Twenty years ago, when Jeffrey Buben launched Vidalia on M Street NW, he knew how to capture the tourist dollar. He just had to make sure his fine-dining establishment was polished and professional enough to land a top spot in the Zagat guide.
Almost two decades later when Buben opened Woodward Table in the former Potenza space — within sniffing distance for a certain White House pooch — the chef-restaurateur discovered that he couldn't just replicate the gastronomic and business models that made Vidalia and Bistro Bis so successful. In the past two months, Buben has been meticulously re-engineering Woodward Table and its takeout operation, WTF, to better cater to modern diners who have different expectations — and many different ways to determine where they want to eat.
Vidalia and Bistro Bis are "a formula that we had, and a mistake I made is that I tried to apply that formula" to Woodward Table, Buben told me recently. "Throw it all out the window. This is a whole new idea."
You could say that Buben is developing a whole new concept at Woodward: upscale dining with crayons.
Woodward Table just opened last fall, but its early struggles have already led to some sleepless nights for the owner. When not worrying, Buben has been gathering intelligence on what diners want. He's been reading Yelp comments, a practice that Buben hints has been akin to swallowing a spoonful of foul-tasting medicine. He's been scouting his competitors. He's even been stopping people on the sidewalk to solicit feedback.
His efforts have led to a rather un-Buben directive: instructing his staff to think big. As in volume, volume, volume! He points to the casino-like success of Le Diplomate on 14th Street NW, a Stephen Starr operation that Buben clearly admires.
"They understand how to do their concept very well," Buben says. "It’s got that bigger-than-life feel to it, in everything they do. That’s what we need to do here. This place is going to require ‘more is more.’"
“I just keep adding more stuff and adding more stuff and adding more stuff," Buben continues. "Then what happens is, you take away something and everybody goes, ‘Why did you take that away?’ So it’s like, ‘Okay, we’ll bring that back for you and then we’ll add one more thing.'"
Buben's new approach with Woodward Table includes an oversize brasserie menu that looks strikingly like the one at Le Diplomate. The problem with the old Woodward menus, whether the one at the bar or the one in the dining room, was that diners expected more, the owner says. Buben believes customers would look at his 200-seat operation and expect more than the concise, well-edited, chef-driven menus that he first introduced.
The new menu not only combines dishes from the dining room and bar, but also adds more affordable plates, which has helped lower the overall price point by 10 to 15 percent, Buben says. What's more, he adds, the new menu segregates the higher-priced steaks and chops from the rest of the entrees. It's a psychological tactic.
"If I put steaks and chops up here in the entrees," Buben says, "then it’s going to look like it’s an expensive restaurant."
Some other changes you might notice: Woodward offers more house-made specialty cocktails, more wines by the glass and more attention to the wee ones who may join their parents for lunch, brunch or dinner.
"We didn’t have enough choice in the lower-end to be able to attract everybody. I can’t have 1,000 people walk by this restaurant a day and 500 of them go, ‘That’s inaccessible,'" Buben says. "That’s why we do the crayons, and they do their coloring. If the kids eat their meal, they get a cookie on the way out the door. It’s kind of like McDonald’s here: make the parents happy by making the kids happy."
If it sounds like chef Jeff is slowly becoming Chef Geoff, consider this last tidbit of wisdom from Buben: While modern diners want affordability and plenty of options, they also want a sense of opulence. So Buben has added white tablecloths to one dining room at Woodward and has been toying with the idea of covering all the tables.
"They don’t want casual from us," he says. "So I said, I don’t want to hear the word ‘casual’ in here anymore…Let’s just do what we do and forget this idea of casual.”