Almost immediately after he took over Teatro Goldini in late 2007, Michael Kosmides says corporate expense accounts on K Street began drying up.
Nearby lawyers — the same ones who used to shell out hundreds of dollars for long, wine-filled lunches — began ordering from the bar menu at happy hour.
“The economy was slowly crumbling beneath our feet,” Kosmides said. “We had to adjust and adapt.”
After several attempts to attract new customers, Kosmides eventually scrapped the long-standing white tablecloths altogether, reinventing the K Street mainstay as a restaurant-nightclub-events space.
The hope, he says, is that the newly renovated Look Supper Club will bring in a steady stream of revenue at all hours of the day — and night.
“It isn’t possible to survive just on lunch and dinner anymore,” the 39-year-old said. “We had to come up with a new business model.”
As the economy improves, an increasing number of area restaurants — and hotels, art galleries, even hair salons — are revamping their spaces to accommodate parties of hundreds or thousands. Budgets for corporate events and charity fundraisers have rebounded, and snagging one large coveted event can easily add hundreds of thousands of dollars to a venue’s bottom line.
“We could do a three-hour event that generates more income than five busy lunches and dinners combined,” said Kosmides, who also started Eyebar and Play Lounge in Northwest Washington. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Still, it took the Great Recession to get him there.
During the depths of the downturn, the accolades for Teatro Goldini rolled in. Esquire called it “D.C.’s best Italian restaurant” and named chef Enzo Fargione one of four to watch in 2008. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington gave it the Rammy Award for favorite restaurant in 2009.
But sales continued to tank.
“The more acclaim there was, the less busy we got,” Kosmides said. “It was like getting punched in the stomach every day.”
The solution, he decided, was to make the restaurant even fancier. He bought fine china and began promoting the $1,000 chef’s table.
The plan backfired.
“We were pricing everybody out of our food,” he said. “What I didn’t realize is that we were alienating the group that had, overnight, made up the new K Street.”
The new K Street, he says, is younger and more interested in cocktails than carpaccio.
Kosmides tried to adapt, adding pizza to the menu and offering happy hour from noon to 8 p.m. That seemed to work, but it wasn’t enough to shore up sales long term. He said it was time to take more drastic measures.
Kosmides shuttered the restaurant for nine months and embarked on a $900,000 overhaul. The 7,100-square-foot space was gutted. The walls were painted purple, and the $46 veal chop was replaced by $22 skirt steak. The glass-enclosed kitchen, once the center point of the restaurant, was deconstructed and moved to the back. A second bar was added. Eight months later, Look Supper Club opened its doors.
But there was a problem: It was all wrong.
“The place looked like a cheesy nightclub,” Kosmides said. “It was so huge that it felt like you were eating in the Vatican by yourself. We didn’t like the look and feel of it.”
Take two. Kosmides closed the restaurant again, this time for three months and $300,000 of additional renovations financed by the restaurant’s investors. A team from New York added curtains and redid the layout.
By the time the new supper club opened in September, Kosmides and his team had spent more than $1.2 million on renovations.
“We decided to go in this direction because we saw the need,” said Carlos Loredo, Look’s general manager. “There are a lot of businesses around here that are always looking to do luncheons and happy hours for 40, 60, 100 people.”
Four months after its reopening, Kosmides says the venture is profitable.
The supper club has hosted large events for 800 people or more, including a gathering for the Young Conservatives Coalition and a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Kosmides said.
“Through many bad decisions and mistakes, we stumbled into something really good here,” he said.