommodate political fundraisers can just as easily host rehearsal dinners and corporate functions. The key is constructing the restaurant so it can handle large groups with ease while still making walk-in diners comfortable.

“You need flexibility to accommodate . . . office parties and weddings, but you also cannot lose the intimacy of providing space in your restaurants for four-tops and six-tops,” said Herb Heiserman, managing principal architect with Streetsense, which designs many D.C. restaurants. “You’re creating . . . different experiences within the restaurant itself.”

That means removable walls that can create intimate spaces, as well as cavernous banquet facilities. But in the case of Range, restaurant design affects the chef’s experiences, as well.

The kitchen divisions make “it feel like [chefs] are working in their own individual small kitchen,” Voltaggio said. “It’s almost like working in your own little restaurant when it comes to how the service is. It’s not like you’re [putting] out 30 dishes at one time.”

Still, efficiency is a benefit to large restaurants.

“When you’re making lots of stock or lots of soup, you can do a lot of other things that go with them that can be done immediately and can be done fresh,” Wolf said. “It can allow you to cross-utilize — use the whole animal or plant really well.”

At Carmine’s, everything is made-to-order, but in huge batches, like a vat of 360 meatballs. Range buys two or three hogs a week, estimates executive chef Matt Hill, and uses all of the cuts in dishes throughout the week. Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street NW goes through 20,000 oysters a week.

A restaurant’s layout makes a big difference for groups, too. Heiserman says a private space needs to be able to be closed off from the rest of the restaurant but still provide a direct path from the entrance that won’t disrupt other diners. It helps to have a separate kitchen, as Range does, that keeps group orders from clogging the rest of the line.

Even though big restaurants can make big profits, their challenges, too, are scaled up. They’re built for speed and efficiency, but those systems don’t work on slow nights.

“If you have an empty restaurant, and you’re fully staffed, it gets very expensive,” said David Moran, managing director of the Hamilton and Old Ebbitt Grill. He also must staff his restaurants 24 hours a day: “There might be an hour that the night bartender says ‘good morning’ to the opening waiter.”

Moran has worked with the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, the chainlet that manages many of the biggest restaurants in the area, for 24 years, so big and busy spaces don’t intimidate him. On a busy day, he says, the Hamilton serves 3,500 to 4,000 people and can make $100,000 in gross revenue, a total Old Ebbitt can achieve as well.

“We don’t build small restaurants anymore,” Moran said. “We have a certain formula in knowing how to execute restaurants on large scale. . . . When you build these 600-seat restaurants, you can be busy.”

Super-size menus

18: cases of Brussels sprouts Range goes through every week

10: lambs consumed at Range each week

1,000: meatballs eaten at Carmine’s on a busy day

20,000: oysters eaten each week at Old Ebbitt Grill

3,500: pizzas sold weekly at Matchbox’s Rockville and 14th Street locations

Read more:

Tiny restaurants, big followings

A day in the life at Range

D.C. restaurants, big and small

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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