This is the one inviolate commandment regarding fast-casuals in Washington: Do not, under any circumstance, get hooked on one. The location nearest you, or the entire chain itself, could go poof when you least expect it, like last fall when Taylor Gourmet, once a titan among D.C. fast-casuals, decided it could no longer stand the pain and the financial drain. Our access to a decent hoagie vanished in one contemptible weekend, unless you had a flight to catch at Reagan National.
I spoke with mourners in the weeks after Taylor called it quits, each confessing they missed the Philly-inspired sandwich shops despite the fact that the menu shifted more often than the wide receivers in a spread offense. But I think the person who suffered most when Taylor closed — more than the customers, employees or suppliers — was Casey Patten, the guy who co-founded the chain in 2008.
Now, you could make a persuasive argument that Patten is not the most sympathetic character in Washington. His politics seem to lean right of center in a town that tilts hard left. You’ll recall that he and Taylor Gourmet took their licks in 2017 when Patten shook hands with President Trump during a White House ceremony on small businesses. Patten could also be held accountable, in part, for whatever problems led Taylor Gourmet into Chapter 7 bankruptcy after its majority owner, private-equity firm KarpReilly, decided to stop propping up the company. Some seem to think Taylor’s demise was just punishment for Patten’s “crimes.”
But in our divided land, I’ve grown weary of judging a person’s politics at the expense of his humanity, probably to the detriment of us all. When Taylor Gourmet imploded, Patten didn’t just lose his business, he lost his connection to a hospitality industry that had been a steady part of his life since he was a teenager. I found it hard not to have some sympathy for the guy. Here he was empty-handed, a restaurant lifer without a single restaurant.
It came as little surprise, then, that Patten reentered the business about seven months after he exited it. The surprising part, perhaps, was his chosen vehicle for reentry: Grazie Grazie, a Philly-style sandwich shop that has more than a passing resemblance to Taylor Gourmet, the chain to which Patten, 39, had devoted more than a quarter of his life. Several sandwiches have adopted the same names, if not the same recipes, as their Taylor forebears. Steel drums hang from the ceiling as industrial light fixtures, a page ripped straight from the Taylor interior-design book. A Puck’s soda dispenser is even tucked into a corner, as if it had never left the Wharf space that used to be, yes, a Taylor Gourmet shop.
It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that the Taylor Gourmet dream died hard for Patten. He says he tried to buy Taylor Gourmet’s assets this spring in a bankruptcy auction but lost out to Source Cuisine, a company led by real estate developer Steve Kalifa, who plans to relaunch the sandwich brand in September. Kalifa may have secured the name, trademarks and logos, but Patten kept the passion for the original concept. Grazie Grazie, Patten says, is a tip of the hat to Taylor Gourmet’s former employees and loyal customers.
“It’s a little nod to thank those two groups of people who were extremely important pieces of my life,” Patten says.
Their names may sound familiar, but the sandwiches themselves have been overhauled in the months since Taylor vanished, starting with the bread. Patten worked with Gold Crust Baking to fashion two new loaves, including a seeded roll that pulls double duty as a base for hoagies and cheesesteaks. The reformulated seeded original — crusty, golden, elastic — is a significant improvement over the hoagie roll that I last remember at Taylor, a hard hunk of bread that could make you feel like a dog with a bone. I’d say it’s even better than the Sarcone’s rolls that Taylor used to truck from Philly in the early days.
The seeded original is surprisingly versatile. It can be packed tight, as with the Minelli, an Italian hoagie that looks more like a cornucopia. It overflows with sliced meats, basil, arugula, oven-dried tomatoes and red onions, all dusted with a light snowfall of grated pecorino Romano. If any one item trumpets Patten’s return, it’s the Minelli. Its generosity has no boundaries, and yet each ingredient knows its place. By any measure, it’s a terrific sandwich.
The same roll is pressed into cheesesteak service, which the bread handles without complaint. The roll manages to hold its form even when packed with grass-fed rib-eye, cherry pepper aioli, bacon, Cooper sharp cheese and more, a juicy stratum of ingredients known as the Philly Special cheesesteak. If there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing, it’s the Philly Special. Fortunately you can build your own sandwich — a service not offered during Patten’s Taylor Gourmet days — and put together a cheesesteak with only onions and housemade Whiz, a lean preparation that allows you savor the intense, nutty rib-eye meat.
I grazed widely across the Grazie Grazie menu, falling hard for two sandwiches on opposite ends of the spectrum: the Callowhill, with housemade beef meatballs that break apart on the tongue like good sushi rice; and the Cumberland, a falafel sandwich that has everything, including crunch, an element often AWOL with veg fillings. I would have enjoyed the Stefani roast turkey sandwich, with its Amalfi breeze courtesy of a lemon ricotta spread, but the limp bacon fell down on the job, providing no hard surfaces in this quicksand of a sandwich.
Grazie Grazie is a young and busy restaurant. Soggy bacon is a sign that it’s still finding its footing. So are french fries that land with a thud: soft, pale and salty. So is the Pattison roast pork sandwich, a Philly classic that became a grease trap when a cook forgot to skim the fat from the stock into which the meat is dipped. Should you find yourself in a similar situation, you can seek comfort in Grazie Grazie’s Abbruzze cheese spread, a fiery three-cheese dip that comes with a variety of cut vegetables, including slices of watermelon radish, their bursts of color like a fireworks display. Or just call up your old friends, the risotto balls, all warm, gooey and irresistible.
Speaking of risotto balls, Kalifa tells me that he owns the rights to the names of Taylor Gourmet’s menu items, including those crackly spheres of fried rice. Patten has agreed to find new titles for those sandwiches that have crossed the line. But what about the risotto balls?
“I’m not changing risotto balls,” he says. “You want me to change the name of cucumbers, too?”
85 District Square SW, 202-216-2999; graziegrazie.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Waterfront Station, with a 0.6-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.50 to $8 for starters and sides; $9 to $13 for salads and sandwiches.