This post has been updated.
Three months after embattled chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella closed his sprawling multi-concept food emporium in Tysons Galleria, the luxury mall has announced a replacement: A Taste of Urbanspace, a food hall that’s expected to open in late November with eight diverse businesses from the Washington-area market, including Thip Khao, Donburi and Ice Cream Jubilee.
Northern Virginia magazine earlier reported that Stomping Ground, the biscuit-focused coffee shop in Del Ray, would also open in the former Isabella Eatery space, which the celebrity chef abruptly shut down in August, one of several restaurant closures after Isabella and his partners were accused of “extraordinary” sexual harassment in a March lawsuit. (The suit, which was later expanded and refiled in federal court, was settled in May, the terms undisclosed.) Stomping Ground will be part of a Taste of Urbanspace, along with at least three other still-unnamed concepts.
The Washington region has “one of the great restaurant markets in the country,” said Eldon Scott, president of Urbanspace, the New York arm of the company that has developed public markets and pop-ups in London, Manhattan and other places. “It’s definitely a place we wanted to go.”
Urbanspace’s debut in the D.C. market has been something of a scramble. Scott hopes A Taste of Urbanspace can open Nov. 28, but he said its debut could be pushed back. Scott and mall operators want A Taste of Urbanspace to be available to shoppers as the holiday season kicks into high gear, but because of the rush, the food hall will not open with alcohol. The company is still working through the permitting process, said Aba Kwawu, a D.C. spokeswoman for the Tysons project.
What’s more, Scott said, A Taste of Urbanspace will look much the same as Isabella Eatery, with just a change of signage. The announced businesses will simply take over existing spaces: Stomping Ground will assume the location for Isabella’s Non-Fiction Coffee. Thip Khao will slip into the Arroz space. Ice Cream Jubilee will claim the Retro Creamery counter. Donburi will adopt the Yona space. And Andy’s Pizza, a new New York-style slice shop by the founder of Eat Pizza, will take over the ovens at Graffiato.
“The layout is kind of funky, so we have to work around it,” Donburi chef and owner James Jang said of the former Yona space. The Tysons location will be the third for Donburi, following shops in Adams Morgan and the Dupont Circle area. Tysons Galleria is a long way from Jang’s D.C. shops, making the logistics difficult, but the chef said he grew up in Tysons Corner. It’s familiar turf.
“We’ve been trying to find opportunities for us to grow. It’s a beautiful space,” Jang said. “I think it has a great potential.”
Isabella was never able to realize that potential, however, in the nine months he operated Isabella Eatery. After the chef shuttered the Tysons operation, some of his supporters rushed to his defense, saying the food emporium was a bad risk from the outset. Contractor and Isabella investor Robert Mescolotto told The Washington Post in September that Tysons Galleria was too isolated to draw the necessary traffic to the Eatery.
“If this had been anywhere but at that location,” Mescolotto said, “I think it would have had a much higher chance of success.”
Isabella initially blamed his financial troubles on “bad press” generated by the lawsuit filed by Chloe Caras, former director of operations for Isabella Eatery, who was allegedly fired after an argument with Isabella. The chef later sat down with Fox 5 and took more responsibility for his alleged behaviors. He also apologized publicly for the first time.
Regardless of Isabella Eatery’s troubled past, Urbanspace’s Scott is bullish on Tysons Galleria.
“We’re always focused on a good daytime population, as much as we can. We’re not trying to conquer the universe,” Scott told The Post. “Our model is not to be some kind of super-regional food hall.”
What’s more, unlike Isabella’s company, Urbanspace has the wherewithal to promote its latest food hall, Scott said. “We have a marketing department that’s part of the function that we provide for the chefs,” he said. The marketing crew takes each chef’s story — extraordinary ones such as the immigrant tale of Thip Khao’s Seng Luangrath — and “helps them to get the word out,” Scott added.
Urbanspace, Scott said, is “more about creating a partnership [with chefs] and growing businesses.”
It may help that A Taste of Urbanspace will focus more on a communal dining experience than Isabella Eatery. “Part of [Urbanspace’s] ethos is creating that sense of community and cool environments,” said Rich Dinning, senior general manager of Tysons Galleria. “I think you’ll see more use of communal space.”
Since surrendering his high-profile project at Tysons, Isabella has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for his parent company, Mike Isabella Concepts, and its individual restaurants. As the bankruptcy proceedings continue, Isabella has reportedly been fighting with two of his partners, brothers Nicholas and George Pagonis, for control of the company, according to a recent Washingtonian report. An attorney for the Pagonis brothers sent the magazine a statement that read, in part, “As MIC Concepts works through its restructuring, Mike Isabella will be stepping aside to allow George Pagonis to provide the culinary vision of the organization.”
In response to Washingtonian’s story, MIC’s new spokesman, Edward Segal, sent the media this statement from Isabella:
“I have not made any decisions about my role with or the leadership, operations or future of my restaurants. Anyone who says or speculates otherwise or claims to know my thinking about these important matters is wrong. I will make an announcement at the appropriate time about my decisions and plans.”
There may be more restructuring to come, but Segal said the plan, which has been approved by courts, will result in the Dec. 1 closing of Kapnos Taverna in College Park. Segal said the company will surrender the space to the landlord, Southern Management, which had sued for back rent.
When Kapnos Taverna closes, it will mark the fifth Isabella concept to shut down since Caras filed her complaint. The others include Isabella Eatery (which featured nine different operations), Requin Brasserie in Merrifield and two locations of Graffiato, including the original in Chinatown.