Dawn hadn’t yet broken Saturday morning when pastry chef Erica Skolnik and her bleary-eyed kitchen staff arrived at Maketto, Washington’s first, soon-to-open clothing boutique/bar/eatery.
By 9 a.m., the kitchen, which has the spartan good looks of a sleek diner, with an open view of the woks and steamers (the menu will blend Taiwanese and Cambodian food), was full of prep staff pleating hundreds of pork buns, chopping scallions and plucking juicy green peppercorns from their clusters. It would all find its way onto the menu that evening, at a concert for 200 people that would double as a dry run for Maketto’s official opening Friday.
Upstairs, Chris Vigilante was brewing coffee to fuel the worn-out staff members, some of whom had been there till 4 a.m. the night before, stocking the shelves with snapback ball caps and neatly folded jeans. Skolnik, meanwhile, was keeping a close eye on how her croissant dough was faring in its new home.
Alas, not so well.
“It died,” she fussed after looking it over, using kitchen lingo for dough that has gone all yeasty. Better to figure this out now, though, when there was still time to fix it.
Three years after it was announced, Maketto is finally humming.
The founders, Erik Bruner-Yang, chef and owner of H Street NE ramen shop Toki Underground, and Will Sharp, who co-founded the sportswear line Durkl a decade ago, won’t say how much Maketto’s buildout cost, but it is safe to assume that the three-level, 5,000-square-foot space (two buildings, actually) at 1351 H St. NE was no bargain, particularly as construction stretched from months to years.
The shop got its name after someone (that would be Bruner-Yang) proposed Maketto, believing it to be the Japanese term for “flea market.” Turned out it’s not, but the name stuck, as did an early plan to meld menswear with food culture.
Bruner-Yang and Sharp have held fast to that vision, with an airy space loosely inspired by Asian night markets — boisterous places such as Chiang Mai Night Bazaar in Thailand, where crafts and street food and social activity coalesce.
Maketto, painted only in rich black and stark white, is vastly more minimalist than any street scene, however. It’s a place where a shopper can pick up an ironic, Danish-made Mickey Mouse sweatshirt for a C-note and then revel in the purchase over a Cambodian num pang, a sandwich best described as a cousin to Vietnam’s banh mi. There are foreign fashion magazines and Taschen coffee-table books to pore over, candles purporting to smell like sawdust and a dozen other impulse buys to keep you occupied while you wait for a seat to eat. And there are clothes, such as Durkl’s handsome wool button-downs and an array of retro sneakers.
“But won’t the clothes smell?!” That, of course, is the question that begs to be asked. In the clothing business, however, nothing is more fashionable right now than food.
More and more, restaurants are the carrots that shops are dangling to lure customers offline and back to buying in real life. Lunching at Bergdorf’s has long been an ideal way to end a day of shopping, but now shoppers in Paris can rest their Stella McCartney-clad feet at Water Bar, the restaurant beneath the edgy boutique Colette. In 2010, New York’s design mecca ABC Carpet & Home welcomed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and his swanky ABC Kitchen, with its whole-wheat pizzas and line-caught tuna sashimi. New York also has Freemans Sporting Club, with bespoke suits and fresh shaves and a connected restaurant, all hewing to the same rugged-man aesthetic. Shinola, the high-end watch maker and purveyor of Americana, has added coffee bars to its shops in Minneapolis and New York.
None of these stores sells just things. They market a synergistic lifestyle — a “highly curated” one in which good taste applies not just to what you wear but also to your choices in cuisine and cologne and bedtime reading. It’s no mistake that to get to the restaurant at Maketto, you’ll have to walk past racks of Durkl’s top-stitched flannel shirts and old-school Chuck Taylors displayed like art pieces.
Maketto is also taking its cues from concept stores such as Apple’s. The sneakerheads can sell you a cocktail, and the baristas will be able to tell you about the art books. There are no signs separating Sharp’s domain from Vigilante’s. Skolnik’s Frenchie’s pastry business isn’t branded here, either.
“It was always meant to be one unit,” Vigilante said. “Everyone pushes their independent brands to the side to focus on Maketto.”
“It’s controlled chaos,” added Sharp, wearing a kaleidoscope-print windbreaker of his own design. There is no obvious checkout line, he said, for buying a shirt or cologne. Customers, he said, may wonder, “ ‘Is anyone going to help me?’ It’s kind of this free-for-all, but it does make sense, customer-service-wise.
“We want people to wander,” he said, “and we want people to interact with two things: our products and our people.” So every staff member has to be part Sherpa, guiding guests and helping them get the concept with Apple-like Zen.
Even the staff members, however, are grappling with that one, said general manager Joe Ostrosky. “How is this going to work together? What is my role in this?” his new hires ask.
Everyone agrees that that part is highly unclear, particularly in a neighborhood with more of a nightlife than a daylife, in a city that’s not exactly known for its fashion sense.
“It’s going to be this kind of wide-eyed experience for a long time,” Bruner-Yang said over coffee at one of Maketto’s big communal tables.
For now, the plan is this: When Maketto opens, its hours could stretch from just after dawn to last call, with one business bleeding into the next. The scent of Vigilante’s coffee will mingle with Skolnik’s bakery operation at 7 a.m., and the nose-tickling notes of herbs, of Thai basil and scallion as the kitchen cranks in the afternoon. The bar will pop Taiwanese beers and mix cocktails with Taiwanese sorghum liquor, known as kaoliang, into the night. And somewhere in the middle of it all, a genial dude with an arm covered in tattoos will be waiting to introduce you to your next pair of kicks.
On Saturday at 2 p.m., however, everyone seemed to be there at once, to clean and make final decisions and taste what the kitchen was turning out. Like those croissants, which everyone agreed were actually very much alive. They were perfect little butter bombs, in fact. So they would be packaged and sent off to the immediate neighbors with Sharp, who would deliver them, along with a personal invitation to drop by Maketto sometime.