Ask a dozen food geeks to name the first thing they associate with Mike Isabella, and they'll probably rattle off a list of biographical highlights and/or minutiae: "Top Chef" contestant, New Jersey bad boy, clam-shucking chauvinist, serial restaurateur, dude with the gypsy tattoo to ward off evil.
With his next major project, however, Isabella may forever shed his tats-and-work-shirts image and confirm his status as one of the most ambitious restaurateurs in the Mid-Atlantic. In the summer of 2017, the chef will open Isabella Eatery in Tysons Galleria, an ambitious, 10-concept undertaking that will combine a few brands that are already familiar to D.C. diners — and several that are not.
Sprawling over 41,000 square feet on the McLean mall's third level, near luxury stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Prada, the 600-seat Eatery will include variations on established brands, such as Isabella's Italian flagship Graffiato, his spit-roasting Greek restaurant Kapnos, his Mexican cantina Pepita, and Yona, the Japanese and Korean restaurant guided by chef Jonah Kim. It will also feature a raw-bar riff on Requin, the seafood project being workshopped by chef Jennifer Carroll in Merrifield, as well as new enterprises dedicated to Spanish tapas, old-fashioned ice cream, specialty coffee, classic cocktails and Mediterranean grilled meats.
“The mentality behind it is to do what we do every day,” says Isabella as he sits on a bench at the Galleria, occasionally recognized by shoppers who stop to greet him or furtively snap his picture.
“What we do at Kapnos. What we do at Graffiato. What we do at G sandwich. What we do at Yona,” Isabella continues. “It’s the same mentality. I want to incorporate the same steps of service, the same level of food, the same everything that we do in our 5,000-square-foot or our 1,500-square-foot” restaurants.
General Growth Properties, the publicly traded company that owns Tysons Galleria, approached Isabella about a year and a half ago. Originally, GGP was searching for various chefs and restaurateurs to fill the 10 slots at its proposed Tysons food hall, but Isabella made a play for all 41,000 square feet. GGP liked the pitch, in part because it’s more efficient to work with one operator than with 10. But the company had also conducted surveys that indicate shoppers want more local food options.
Isabella fit the bill.
“He’s got a breadth of concepts, and all are executed like they’re his specialty,” says Adam Schwegman, vice president of GGP’s Eat/Drink division. “It gave us confidence to really go with one operator for the whole cohesive offering.”
Hoping to stem the loss of shoppers to the Internet, developers and landlords of large retail spaces are increasingly turning to food halls to lure people from their computers. Developers have taken note of culinary destinations such as Eataly in Manhattan and Chicago and the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, where locals and tourists alike flock to shop, dine or just hang out. GGP, in fact, has already opened food halls in malls in Omaha and Chicago.
Just as important, chefs and restaurateurs such as Richard Sandoval, Michael Mina, Sean Brock, Claus Meyer and Thomas Keller have been drawn to large-format food emporiums. Though often lumped under the general category of "food hall," these projects can vary significantly. They include Gotham West Market, a kind of upscale food court and events hall in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York, and Anthony Bourdain's planned 155,000-square-foot market on Pier 57 in Manhattan, where the culinary vagabond and his partners will combine a farmers market with Singapore-style food stalls, a chef-driven restaurant and a host of vendors.
If you ask Bourdain why food halls are so hot now, he’ll shrug. “No clue,” he e-mails. But Bill Miller, co-founder of Miller Walker Retail Real Estate, says the trend has its roots in the rise of American food culture and online shopping.
“Consumers are looking for relevant physical shopping experiences,” Miller says. “Food is something that is never going to be as Net friendly as other consumer goods, so it makes sense to use food as a draw in malls and lifestyle projects.”
Isabella has already been conducting research at food halls, restaurants and coffee shops around the globe and plans to do more after the early March opening of Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda. "We're going all over the place: South America multiple times, Spain, Portugal, all over the country," Isabella says. "So this will be a great R&D year for me."
The extensive travel is necessary not only to scout food halls but also to prepare for Eatery components that are beyond Isabella’s current experience. Those include Arroz, Isabella’s first attempt at Spanish cuisine, and Non-Fiction Coffee, a specialty coffee shop that will also serve sandwiches, salads and pastries. Isabella originally toyed with the idea of sourcing and roasting his own beans but opted to go with outside coffee roasters instead.
“We feel like we could really do great coffees by buying from different specialty roasters, people who focus on that on a daily basis,” he says.
Several of the places — Arroz, Pepita, Requin Raw Bar, Yona and the Octagon Bar — will share a roughly 300-seat common area, where diners will be able to order from any of the five menus. Kapnos Marketa will offer roasted meats, phyllo pies, and Greek dips and salads for take-away only, while Graffiato and Trim (a grill with Mediterranean small plates) each will have dedicated seating. Some of the shops will have a retail component: Requin Raw Bar will sell caviar and cured fish to go.
Tysons Galleria already has restaurants and shops dedicated to Middle Eastern cuisine (Lebanese Taverna), seafood (Legal Sea Foods), coffee (Starbucks) and grilled meats, but apparently only Isabella's Trim caused consternation among his future competitors. Isabella initially designed Trim to be closer in spirit to an American chophouse, but that idea apparently was too similar to an outlet of the Wildfire chain, located on the same level as Isabella Eatery.
“Trim was just more about the logistics of what it can or cannot be,” Isabella says about negotiations over the meaty component. So Trim is now devoted to Mediterranean small plates and a selection of grilled meats. No one’s throwing around the word “steak” anymore.
With seven full-service restaurants already operating under the Mike Isabella Concepts umbrella — not to mention ballpark and airport concessions, a catering division and restaurants to open in the future — Isabella will almost double his operations when the Eatery opens. He hasn't yet hired an executive chef for the Tysons project, but he promises that he's "going to bring someone very influential and very powerful into that position, but we have not inked any deals yet."
“I have a big plate,” Isabella says. “This is the biggest move of my career. I’m excited, nervous.” He punctuates the sentence with a trademark heh-heh-heh laugh.
Will Washingtonians flock to Isabella Eatery as they do to similar food halls, such as Union Market? If you ask Richie Brandenburg, director of culinary strategy for developer Edens and the man behind Union Market, what would make an idea like Isabella Eatery successful, he has a quick answer: Don’t make it just a gourmet food court. Make it an experience, a place where people can shop, gawk, gossip, loiter and lounge.
“If you just make a food court, it’s just a food court. . . . There’s one of those in every mall,” says Brandenburg. “It’s all about building community.”
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