This article about Ian and Eric Hilton, the brothers who co-own several restaurant-lounges in Washington, including Marvin on 14th Street NW, failed to mention Marvin's other partners. They are Yama Jewayni and Farid Ali.
Brothers build a restaurant dynasty
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Soon after Ian Hilton breezes into the Gibson on a sunny afternoon, he issues a gentle warning: "It's going to be next to impossible to get an interview with Eric." He means his brother, with whom he co-owns this 14th Street speak-easy, the restaurant Marvin next door and four other District nightspots.
That's because Eric has another gig, one for which he is best known: as half of Thievery Corporation, the Grammy-winning duo that weaves reggae and world music into loungey electronica. And just as the band is a loose collective (guest musicians and vocalists gravitate in and out depending on the album, song and tour), the Hilton brothers involve various family members and business partners in their efforts to build a mini empire of restaurants with the same laid-back vibe as the band's music.
Eric is the idea guy and Ian the businessman; both have an easygoing manner that belies the fact that they have been busier than ever. They plan to open three restaurants by the end of this year: the Brixton, at the corner of Ninth and U streets Northwest; another in what was formerly Billy Simpson's House of Seafood and Steaks on Georgia Avenue; and a spot that's coming along next to Marvin (working name: Blackbird Warehouse). It will make for quite a year, one in which they also have opened Patty Boom Boom, invested in the new U Street Music Hall and advised Eric's wife, Tien Claudio, and partner Steve Kaufmann on the recently opened Dickson Wine Bar.
The brothers have 200 full-time employees working for their projects, but "it's not corporate," says Ian, 38. "We don't want to corner the market. We're a family-owned shop." They don't advertise, and they don't pay for PR.
Marvin, which opened in 2007, is the flagship, but it wasn't the first. "I love the hospitality industry and have loved it my whole adult life," said Eric, 44, who eventually found time for an interview between international gigs. He opened Eighteenth Street Lounge in 1995 as a venue for DJs and a burgeoning music scene in the District and as home base for Thievery Corporation and ESL records, helping secure the band's place on the musical map. The brothers later opened Dragonfly, a sushi bar where "food was an amenity," says Ian, but it has since closed.
As the District's music and food scene has matured, the brothers' focus has expanded to include food as a priority as much as music and cocktails. (It helps that Eric's stepson and Ian's nephew, Jimmy Claudio, 26, trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and apprenticed in Italy and France for a year. As executive chef of the restaurants, Claudio develops the menus with the brothers' consultation.)
Still, of the Hilton establishments, only Marvin offers a traditional menu of appetizers, mains and desserts. The Gibson serves charcuterie, cheese, olives and the like (in addition to handcrafted cocktails); Patty Boom Boom sells Jamaican meat patties; and Dickson offers snacks, flatbread and banh mi sandwiches with cocktails, beer and an all-organic and biodynamic wine selection vetted by Jarad Slipp, restaurant director at CityZen.
Pared-down menus make good business sense. Traditional restaurants' profit margins hover around 10 percent or lower, while single-concept places such as the salad-focused Sweetgreen can earn more along the lines of 20 percent a year, says owner Nicolas Jammet.
Jimmy Claudio, whose mother and grandmother are Vietnamese, touts the banh mi as a Dickson house specialty. For the three renditions, pork belly, rib-eye and chicken are marinated in a mixture of fish sauce, garlic, lime and sugar. Rolls from Panorama Baking (which also sells to chef Michel Richard and at the 14th and U farmers market) are slathered with house-made chicken liver mousse and garnished with pickled daikon, carrots, micro-greens and plenty of cilantro.
Though Dickson is getting some buzz, Marvin's food has received tepid critical reviews. "I really don't know why we don't get recognition," Claudio says.
Even so, Marvin feeds an average of 150 people every weeknight and up to 300 on weekend nights. Ian says one reason is the crowd-pleasing portions. "In a lot of places, your wallet is empty, and your stomach is, too," he says. The halibut served with smoked cauliflower and greens is the size of a man's hand. Scallops come five to a plate. The entree of chicken and waffles is gargantuan, plated with a side of chicken gravy.
Whatever the critics say, Eric considers Claudio and the kitchen staff to be the draw. "They completely hold it down. The food is good, consistent," he says. "It's so great to see them running the kitchen, since I've known Jimmy since he was 3 years old."