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.
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Brothers build a restaurant dynasty
Derek Brown, owner of the Passenger and cocktail consultant for the Gibson, credits a certain je ne sais quoi tied directly to the owners. "Eric Hilton brings an element of coolness without standing in the center of the room in a pair of shades," he says.
It helps, Brown adds, that the staff has an eclectic look: creative types, less strait-laced than the D.C. standard of Brooks Brothers and button-downs. Take Sheldon Scott, general manager at Marvin. Recently featured in the nascent Worn Magazine for his giant glasses, Scott -- also an actor and a performance artist -- wore a black suit with a black skinny tie, a fork-and-knife tie clip and a pink shirt with cuff links on a recent day. Other staff members are inked, sporting bleached-blond buzz cuts or bangs, Afros or faux-hawks, studs or skinny jeans, fashion subgenres not seen in offices on Capitol Hill. The aesthetic "makes people want to be there," says Brown.
Eric's idea for Marvin was hatched around the same time the brothers found the real estate, but that's not always how it works.
"The concept of a restaurant is fluid until the very end," Eric says. In fact, the next-door space for the Gibson came up before the brothers knew what they wanted to do there. And initially, it was to be a dive bar. "We were going to sell $4 Natty Boh," said Ian, until a trip to a city with a speak-easy stopover changed the direction of the idea. "The craft cocktail thing just kind of happened."
Though he appreciates the nod as the idea guy, Eric names a handful of people who help, including friend and designer Brian Miller. "Our process starts with an exploration of atmosphere: what else is on the block, who lives in the neighborhood," he says. "Brian, Ian and a few others and I talk about how the space supports an idea for a concept."
Although the brothers typically open places in historic, funky old buildings, the one next to Marvin that's tentatively named Blackbird Warehouse is new, and right now it's a skeleton. Spaces for Palladian windows gape over the sidewalk. One wall showcases an Obama mural. A slew of kitchen supplies crowds the back entrance.
It was to have been a bakery, but the concept, and a definite name, are still in flux. Red tape, licenses and architectural barricades have encouraged the Hiltons to return to the drawing board to make it happen. At this point, Eric says, it will be a laid-back coffee shop during the day and a performance space at night. "Obviously, because of my music background, I know a lot of great musicians, and I'd like to offer a place to perform: Afrobeat, jazz-funk, you name it," he says.
By the end of this year, the Hiltons will have nine places. That puts them on a par with Michael Babin's Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which started in 1997 with Evening Star Cafe, most recently opened ChurchKey and Birch and Barley in 2009 and employs more than 350 people.
But Eric says he doesn't want to get much bigger: "At this point, I'm trying to slow down the process of opening restaurants and bars. But landlords have offered spaces, and opportunities have presented themselves, so we're going with it."
In other words, it's about keeping things loose.