They (Heart) D.C.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
When Alain Ducasse's new restaurant at the St. Regis opened last week, Tom Daschle was spotted on the first night. Comedian Chevy Chase popped in for lunch. Washingtonian magazine dining editor Todd Kliman was so excited about Adour that he wrote his first-ever "real-time restaurant review," made up of more than 100 updates on Twitter, a micro-blogging service.
The clear message: Alain Ducasse's arrival in Washington is a big deal.
Ducasse is a culinary legend, with 26 restaurants and 14 Michelin stars to his name. And he is one of a half-dozen name-brand chefs to set their sights on Washington: Charlie Palmer of Aureole fame led the way a few years ago with Charlie Palmer Steak, followed last fall by the Source by Wolfgang Puck at the Newseum and Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, the famed chef of New York's Le Bernardin. In December, San Francisco talent Michael Mina will open Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons. And if rumors prove true, foulmouthed British chef Gordon Ramsay will take over the restaurant formerly known as Maestro at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner.
All of which raises a few questions: Why here? Why now? And will these chefs turn Washington into the Las Vegas of the East, with outposts of the best international chefs overshadowing a homegrown restaurant culture?
Washington might not seem an obvious place for such high-profile chefs. This, after all, is a city of power brokers who favor restaurants such as Georgetown's Cafe Milano or the Palm, known more for who's at the bar than what's on the plate, and short-timers who tend to have conservative tastes. As longtime Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman once observed, "When a North Carolina lobbyist and an Iowa legislator want to get acquainted, steak is a language both understand."
Those traits also make Washington an ideal place for nationally known chefs, says New York restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. The transient nature of Washington's population makes it hard for local chefs to build loyalty; their regulars disappear every two, four or eight years. Even lifelong Washingtonians tend not to have the same allegiance that you find in, say, Boston, where patronizing an out-of-town chef's restaurant is the equivalent of cheering for the Yankees. In Washington, Wolf says, "if you are a well-known chef, you have a broader base."
Hotels have taken note, and, with the exception of Puck's Source, they are behind the new deals. A hot restaurant helps attract tourists and business travelers who might know the chef from another city. More important, it helps bring in locals who can be turned into regulars, the lifeblood of any restaurant. Washington diners, in particular, are an attractive demographic. According to 2007 Census data, the Washington area includes four of the richest counties in the country. The top three, Loudoun, Fairfax and Howard, list median incomes more than twice the U.S. average of $50,740.
Terms of the deals vary. Some chefs lease a space and manage their own staff. But most are so-called management contracts. The chef creates the concept and menu, provides an executive chef and lends his name in exchange for a signing bonus and a percentage of the profits. The hotel pays for the build-out and manages the staff in exchange for the chef's expertise and ability to create buzz. According to Wolf, brand-name chefs bring in 2.5 to 4.5 times the revenue of an unknown restaurateur.
A case in point is Westend, at the Ritz-Carlton in Northwest. The transformation from hushed dining room to buzzy bistro bumped restaurant revenue up 50 percent and profits up 10 percent. For Ripert, the hotel's day-to-day management allows him to focus on Le Bernardin. "The strong support of the Ritz lets us have the product we want," says Ripert, who also has restaurants in Ritz-Carlton properties on Grand Cayman and in Philadelphia.
The deals could change as the economy stumbles. Hotels might cut back on up-front bonuses or decree that payment be linked to results. But Clark predicts that the partnerships will continue, though perhaps at a slower pace.
Chefs insist the deals are about more than money, however. In interviews, each professed profound affection for Washington: Ripert's first job in the United States was under Jean-Louis Palladin. Ducasse, too, was a longtime friend of the late Watergate chef. Mina is close to Michel Richard. Palmer simply likes Washington. "I don't open in places I don't want to go visit," he says.
There's some truth to their reasoning. With restaurants around the globe, star chefs have the luxury of choosing cities they enjoy and are easy to get to. Ducasse, for example, is in New York twice a month, so flying to Washington to check in is a cinch. Washington's proximity to New York also helps assure smooth management. If something goes wrong, says Laurent Plantier, chief executive of the Groupe Alain Ducasse, it's easy to fly down a New York-based pastry chef or floor manager.