Le Pavillon is changing its accent. One of Washington's most highly praised restaurants and the first to serve nouvelle cuisine, Le Pavillon is being sold to a group of Chinese restaurant operators from New York. Nobody would cite a sale price, but one of the new owners described it as "around a million dollars or something like that."
The new owners now operate New York's Sichuan Pavilion. "Around the end of July," said manager-to-be Tommy Chen, Le Pavillon, located at 1820 K St. NW, will become Sichuan Pavilion D.C.
Although the sale was close to being final, as of yesterday the staff had not yet been told of the change. Chen expects to take over around June 20.
Le Pavillon has been a financial albatross to its owners, the principal ones being H. Peter Meisinger and Alfred L. Case, since its opening in July 1977. In October 1978, they made a dramatic change in the restaurant by hiring chef Yannick Cam from New York's Coup de Fusil (which has since closed) for a salary Cam claimed to approach $100,000 a year; he is now a minor owner. Critical reception was enthusiastic and Cam turned the kitchen into one of Washington's best, although the public was slow to accept his daring dishes presented in delicate portions at prices heretofore unheard of in Washington. Finally, in the first four months of this year, said Cam, business was up 67 percent, though in May it dipped slightly below last year's level. The 44-seat restaurant accepts only about 50 reservations an evening, and has, according to Cam, sometimes had to refuse a hundred people a night.
Le Pavillon's owners believe that the restaurant could do better in another location, said Mel Feldman, one of the minor owners; they plan to reopen elsewhere, though no location has been decided. Case and Meisinger were out of town and unavailable for comment, but Feldman said, "It is my understanding that Le Pavillon is not going out of business and will relocate," and that "Yannick, of course, will remain" with the relocated restaurant. Feldman also promised that customers would be notified of the closing day, and that no reservations would be taken that could not be kept.
Cam was surprised by the decision to sell and is still reeling. He heard the news four to six weeks ago and finds it difficult to understand why the restaurant would be sold just when it had begun to do well. He has looked at many other locations in the past month but has found every one too expensive. "In the city is impossible," he complained. And in Washington, he worries, "I don't see really a clientele for that kind of restaurant." While he would like to reopen in Washington, he also intends to look in Los Angeles for a site where he could open the same kind of restaurant but with two private rooms, one for 12, one for 30 people, for the special-order dinners that have become Cam's hallmark.
"We have never made any profit," said Mel Feldman. "The restaurant has lost very heavily," though lately, he said, it has come close to breaking even. He attributes the losses to "the high cost of operation in the downtown K Street corridor." Even as business improved considerably, the owners, said Feldman, still "didn't see prospects of profit-making." He continued, "What we did not see was the light at the end of the tunnel."
The new Pavilion will bring 11 chefs from Chongqing in China's Sichuan province, supplied by the government of the People's Republic of China. The chefs of the New York Sichuan Pavilion, which opened two years ago, are from Chengtu in the same province, and in that enterprise the Chinese government is in partnership with private owners. The Washington version will be privately owned, said Chen.
It will also be the second Sichuan Pavilion spinoff slated to open in Washington. A former partner in the New York restaurant has already bought the Apple Tree on 19th Street to open a Sichuan restaurant.
The new chefs of the K Street restaurant will come directly to Washington from China and will train here by way of private parties, said Chen, as the earlier chefs did in New York. Chen will manage both restaurants. His plans are to redo the kitchen and increase the seating capacity to about 140. "We will need more volume," he explained, adding that he plans to set prices at a "middle-class" level. The New York restaurant is one of the most expensive Chinese restaurants in that city.
The whole business has Cam "seriously depressed." The news hit him hard. "I feel like it is almost a rug pulling out under my feet," he said, adding, "I don't feel like coming to work." The day the restaurant closes he will certainly throw a party, for "We've got some wine to drink." But, he said repeatedly, it won't be a happy party.