Prime Time for Bistros

Chef Robert Wiedmaier, from left, chef de cusine David Ashwell and executive sous-chef Brian Klein will launch a casual brasserie this month. Wiedmaier also directs high-end Marcel's.
Chef Robert Wiedmaier, from left, chef de cusine David Ashwell and executive sous-chef Brian Klein will launch a casual brasserie this month. Wiedmaier also directs high-end Marcel's. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"This town is so saturated with high-end restaurants," says chef Robert Wiedmaier as he steps between a series of scaffolds and next to enormous wooden crates that hold 200-pound clocks. "There is no real brasserie here. We need more casual fare."

And when the dust clears, that's precisely the style of eatery he will open in the weeks ahead: one where folks in denim and swells in suits stand to feel equally at ease. Brasserie Beck will be nothing like elegant Marcel's, his French restaurant in the West End, where a six-course tasting menu includes Dover sole with a fondue of leeks and costs $98.

Located on the ground floor of a new office building on K Street NW in the booming area near the Washington Convention Center, Beck will feature bowls piled high with Newfoundland mussels for $17 that can be washed down with a choice of 50 Belgian beers. (For help choosing, customers can ask "beer specialist" Bill Catron; see Dish, Page F3.) The airy space with 135 seats is designed to resemble a Great War-era European train station, with white-tiled walls, oversize mirrors and those old-fashioned wall-mounted clocks.

"I want to appeal to a different crowd of people and expand my cooking to another market," Wiedmaier says.

He is one of several Washington area chefs who operate fine-dining restaurants -- where dinner is theater -- and are opening casual, more affordable spinoffs, where a couple can spend $100 or less.

In the past eight months, Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Old Town opened Eamonn's/A Dublin Chipper a few blocks away; Michel Richard's Citronelle in Georgetown got a baby brother, Central, in Penn Quarter; and while his venerable Galileo downtown is getting a facelift, Roberto Donna has launched the unfussy Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City. By the end of the month, Armstrong plans to open the doors at another casual place, Majestic, also in Old Town.

The chic-to-casual trend, in which a notable chef with a top restaurant opens a mid-range bistro, is not original to Washington. It first flourished in Paris and New York in the early 1990s. Notable success stories of the bistro movement include Guy Savoy with La Butte Chaillot and Alain Ducasse with Aux Lyonnais, both in Paris, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten with JoJo in New York.

"It's the natural sign of a maturing restaurant community," says New York-based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "First, you have to have the high end in place as well as the very affordable. With that solid, now the middle range fills in. It has a lot to do with there being more reasons to visit D.C., with the new museums and programs. It has to do with the town being talked about more around the country in magazines and travel shows."

Ever-rising operating costs also have something to do with it. For chefs and restaurant managers, buying in bulk, no matter if it's steak or floor polish, saves money. Staff members can be shared between venues, which cuts down on training time.

"The classic 60-seat restaurant is no longer financially viable," Wolf says. "You can't afford to have just one restaurant."

To keep costs in line, Beck will have a standard menu that does not change. "You will always be able to get shallot and onion soup, steak tartare or steak au poivre," Wiedmaier says. "That's the philosophy of a bistro."

Marcel's menu, which changes five times a year, depends on pricier seasonal and hard-to-find ingredients. The style of cooking at such a restaurant is far more labor-intensive, with the need for reductions and complex sauces. He's paying his staff comparable salaries, but overall, the cost of ingredients at Beck will be 25 to 30 percent less than at Marcel's, Wiedmaier estimates.

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