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Logan Circle

Restaurant Staff Longs for Taste of Sizzling Economy

String of Problems Puts Grand Opening On Back Burner

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page C04

Orientation for the just-hired staff of Merkado, a Latin-Asian fusion restaurant hoping to become Logan Circle's latest destination, was supposed to happen in its new dining room.

But the tables hadn't been delivered, and a hard-to-solve electrical problem made the lighting iffy. Then there was the dust.

Merkado owner David Winer expects that when his restaurant opens, it will be enthusiastically received. Winer and his partners also own Logan Tavern and Grillfish. Merkado will be one element of the neighborhood's transformation from a blighted area. (Photos Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

So about 35 servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers and others gathered a few shops down Wednesday at Logan Tavern, which along with Dupont Circle's Grillfish completes the trio of restaurants owned by David Winer and his partners.

Logan Tavern opened in fall 2003 on the first floor of one of the new apartment buildings across from the Whole Foods supermarket, part of the transformation of the once-blighted 1400 block of P Street NW into what developers call an exciting urban address. Merkado occupies ground-floor space in the apartment building next door. Just beyond that, the old Duron Paint store has been razed, and work has started on a large condominium project.

Winer told the new Merkado hires that business at the tavern "has been great from the day we opened." Neighborhood residents were thrilled to have a restaurant so close. Although Merkado will be a little pricier and have a more unusual menu, the owners expect the same enthusiastic response.

But the question on Wednesday was, when would that opening be?

Originally scheduled for March 21, the launch was delayed by construction problems, which workers were pledging to solve by tomorrow, at the latest. Once the kitchen and the cash registers had power, the restaurant staff would need six full days of training to learn the ins and outs of the eclectic menu and restaurant procedures, Winer said.

"My hands are tied," Winer told the restaurant's staff, most of whom he had yet to meet personally. "Every day, I'm working on it."

He said he had already told the producers of "Opening Soon," a television reality show about restaurants, that they could shoot the last days of preparation and the first days of being in business.

More than 200 people applied for the three dozen or so jobs at Merkado, manager Jessica Blesoff-Carter said. Many, especially those seeking to be servers and bartenders, were restaurant veterans. Winer said their experience dealing with customers, especially during the dinner rush, would be critical in launching the venture. About 10 of the workers are new to the restaurant world.

It was a young crowd, mostly, in their twenties and thirties, wearing lots of denim and black clothing -- especially turtlenecks. Many live close enough to walk to work, and several had been customers at Logan Tavern or Grillfish. They said they were excited to be part of the launch of something new.

"I was waiting for this," said Dylan Lizalde, 34, an experienced waiter and bartender who lives a block from the restaurant at 15th and Rhode Island, in one of the neighborhood's older, less glitzy buildings.

Lizalde, who is a native of California and whose family is from Mexico, said he loved the idea of Latin-Asian cuisine and was optimistic about working in an area that was gaining so many residents.

"Just look at all that's happening here," he said, gesturing as if to point out each of the dozen or so apartment and loft condo projects recently completed or under construction. "I know this place is going to be . . . money."

Lucas Escolero, another server, grew up in nearby Adams Morgan after emigrating from El Salvador at age 12. After a stint working at restaurants in New York City, he moved to the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood, where a building boom similar to Logan Circle's is underway.

"It's good for the community," Escolero, 33, said of the rapid development. "It's going to bring more jobs for the people, and it's going to become more safe."

They and the other servers will spend this week learning the menu and wine list, memorizing ingredients and practicing ordering and serving the food. Once the restaurant settles into serving dinner seven nights a week, it will add weekend brunch. By summer, if all goes well, there may be sidewalk seating.

Escolero, who was on the original staff of the downtown restaurant Cafe Atlantico, said the work promises not to be dull. "A brand-new place is always going to be crazy, always going to be hectic," he said.

Server-to-be Pamela Doherty, 35, of Northeast said she and the others will have to roll with the punches. "You just have to be flexible," she said, "and smile a lot, and apologize when necessary."

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