Watch out, Chinese and pizza takeout joints: You’ve got serious competition. In the past few years, Washington’s to-go dining options have mushroomed, with everything from doro wat and pho to barbecue and porterhouse steak now available on a take-home basis.
That’s an obvious win for harried foodies who want to sample the area’s offerings on their own time and in the quiet of their own homes. But what does it mean for chefs, who, by and large, would rather customers enjoy those carefully crafted meals in their well-appointed dining rooms?
A Jump on the Competition
When Old Ebbitt Grill, a pioneer in the city’s upscale to-go scene, opened Ebbitt Express 20 years ago, it was an obvious step: There was scant quality food available downtown for lunch on the go. But these days, the issue is too many dining options, not too few.
“Everything that’s open at lunch is competition,” says Jeffrey Buben, owner of Woodward Table, explaining why he opened a separate takeout area next to the restaurant, the slyly named WTF — for Woodward Takeout Food. Buben also owns the high-end restaurants Vidalia and Bistro Bis but says that in an era when many workers feel they can’t leave their computers, quick-serve restaurants often steal business from stately establishments.
Buben made sure WTF’s takeout area had Wi-Fi and outlets for waiting customers to charge phones. Still, catering to a new crowd has been a challenge.
“It’s an incredible learning curve for us; there’s a lot of rethinking of what people want,” Buben says.
While the to-go corner features an all-homemade slate of breakfast and lunch offerings — using the restaurant’s roomy kitchen to provide such meals as a zesty duck Reuben sandwich ($11) that smaller spots can’t manage — adjusting to an on-the-go mindset has taken time.
For other entrepreneurs, the issue is less about competing with others than familiarizing customers with their food. Toki Underground, which can seat only 20 diners at a time, started offering daily takeout last fall in an effort to serve more people. Now, cooks are predictably busier, says owner Erik Bruner-Yang, but there’s a downside, too: “We can’t have as much fun in the kitchen” playing with new ideas.
Ettore Rusciano, owner of Brookland’s Menomale, also sees pros and cons in offering the entire menu for takeout. On the one hand, patrons who can’t find a seat can still order the bufalina sandwich, loaded with prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and basil ($8), or the briny salami-artichoke-olive capricciosa pizza ($12.50).
But Rusciano fears that his Neapolitan-inspired meals suffer in the transition from restaurant kitchen to home. “I tell my [diners] all the time, they should eat first here and then later take it home,” he says. That way, they’ll know how the food should taste — and what they’re missing.
The Risks of Travel
Estadio general manager Justin Guthrie agrees that there’s a discomfiting element of uncertainty to providing a menu to go. “We’re not 100 percent sure about what the guest is getting by the time it gets home,” he says.
But like Estadio, most restaurants are hesitant to say no to regular customers. Perry’s sells its sushi to go, which could be a liability if patrons don’t realize they need to eat or refrigerate the food immediately. The staff trusts their customers, however. “We assume they know it’s raw fish,” manager Sarah Bleyle says. “We haven’t had any problems, knock on wood.”
And in the end, the customer is king. So the staff at tapas restaurant Boqueria might try to discourage customers from ordering such unwieldy dishes as gambas al ajillo (shrimp in hot olive oil, $13) as takeout. But ultimately, says manager Alexie Duncker, “we’re not going to say no.”Ebbitt Express, 675 15th St. NW, 202-347-8881 Woodward Takeout Food, 1426 H St. NW, 202-347-5355 Toki Underground, 1234 H St. NE, 202-388-3086 Menomale, 2711 12th St. NE, 202-248-3946 Estadio, 1520 14th St. NW, 202-319-1404 Perry’s, 1811 Columbia Road NW, 202-234-6218 Boqueria, 1837 M St. NW, 202-558-9545