One night a few years ago at 1789, chef Anthony Lombardo served bruleed foie gras torchons on brioche with grape jelly, a little bit of umami magic. Later, he showed up at the table to make it rain white truffles over delicate, hand-cut tagliatelle shimmering in butter sauce.
Those are not the sorts of things he’s cooking anymore. In June, Lombardo ended his nearly three-year stint at the Georgetown bastion of tableclothed civility to take the helm at the Hamilton, the downtown behemoth owned, like 1789, by the Clyde’s Restaurant Group. Why swap beluga and foie for burgers and fries? Why leave a relatively cushy, brass-ring job (four-hour dinner services, no lunches, no brunch, free creative rein, access to rarefied ingredients) to take over a juggernaut with 16-hour services, packed lunches and dinners?
For the challenge, of course. Among other changes, Lombardo went from a 155-seat, 4,000-square-foot restaurant that does 200 covers at its busiest to an 800-seat, 37,000-square-foot place that can easily top 1,000 covers (and that’s just at dinner). He traded a staff of 13 for one with 10 sous-chefs, 66 line cooks, 12 prep cooks, a pastry chef and two assistants — plus 19 dishwashers.
“I’m making a little bit more money,” says Lombardo. “But it’s not about that. This will shape my career, teach me how to manage people and really run a business.”
Given the scale of the Hamilton, the biggest surprise might be how many things Lombardo and his team are producing in-house. “I still make stuff by hand,” the chef says. “Just in larger batches.”
That’s an understatement. Lombardo smokes his own brisket and pastrami and cures corned beef and 300 pounds of bacon a week. He makes the house mustard because he can’t find a commercial one creamy enough to suit him. French fries are hand-cut, blanched in the morning and fried to order, no easy feat in a place that blasts through 50 full-sheet pans of them on a weekend night. The restaurant’s bread is baked by Lyon Bakery using Lombardo’s recipe from 1789 and 25-year-old sourdough starter.
On a recent Friday afternoon, he broke down two quarters from whole Autumn Olive Farm pigs. As a line cook watched, he set aside squares of fat to cure for lardo and incised coppas from the shoulders, marinating them in milk, sage, garlic and onions for 24 hours to ready them as an entree to be served with bone marrow grits and apple butter.
He doesn’t have quite the freedom he had at 1789, but there’s still room for creativity. “Twenty percent of the menu is set in stone, but he gets 80 percent to play with,” says Clyde’s President Tom Meyer.
Menus are printed every day, meaning Lombardo can make changes constantly. Moreover, a place like the Hamilton has purchasing power going for it, Lombardo says. That’s how he can sell a poached, shelled 11 / 4-pound Maine lobster with rosé butter sauce and farro, a dish he deems 1789-worthy, for $26.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re too big to buy from farms.’ That’s not true,” he says. “They love places like us. We spend $100,000 a year just from two or three local farms. We take whatever they are taking out of the ground and adjust the menu accordingly. That’s what buying local is all about.”
The Hamilton is Clyde’s second-largest earner, after Old Ebbitt Grill, a block away. The latter, with $27 million in sales last year, ranks third on Restaurant Business magazine’s list of the top-grossing 100 independents nationwide. The Hamilton, at just shy of $18 million, ranks 15th. They are two of only three D.C. restaurants on the list; the third is Sequoia, on the banks of the Potomac, at No. 34.
There’s always competitive pressure, though, some of it nearby. One source is Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab, which entered the market in January as part of a group that has three outlets in the top 12. Is that why Meyer decided to shake things up this year, moving Sal Ferro from the Hamilton to Old Ebbitt and Lombardo to the Hamilton? He demurs when asked.
Clyde’s chief executive John Laytham “told me he never believed ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ ” Meyer says. “He said you always have to go forward and do new things. I feel very fortunate to have two guys who are based in fine dining and willing to take on saloon concepts and execute very well in a larger format.”
One reason Lombardo gives for wanting to make the move to the Hamilton is his appreciation for “organization and structure,” but that wasn’t always something he possessed.
Now 32, Lombardo was born in Detroit and raised outside the city in Sterling Heights, a melting-pot community of Chaldeans, Lebanese, Greeks, Albanians, Macedonians and other Italians. Food was important to his family, “as it is in all Italian families: Sunday dinners, the whole bit,” Lombardo says, but it was not a particular interest of his. Neither was school. He fell in with a rough crowd and “was basically a hoodlum,” he says.
At the end of his rope, Lombardo’s father, Tom, drove his son to the Lone Star Steakhouse and told him to get a job, any job. “I said I’d either see him in the morgue or in prison if he didn’t change, and I think that really shook him up,” Tom Lombardo said in a phone interview from Detroit.
