After several years of quietly amassing one of the largest food service companies in the region, Warren Thompson is set to raise his profile a little.

Thompson last week secured a space in MCI Center, where he plans to open a steak restaurant in June. To be called Nick and Stef's Steakhouse, the Thompson Hospitality Corp. eatery will take on an already crowded downtown steakhouse market and open in a space with a checkered history as a restaurant location.

Thompson, the 37-year-old Wunderkind of the local hospitality industry, seems confident in his company's ability to transform the former home of Velocity Grill (a badly flawed money pit of a restaurant) into a profitable dining experience. Such confidence comes from a long line of successes in the field.

"We will put in a concept that will really meet the needs of the area -- a very upscale, high-end steakhouse with a better-priced value than the current steakhouses in town," he said.

Thompson's MCI venture will join a growing list of new restaurants in the Gallery Place area, a retailing and restaurant wasteland before the arena went up.

Velocity Grill was the area's first major failure after its resurgence. It folded in June.

Velocity's manager, Al Fry, now managing Bistro Bistro in Reston, said Velocity Grill's demise was a result of an excess of ambition and a lack of funds and marketing, not its location in MCI Center.

Fry, who said he's a friend of Thompson's, said "he'll do well if he plays his cards right." That includes making the restaurant more conspicuous and adding an outdoor cafe -- things Thompson plans to do.

From Big Boy to Top Guy

Thompson Hospitality Corp. was founded in 1992 as a chain of 31 Big Boy restaurants purchased from Marriott Corp., Warren Thompson's first employer.

The blizzard of '93 -- he lost $500,000 in one week due to weather -- and the death of his father prompted Thompson to sell the less successful restaurants and move into the contract food service industry. Today the company operates four Shoney's, two TJ's Roadhouse Grill and Saloons and a long line of contract food service operations under its subsidiary, Thompson Hospitality Services LLC. Its local contracts include George Mason University's student union, the House of Representatives, and the vending machines at area Giant supermarkets.

To compete for the larger food service contracts, Thompson took on a big partner. In September 1997 he formed a partnership with the British firm Compass Group PLC, the largest food service provider in the world. Compass owns a 2 percent stake in Thompson Hospitality Services, and Thompson sits on Compass's board of directors.

Thompson originally had the contract to operate Big Al's Pretzels at MCI Center, which helped when the time came to do the deal that led to Nick and Stef's Steakhouse.

A Second Serving

Nick and Stef's is a borrowed idea, and Thompson will have some well-heeled help financing the project. The concept originated with Los Angeles' Patina Group, a Compass subsidiary, which opened the prototype for Nick and Stef's 30 days ago near the Staples Center arena in Los Angeles; it's currently taking in some $20,000 per day. Aside from its location next to a major arena, the restaurant's main draw is its specially constructed aging and curing chamber for its beef.

Another Compass entity -- Restaurant Associates, which owns and manages a plethora of high-end restaurants in New York as well as some in Washington -- plans to open a Nick and Stef's adjacent to Madison Square Garden in April.

Steakhouses have herded into downtown in recent years, a trend Thompson attributes to several factors.

"D.C. has a strong growth rate, a lot of disposable income, a lot of dual-wage-earning families," he said.

More important, Thompson says, "the average amount of beef consumed by the customer has almost doubled in the past seven years. All of these things are very good for the restaurant business."

Besides the aging chamber, what may separate this restaurant from the competition is, first, its location, not only near MCI Center but actually inside it, with access from both inside and out. Nick and Stef's will also be targeted a little more toward a mainstream clientele, fitting in with its arena locale and arena patrons' bank accounts. While the steakhouses at the top rung of the ladder generally cost the average person more than $50 per meal excluding wine, a complete entree (with salad, bread and potato) at Nick and Stef's will run less than $23 per person.

A Look at ...

Gallery Place Eateries

Some of the restaurants that have opened up near MCI Center in recent years:

BET on Jazz: 730 11th St. NW

Capital Q: 707 H St. NW

Mehac: 817 Seventh St. NW

Cafe Atlantico: 405 Eighth St. NW

District Chop House: 509 Seventh St. NW

Austin Grill: 750 E St. NW

ESPN Zone: 11th and E streets NW (opening next year)

Arena Cafe: 521 G St. NW

Jaleo: 480 Seventh St. NW

Coco Loco: 810 Seventh St. NW

Expanding Empire

Thompson Hospitality Corp. has quietly built its food service business in recent years.

Revenue, in millions

1996 $28

1997 $31

1998 $42

1999 $55

SOURCE: Thompson Hospitality Corp.