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Prominent Eatery Seeks Chapter 11 Protection

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2004; Page E01

Galileo, the 21st Street restaurant that's a landmark in Washington cuisine and a frequent gathering place for the rich and powerful, filed for bankruptcy reorganization this week in the face of nearly $2.5 million in debts, including a claim by the District for more than $1 million in unpaid taxes and penalties.

Despite the filing, owner Roberto Donna said he does not plan to close the restaurant, which offers dishes such as boneless quail wrapped in pancetta and Mediterranean sea bass braised in a white wine broth.


Galileo's Roberto Donna slices onions in his kitchen, amid jugs of goats' milk. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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"The restaurant is going to stay open," said Donna, one of the area's best-known chefs. "Nothing's going to change. Same service. Same food. Same operations."

Donna said the Italian eatery's parent company, SER Inc., was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after an agreement he had with the District government to pay delinquent sales taxes unraveled earlier in the year.

Faced with the prospect of losing his liquor license on Monday if he did not pay back the full amount the District claims he owes, Donna said he had no choice but to seek bankruptcy protection. The filing will allow him to renew his license while he works to come up with the money to repay his creditors.

"It was not done because we wanted to do it. We were forced to do it," Donna said. "We owe them some money. There was a mistake. But they don't want to cooperate. We've been cooperating with them always."

Donna said he would contest the District's claim that he owes more than $1 million. The rest of Donna's debts are with the bank BB&T and with various distributors. Donna said he hopes to repay his debts within six months.

William Bowie, acting general counsel of the District's office of tax and revenue, would not comment except to say that Donna "has a liability with the District. We will shortly be filing a bankruptcy claim to protect our interests."

Donna's attorney, Darrell Clark of Stinson Morrison Hecker, said the debts to the District have accumulated over several years and that, while Donna was filing returns, there was a disagreement over how much he owed. Clark said the restaurant's creditors have agreed to allow him to remain in business while he attempts to repay his debts.

"Everyone realizes that the creditors are better off with Roberto Donna at the restaurant cooking," Clark said. The restaurant's assets, if liquidated, are valued at nearly $1 million. That includes nearly $500,000 worth of wine, Clark said.

Both Galileo and Donna's more exclusive Laboratorio del Galileo -- located adjacent to the main restaurant -- which is also covered by the bankruptcy action, have been fixtures of the Washington culinary scene for years, and regularly host the political and business elite for extravagant expense-account meals.

The restaurant was a favorite of the former president George H.W. Bush. At Laboratorio, where diners can watch Donna work as they eat, reservations are required weeks, if not months, in advance. Meals run to as many as 12 courses, and the per person tab extends well into the hundreds of dollars. "Donna created this space to strut his stuff, to experiment, and he does," according to a 2001 review in The Washington Post. "One night late last month, he sent out an extraordinary risotto, its creamy texture refreshingly interrupted with minced celery, and a perfect square of cod with a fine garlic sauce, all crowned with a crunchy potato 'tartlet.' "

Donna said yesterday that the bankruptcy filing did not reflect any drop-off in demand for tables at Galileo or Laboratorio. "It's been an excellent year. It would be the best year in 20 years if we didn't have this mess," he said.

Among regular customers at Galileo, the news of the restaurant's bankruptcy filing was not taken well yesterday. "Oh my God," patron Joe Heflin said upon hearing the news. "We have a dinner planned in Laboratorio on a Friday night in October. I've already got 30 people and another 15 on the waiting list for what amounts to a $225-a-person dinner."

The 57-year-old Reston resident said he had eaten in Laboratorio about 10 times in the last year and a half and first went to Galileo nearly 20 years ago.

"I'm a Roberto groupie. I'm one of his biggest fans," said Heflin, who sells roller coasters. "I just can't rave and scream and burp enough. This is just such a shame."


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