“The restaurant business saved my life,” Lombardo says.
He started as a dishwasher. Then one line cook beat another up one night, and the police carted them off. There was no one to cook, so Lombardo stepped up. He loved the rush of it, basically viewing it as a sport, which appealed to his highly competitive nature. He was working 40 hours a week, cracking professional cooking texts instead of history ones and barely graduating from high school with a 1.5 GPA.
At 19, Lombardo worked at a place called Appeteaser Café, whose chef-owner, Chris Angelosante, encouraged him to go to cooking school. He got into the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where his father footed most of the tuition and grants covered the rest.
A second-year externship, at the Everest Room in Chicago, was Lombardo’s first foray into classical fine dining. Filling in for a line cook on vacation, he did so well, his supervisors didn’t want to give the original guy his job back. The chefs got into a fistfight over it, and Lombardo won. Once back at the CIA, he graduated in 2004 with a 3.7 GPA and perfect attendance.
At cooking school, Lombardo met Daniel Giusti, and after graduation, the two friends went to the Istituto Superiore di Gastronomia in Le Marche, Italy, to study regional cooking with noted Italian chefs. Lombardo stayed for 18 months, working in small-town restaurants in Piedmont and Abruzzi. At one, Villa Maela, the chef knew Roberto Donna, and in 2005, Lombardo wound up in Washington working at Donna’s Galileo.
Bounced paychecks severed that relationship quickly. Lombardo returned to Detroit, working his way up to chef de cuisine during a five-year stint at Bacco Ristorante. “I developed a style there,” says Lombardo. “I created relationships with vendors and local growers and relied on the quality of the ingredients instead of getting overbearing or too complicated with plates.”
But Detroit got too mundane, so when chef Amy Brandwein, whom he had met at Galileo, asked him to be her executive sous-chef at the short-lived Casa Nonna in Dupont Circle in 2011, he returned to Washington. Not long after he arrived, Giusti was leaving his job as chef at 1789 for Denmark and set Lombardo up with a tasting and interview for his job.
Giusti, Meyer and then corporate chef John Guattery (now with Matchbox) were at the tasting.
“It was a great meal, very Italian,” says Giusti in a phone interview from Copenhagen, where he is now head chef of Noma, one of the top restaurants in the world. “Once he got the job, he quickly proved he was the right person. He fixed food-cost issues and strengthened the relationship with The Tombs,” the Clyde’s saloon underneath, popular with Georgetown students. At 1789, Giusti added, “He was the first one to make it financially successful and make great food.”
At the Hamilton, where Lombardo starts his 12-hour day at around 9:30 a.m., the vast kitchen has multiple stations, the main ones staffed by two cooks during lunch and dinner service: burger; saute/pasta; grill/griddle; sandwich; salad; charcuterie; dessert/barista; bread; and french fry. A floor below, an equally vast prep kitchen (“where all the magic happens,” he says) also serves as the catering kitchen for the 300-seat music venue.
At 5 p.m. one Friday, Lombardo shows and explains new dishes to servers, who take copious notes. They include: a lamb steak with cucumber yogurt sauce and curried chickpeas stewed with tomatoes and jalapeños; Berkshire pork belly and day-boat scallop surf and turf; and kohlrabi, white bean and sausage soup.
“Kohlrabi grows at really cool temperatures. It grows in Russia. Ours comes from New Jersey, so it survived organized crime and traffic,” he deadpans.
He is in constant motion, walking briskly in white Dansko clogs that look a little like nurses’ shoes. He checks the buffet setup, fields constant questions from staff members, wipes down a station and tastes and adjusts sauces before settling into his post at the back expediter station to garnish and oversee dishes going to the dining room.
At 6:30, it seems slow, but the video monitors overhead are filled with orders, and all the cooks toil quietly. Within an hour, it is organized chaos as the appetizers for one private party, the main courses for the other, and regular orders all need to go out at the same time.
“Ordering! 24 crab cakes, 9 salmon, 27 steaks!” Minutes later, cooks deliver plates of protein, and Lombardo and two others finish them with potatoes Anna, wedges of roasted acorn squash and piles of bright green beans, everyone falling into an adrenaline-stoked rhythm. By 8, the big parties’ orders are out, and Lombardo is clearly psyched.
He recalls a Saturday night in August when the music venue was sold out, the bar and restaurant were packed and there was a private party in the upstairs loft.
“The cooks were happy, the systems worked and we served, like, 1,600 people that day. I was so proud of how everyone pulled together,” he said. “It’s very satisfying. The same kind of rush as pulling off a really great tasting menu.”
Hagedorn is a food writer and former chef. Lombardo will join today’s Free Range chat with readers at live.washingtonpost.com.