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.”
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.