No sooner did my rave review of Range at the Chevy Chase Pavilion go online in March than I regretted awarding the hot spot an infrequent three stars. Dozens of readers wrote to tell me that the sterling service I depicted was not their norm. “They must have recognized you,” more than a few restaurant-goers figured.
Current technology — and more than a dozen years on Washington’s food beat — make it challenging for me to get in and out of restaurants under the radar. Even so, I take steps not to tip off my subjects in advance. Pseudonyms help. Restaurants can be assured that anyone making a reservation under my name (it happens) is not actually me coming to dinner. My practice of visiting a restaurant several times for a starred review is another support. Usually I can dine anonymously on at least one, or part of, a visit.
The excellent cooking at Range — an ambitious American restaurant from Bryan Voltaggio of “Top Chef,” Volt restaurant and cookbook fame — made it a contender for a compilation of favorites. On one of two return visits, I used a made-up name but showed up 10 minutes after my companion, who reported having to wait eight minutes at a table for an acknowledgment from a waiter — seven minutes too long in my estimation, a sentiment I tweeted without naming Range.
The next day, I heard back from an apologetic Voltaggio. A review of camera footage (“we’re kind of ‘Big Brother’ here,” said the chef) and an interview with the server indicated that, yes, my friend waited almost eight minutes before he was approached, but, no, he wasn’t snubbed intentionally. Voltaggio explained that the waiter observed my guest, whose back was to the server, texting and hesitated to interrupt him.
The food that night was as memorable as any of my previous dinners. Garlic sausage veined with pistachios suggested the charcuterie department was as skilled as ever, and pizza strewn with succulent shrimp, jalapenos and a whisper of pesto might have been the best pie I’ve had at Range. Linguine set off with sea urchin and kimchi was again divine. And the service improved significantly once I joined the table. Aside from my friend’s service glitch, I was pretty sure Range, under the care of chef de cuisine Matt Hill, was the restaurant I recognized from months earlier.
“Pretty sure” isn’t 100 percent certain, so I went a second time with someone who had never been to Range — and in a disguise so transforming, not even close friends recognized the photo I texted them. “You are my worst blind-date nightmare,” one of them offered.
Unlike every other visit to Range, we were shown to the far back dining room: Siberia. The table was a little more in the open than we wanted, so we asked the hostess if we could sit in a nearby corner. She let us know it was more convenient for the staff if we stayed where we were. “Have you been here before?” a waiter asked. My guest and I shook our heads and got a rapid-fire spiel from a waiter who looked away as he went through his paces. We ended up ordering, and for the most part enjoying, pan-roasted rockfish with Parisian-style gnocchi and leg of lamb with a zippy romesco made with carrots and almonds, although the meat could have been warmer.
But lots of things went undone at Range that last visit. Cocktail glasses remained on our table long after we emptied them. A dish that tasted off to us was quickly removed from the table, but not before the waiter said, “I’ll bring it to the kitchen and see what they think.” When I returned from the restroom, the napkin I had left crumpled on my seat remained so, and after the sommelier opened our pinot noir, no one else but me poured for the rest of the night. At least three dining room staff walked past a packet of Sweet ‘n Low on the carpet before anyone picked it up. Our waiter raced through the dessert options so fast, we could barely understand the selections. When he said, “We can box them up for you to take home,” it felt less like an amenity for us than a convenience for him to close a sale.
“This is more about turning tables than serving tables,” my companion summed up. As we exited, I noticed a local food personality at a prime table. She looked right at me (but not me) and continued eating.
The kitchen is the restaurant’s best asset. The service? It’s better if they know you at Range.