When he was a 1o-year-old boy growing up in Brooklyn, Michael Schlow established a routine with his stepfather, Ned Cohn. On rainy days when the young Schlow couldn't go outside and work on his fastball, he would sit down with the man he called "Dad" and draw his dream restaurant.
"How cool would it be to see that when you looked up?" Schlow says. There was just one drawback to his planned planetarium-cum-restaurant: The big-sky reveal would occur only once a night.
“That means there’s only one seating a night, so we’re not going to make any money because everybody’s got to be there for the retracting roof," Schlow recalls, as he sits at Tico, his Latin-leaning restaurant on 14th Street NW. "I wasn’t being entrepreneurial as a 10-year-old, but I thought spiritually and as an experience that it would be special.”
Fast forward four decades: This summer, Schlow plans to open the Riggsby, a refined neighborhood restaurant inside the renovated Carlyle Suites Hotel near Dupont Circle. The establishment — named for nearby Riggs Place and as an homage to the once-proud Riggs Bank, which went down in scandal in the mid-2000s — will be Schlow's second eatery in the District. But just as important to the chef who recalls his late stepfather fondly, the Riggsby will borrow ideas that father and son sketched out 40 years ago.
“I had this place in my head. I could still draw it for you, where you walked in and there was this really cozy bar, that kind of feels like this bar we’re building now" at the Riggsby, Schlow says. But he also mentions that Brian Miller, co-founder of Edit Lab at Streetsense, has designed a skylight in the middle of the low-ceilinged, 75-seat dining room to let the space breathe.
Is that your version of the retractable roof?
"I guess so, yeah," says Schlow, more thoughtfully than dismissively.
You hadn't thought about that connection before?
"I didn't realize that until you just said it," the chef-restaurateur responds. "But I guess subconsciously it is. Granted, it's not going to retract. . ."
"And you're not going to see any stars," adds Steve Uhr, regional operations manager for Schlow's Good Essen company.
"Some day, I'm going to have to build it in his honor," Schlow picks up the conversation, then pauses. "I guess I am. Maybe we should have named it after him."
Alas, it's too late for the Riggsby to switch handles to the Ned. Nonetheless, Schlow thinks his next D.C. restaurant would have been exactly the kind of place that Ned Cohn, a former Washingtonian, would frequent. The menu won't dabble in modernist food; it'll stick to familiar dishes executed with an eye toward classical techniques and good ingredients. The place will feel personal and idiosyncratic, not regimented and corporate; the Riggsby will feature mismatched china and glassware, as well as wallpaper based on designs by Schlow's wife, Adrienne Schlow, a mixed-media artist. It'll be the kind of place where managers and floor staff remember your name —and your drink order.
"I want this to be that [place] that when you walk in, even if you’ve never been there before, you’re made to feel like you’ve been there 100 times before," Schlow says. "There’s an artisan quality about everything [we] do without it being that sort of stereotypical 'farm-to-table' restaurant. That thing, I think, has been coined enough. I want this to feel a little more nostalgic and dare I even use the word — and I'm probably going to kick myself in the a-- for even saying this — but dare I even say the word 'continental'?"
Perhaps Schlow is on the cutting edge of a small-plates, high-concept restaurant backlash? If so, he has tapped the right chef to lead the Riggsby. Philippe Reininger, last seen at the late J & G Steakhouse in the W Hotel, is returning to the kitchen following back surgery that sidelined him for weeks. Schlow loved Reininger's cooking at J & G and thinks the chef "needs a place to show off what he can do." He'll certainly get his chance: The Riggsby will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner — and provide room service when the Carlyle reopens, perhaps in May.
Reininger has already been testing dishes on the boss.
“I know this may not sound sexy, but he made the perfect roast chicken, and he made the perfect French fries and a gorgeous piece of skate," Schlow says. "It’s not going to be a bistro, but there’s certainly nods to how you feel when you eat at a great bistro. There’s a comfort to it without it being meatloaf and mashed potatoes."
But when you were creating that dream restaurant all those years ago, didn't you imagine yourself as chef?
"God no," Schlow says, laughing. "I wasn't going to be a chef. I was going to be the guy at the door. I was going to take your order and have all the fun."
The retired baseball star running his own restaurant?
"Exactly," says the chef who reportedly gave up a baseball scholarship to attend culinary school. "I’ve made all my money being a baseball star, and this is what I invested in.”
Life may not have turned out as the 10-year-old Schlow imagined it, but the chef is, consciously or subconsciously, still reaching for the stars.