This story has been updated.
Mike Isabella announced Friday that he is closing his high-profile food hall in Tysons Galleria, effective at 3 p.m., making Isabella Eatery the fourth of his company’s establishments to shutter in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit he settled in May. The move also ends a short, tumultuous run for the 41,000-square-foot concept, the chef and restaurateur’s grand attempt to attract people back to the mall.
As late as Thursday afternoon, Isabella had held out hopes that he could work out a deal with the mall’s owners to save the Eatery.
Isabella issued a statement on Friday that included some personal reflection.
“Perhaps Isabella Eatery missed the mark because I became too impressed with myself and thought I [could] make anything work,” Isabella wrote in the statement. “Perhaps it was because of the way I presented our offerings at Tysons Galleria. Perhaps the space was too grand or perhaps the dining public was just not as excited as we were about a ‘restaurant emporium’ like the one we tried to provide. Whatever the reasons, we gave it our best shot.”
Rich Dinning, senior general manager of Tysons Galleria, issued a statement of his own on Friday, saying the landlord is “fully committed to an upscale food hall concept that compliments the luxury experience” at the mall.
“Our guests embraced it and we believe our community deserves an amazing experience,” Dinning continued. “In an effort to ensure that our vision carries on, we ended our relationship with the current operator. We are excited about the number of local and national restaurateurs interested in turning our vision into a new reality and will share more information soon.”
There had been signs of trouble for Isabella Eatery before its abrupt closing. On Thursday, two employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements told The Post the Eatery would close on Sunday. Isabella said at the time that he was still trying to keep the operation open and that it was too early to say whether the Eatery would close.
“I’m still negotiating with the landlord,” Isabella said by phone on Thursday. “Everything is day-to-day. We’re still open, and we’re still fighting. That’s the mentality.” He said that he had a meeting scheduled for Friday with the landlord.
Isabella has closed three other restaurants since former Isabella Eatery manager Chloe Caras filed a federal lawsuit against him and other executives this past spring, alleging sexual harassment and accusing the company of retaliating against employees who tried to speak out about it. The financial terms of the suit’s settlement in May were confidential.
Requin Brasserie, Isabella’s restaurant in the Mosaic District, closed in April, as first reported by the Washingtonian; a month later, its landlord filed suit for rent, dating back almost to the day the place opened in December 2015, according to the Washington Business Journal. In June, the Graffiato location in Richmond closed, followed a month later by the original Graffiato in Chinatown, Isabella’s first restaurant after he became a celebrity on “Top Chef” and “Top Chef All-Stars.” As in the Mosaic District, Isabella’s landlord of the Chinatown property sued for back rent, reported the Washingtonian.
The Eatery is Isabella’s personal take on a food hall, featuring concepts that he either created or designed with other chefs, all intended to draw people to the mall. It initially featured variations on established Isabella brands, including his Italian American Graffiato, his Greek concept Kapnos (created with brothers Nicholas and George Pagonis), his Mexican cantina Pepita, and Yona, a Japanese and Korean restaurant first developed with chef Jonah Kim. It also included a riff on Requin, the seafood restaurant initially created with chef Jennifer Carroll, as well as Isabella’s Spanish concept, Arroz, a coffee shop, a creamery and a cocktail bar.
“This is the biggest move of my career. I’m excited, nervous,” Isabella told The Post when he announced the project in February 2016.
Arroz was the first concept to close at Isabella Eatery, a victim of slow sales after the Caras lawsuit. In early July, Isabella said, he shut down the entire row of restaurants on the far side of the Eatery, including Yona, Pepita and Kapnos Marketa. “If you’re doing 100 covers, you can’t have 50 employees,” Isabella said.
“It was slow and payroll was way too much,” added Juan Rivera, executive chef of Isabella Eatery. “It wasn’t busy enough to keep the whole dining hall open.”
The same row of restaurants closed again Monday. Dishes from each operation had been merged into a single menu, all available from the Graffiato kitchen, the only one still active at the Eatery on Thursday. The next day, the entire Isabella Eatery was history.
“I’ve seen it up and down,” said one employee, who has been there since January. “This is a great concept. I don’t know exactly what happened.”
In recent weeks, two employees said their paychecks had bounced. One employee said he had not been paid in nearly a month. Isabella acknowledged that checks have bounced, but he said he was working with employees to get them their money. He attributed the cash shortfall to a slowdown in sales at the Eatery. He said he couldn’t speculate on why business was slow.
“Technically, I can’t really answer that question,” Isabella said. His settlement with Caras prevents him from discussing anything related to the lawsuit.
One employee, however, was blunt in her assessment. “After the whole sexual harassment [lawsuit] thing, things started slowly going down,” she said. “Since then, no one wanted to be associated with Mike Isabella, whether [the accusations] were true or not.”
One commercial real estate agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Isabella’s business, said he had been contacted by General Growth Properties, the owner of Tysons Galleria, to look for new tenants for the food hall. “The mall didn’t spend all that money on the concept for it to be lackluster,” he said.
Isabella’s full statement:
It is with true regret that I announce that Isabella Eatery at Tysons Galleria will cease operations today. Our outstanding team pursued a very big dream . . . to present several of our restaurant concepts to the public under one roof. Sadly, it didn’t work out as we’d hoped. I cannot express in words how hard we strived to achieve success and how proud I am of the selfless effort which was put forth by our team members. I will be eternally grateful for the commitment to excellence they demonstrated, especially during times when it would have been easy for any one of them to have simply walked away.
Restaurants close when their operating expenses exceed the revenues the restaurants generate. Isabella Eatery is no exception. We were doing our best to operate nine restaurant units at the highest level in a very large space on the 3rd floor of a retail center. Perhaps Isabella Eatery missed the mark because I became too impressed with myself and thought I [could] make anything work. Perhaps it was because of the way I presented our offerings at Tysons Galleria. Perhaps the space was too grand or perhaps the dining public was just not as excited as we were about a “restaurant emporium” like the one we tried to provide. Whatever the reasons, we gave it our best shot.
As painful as it is to try to ride out a storm, to see a dream thwarted, to see good people lose an investment- and to then reflect candidly at one’s own role in that dream’s demise- I can promise that our team and I will continue to dream of better days ahead, and will work like hell to turn those dreams into reality. The fundamentals remain intact. Our operational skills are solid, our food is still terrific and our team is STILL THE BEST THERE IS.
Thank you so very much to those of you who took the time to visit Isabella Eatery at Tysons Galleria. We hope to see you again soon at all of our other restaurants.