What's next, the Liberty Bell?
Philadelphia may be home to its own excellent food scene, but more and more chefs and restaurateurs from the city are making the 123-mile trek south, bringing both tried-and-true and new concepts to Washington.
There's Pizzeria Vetri, from the acclaimed Vetri Family Italian restaurant group; HipCityVeg, a vegan fast-casual chain; and Honeygrow, a fast-casual stir-fry chain. All three have plans this spring or summer to join a scene that already includes Philadelphia imports such as restaurateur Stephen Starr (Le Diplomate), coffee roaster and cafe La Colombe and chef Jose Garces (Rural Society), whose Village Whiskey bourbon and burger bar is in development here as well.
"I always felt Washington was a cool market," said Starr, whose runaway success at Le Diplomate, the 14th Street NW brasserie that opened in 2013, sold more than a few Philadelphia chefs on the prospect of opening in the nation's capital. He began scouting the city in the late '90s but only pulled the trigger when he found the perfect location -- an old dry cleaner in a free-standing, one-story building with plenty of sidewalk space. He said he's also "close" to two more deals here.
"You have to look at Le Diplomate as a turning point," said Richard Landau, who owns Philadelphia's vegetables-only restaurant, Vedge, with his wife Kate Jacoby. The two are actively searching for a spot to open in Washington: "We've been kind of equating it to the California Gold Rush as far as Philadelphians are concerned."
Vedge's proprietors have been visiting Washington for years, ever since Jacoby attended Georgetown, Landau said.
"We know the city pretty well and yet we've always been baffled by its food culture," which for years seemed to center more on lavishly built spaces than high-quality food, he said. "That's all starting to change."
La Colombe co-founder and president JP Iberti, who has known the city since the company was supplying coffee to the late Jean-Louis in the Watergate in the mid-'90s, is even bolder: "I believe D.C. is going to be the next great region for food."
And for a variety of reasons, Philadelphia wants a piece of the action.
So close, yet so far
Let's start with an obvious explanation: proximity.
"It really makes sense from a geographic standpoint," said Jeff Benjamin, chief operating officer of Vetri Family, which started when he joined chef Marc Vetri to open the eponymous Vetri in Philadelphia in 1998. The group will number 11 locations when Pizzeria Vetri opens on 14th Street NW, with a mid-June target date.
The relatively simple trip between the two cities -- just more than two hours on a good day -- makes scouting for sites, training and relocating staff, preparing for opening and keeping tabs afterward that much easier.
Of course, managing an operation located at a distance from your home base requires some extra thought, too. Justin Rosenberg, who opened Honeygrow in Philadelphia in 2012, said he's ensuring consistency by relocating some of his district managers to Washington. Plus, he can keep tabs by watching what's going on in his restaurants on his phone.
Benjamin said Pizzeria Vetri is training its Washington staff in Philadelphia, with operations and systems that have been developed for the chain's other locations there and in Austin.
A long-distance restaurant relationship only works for chefs and restaurants "as long as they're not just doing it part time and throwing something against the wall," Starr said. "We lived and breathed there at Le Diplomate for a year."
Even then, hiccups can develop. One night in Le Diplomate's early days, Starr couldn't understand why some of the kitchen staff started to leave in the middle of the shift.
He didn't realize that Metrorail closes at midnight Sundays through Thursdays.
We've got what they want
While there will be the inevitable surprises, Washington has a good reputation around the industry. The nation's capital, the Philadelphia transplants say, is a pretty good place to open a restaurant.
Part of that is because of demographics, Starr said. In the District, they're younger. "Younger people eat more and drink more," he said. Wine sales at Le Diplomate are among the highest among his more than two dozen concepts.
"There's more money down here," said Philadelphia-born chef Jennifer Carroll, who came to Washington from her hometown to open Requin with Mike Isabella. She said she's been singing the praises of Washington to try to lure favorites such as Michael Solomonov (Zahav) and cheesemongers/gourmet food seller Di Bruno Bros.
One selling point? In Washington, Carroll said, there's a constant stream of tourists and business people who eat out regardless of time of week. That's not always the case in Philadelphia, where weekdays can be quiet but "on the weekends, you get crushed. It's jam-packed busy."
The weekday warrior mentality has also made Washington particularly attractive to easier-to-replicate fast-casual concepts such as Honeygrow, Pizzeria Vetri and HipCityVeg.
"There is a large number of young, educated professionals in D.C., and that group tends to prefer fast-casual," said Nicole Marquis, who launched HipCityVeg in Philadelphia in 2012. Those same people have helped form much of the customer base in changing neighborhoods over the years, and Vedge's Landau said he's been particularly heartened to see neighborhood restaurants thriving in parts of the city such as Bloomingdale and Barracks Row.
People in Philadelphia tend to stick around their own home base, where they may know the proprietors of their local establishments, said Philly native Casey Patten, the co-founder of D.C. sandwich chain Taylor Gourmet. "That neighborhood feel is what I love about" Philadelphia, he said. "Not everything there has to be this big build-out" of millions of dollars -- as is sometimes the case in Washington and another neighbor you might have heard of: New York.
Not New York
As far as restaurants go, Washington has done a pretty good job leaving behind its inferiority complex when comparing itself to the Big Apple. In fact, Philadelphia chefs and restaurateurs say, the D.C. area has a lot of things going for it that make it more attractive than New York. (Of course, we've seen our own wave of arrivals from NYC, including David Chang's Momofuku, Daniel Boulud's DBGB and Michael White's Osteria Morini.)
"New York is becoming impossible to open restaurants in," said Starr, not only because it's a more expensive market but also because of its rules and regulations. "You can't really invest big money in those restaurants, because you'll never make it back."
HipCityVeg's Marquis said it can be harder to stand out in New York, too. She's counting on being able to do just that in Washington with her plant-based renditions of fast-food fare.
Carroll and La Colombe's Iberti said that even as the new restaurants continue to pile up, Washington probably hasn't maxed out its opportunities. In fact, "I think it's a little bit underserved," Iberti said.
And you know what else? We're pretty darn friendly.
"There's an optimism in Washington that is really nice and contagious," Starr said. "The Washingtonians have been so nice and pleasant to deal with."
Out of town versus home-grown
In the end, though, does it matter whether someone opening a restaurant is from Philadelphia or Friendship Heights?
Yes and no.
Pizzeria Vetri's Benjamin thinks there are plenty of people who aren't tuned in to origin stories and plenty who are. He knows there's loyalty to local names, not to mention a lot of pizza here already.
"I think it's the concept itself" that matters, Honeygrow's Rosenberg said. The company is trying to inject some local flavor by working with D.C. artists and photographers for its shops in Chinatown and Pentagon City.
Yet as Landau pointed out, Washington is such a transient city that most home-grown chefs were in fact outsiders at one point or another, like many residents.
"I think quality usually prevails," Starr said. "If something's good, it's good."