Correction: A previous version of this article did not make a clear enough distinction between Range, Bryan Voltaggio’s restaurant, and Civil Cigar Lounge, the adjoining smoking lounge. Voltaggio developed and executes the bar’s menu in their shared kitchen, but Civil is owned by John Anderson and Matt Krimm.
“Having fun yet on this slow Thursday?” a bartender asks a fellow server at Range.
A slow Thursday at Bryan Voltaggio’s newest restaurant in Friendship Heights still means at least 300 diners will sit down for small plates of pork cheeks, branzino, apple crisp or cornbread with bacon marmalade. On busy nights, that number will swell to more than 500 people, fed by Range’s nine kitchens, all of which work as a separate entity.
The separate kitchens present a unique challenge for a restaurant its size: For one particular table, a server might have to determine the pacing of a meal that comes from the raw bar, the wood-fired oven, the pizza grill, salumeria, bar, pasta station and pastry kitchen, for example, as well as collect and deliver all of the items from each area. Think of Range as a series of airports and the servers as planes. And the restaurant itself is a busy airspace where collisions must be prevented and cargo needs to be delivered safely and on time.
“You can see figuring out the best direction to go being a challenge,” says general manager Steve Fowler, who could be considered an air traffic controller. There were service kinks when Range opened in December, but “we’re hitting our stride now,” Fowler says.
To add to that air traffic controller vibe, managers, hosts and some of the chefs wear walkie-talkie headpieces to communicate with the separate kitchens and host stands. They use the devices to give others a heads-up about VIP diners, coordinate seating and reservations and summon a cartful of house-made candy.
To help keep things moving, Range uses a touch-screen computer that tracks customer checks — the same system used at McDonalds, according to Fowler. Line cooks can see the tickets flash up on the screen, showing what everyone’s having for dinner tonight: The rindswurst for check B14, the cheddar biscuits for check 193, the Caesar salad for 220, the beef heart, medium rare, for 187. Expediting each order on a main control screen, chef de cuisine Matt Hill sees most of the orders before they go out. He has been at the restaurant since 10 a.m., when he begins to determine the daily menu changes, and will not leave until at least 11 p.m.
Hill’s position near the wood-fired grill is one of the most visible in the kitchen — it’s at the corner of a busy intersection near the bar and surrounded by seating that turns jobs like impaling chickens for a rotisserie, or garnishing branzino, into theatrics. (The unsexy ingredients of food preparation — like a gigantic vat of veal stock — are kept behind the scenes.)
“You feel like you’re in a bubble,” Hill says. “When you walk around, you realize how much people can see everything.”
Things are busiest immediately after the influx of customers about 6 and 8 p.m., but by 9:45 p.m., the servers don’t have to speed through the corridors quite as quickly. There’s still one station moving at full speed though — dessert. Jean Diep is running the pastry station, and she’s assembling five orders at a time: deconstructed apple crisp with butter pecan ice cream, goat cheese cheesecake, salted caramel ice cream and a chocolate ganache tart among them.
“I try to make it a game, how fast can I plate this?” Diep says.
She summons servers via the headsets to pick up their orders. It’s also a busy time for the candy cart: Hill says they aim to get the cart to diners after they’ve ordered dessert, but before it has arrived, to better entice people with lavender honey truffles and salted caramel bonbons before their appetites have been sated. Chris “Skipp” Williams often mans the candy cart, and he relishes the role, at times striking a pose with his hand on his hip, clicking the candy tongs as if they were castanets.
After 10 p.m., when the orders start to trickle in, the cooks and servers clean their stations and get ready for the next day, prepping food such as the ribbons of chocolate curls that garnish some dishes.
As the servers clock out, some head to Civil Cigar Lounge, Voltaggio’s smoking bar that shares a kitchen with Range, to decompress. Many members of the staff work 10 hours a day, six days a week, but long hours are all part of a restaurant’s first year, says executive pastry chef Johnny Miele.
“Not everybody is ready or used to working in a place that is nonstop busy,” he says while prepping a white chocolate semifreddo for the next day. “We are busy from the moment you walk in the door until you leave.”