ChiKo looks like a fast-casual restaurant. At the Chinese-Korean eatery on Washington's Barracks Row, you order at the counter, grab a number, cough up some cash and pay for your meal.
But that last step is where things start to feel different.
A recent meal for two cost this reporter a steep $68 without alcohol, a far cry from what you’d encounter at the likes of Nando's Peri Peri, &pizza or even Sweetgreen, where the average meal for two usually costs less than half that amount.
An increasing number of restaurants like ChiKo are opening in Washington — and across the country, experts say. These fancy-casual eateries fall somewhere between sit-down restaurants and the Chipotles of the world, making customers order at the counter, and serving quick meals in disposable containers or trays. But they pay extra attention to interior design, serve upscale ingredients, occasionally offer a full bar and always charge a couple bucks more than the standard fast-casual.
The trend addresses a growing demand for fast dining experiences, which has given restaurateurs room to experiment in terms of price point and culinary quality. “What we’re seeing in D.C. influences trends on the East Coast,” said Sam Oches, editor of Food News Media, a restaurant and consumer trends publication.
At ChiKo, that culinary quality is evident in the smoked blue catfish, house-made acorn noodles and an $18 chopped brisket dish with a soy-brined soft egg and furikake butter. There are no customizable salad bowls. Instead, the flavor combinations have been carefully selected by chef Scott Drewno, who founded ChiKo with Danny Lee and Andrew Kim and is an alum of the Source, the fine-dining D.C. satellite of Wolfgang Puck's brand. “We just wanted to do good food in a casual environment,” Drewno said.
That's what you'll also find at Made Nice in New York, a fast-casual eatery by the team behind Eleven Madison Park, ranked No. 1 in this year's list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, compiled by an organization that votes on them. The salads and rice bowls (about $14) are nothing compared with Eleven Madison Park's $250-plus tasting menu, but those dishes are more expensive, and more elevated, than what we've come to expect from places where you eat with disposable forks.
In Washington, there's also Red Apron Burger Bar: The restaurant's Double Vision burger, topped with house-cured bacon and made with a choice of an ancient breed of cow sourced from Virginia, costs $14.35, which you can wash down with an $8 glass of bourbon punch. At the new Chicken & Whiskey on 14th Street, a recent lunch of South American-style roast chicken cost almost $40 for two. Open the freezer door to reveal not a chilly storage room, but a full-service bar with 66 varieties of whiskey where bartenders carve ice by hand.
“You're getting high-quality drinks,” says Chicken + Whiskey partner Charles Koch, who also co-founded Heist, a VIP Dupont Circle nightclub and lounge. “And it's not pretentious.”
The rise of these fancy-casual restaurants is a response to what consumers are craving right now — affordable experiences that offer something a bit special. Following the recession, Oches says, casual dining establishments had taken a hit. Lacking disposable income to spend on restaurants, customers started turning to fast-casual spots such as Chipotle and Panera Bread. “People didn’t want to go to the Olive Garden and drop $60 when they could go to a fast-casual restaurant and have a tasty meal,” Oches says.
Thanks to a stable economy and job market, people are now ready and willing to spend more on food. The only problem? They can't shake the ease of the fast-casual experience. Couple that with higher expectations of what constitutes a good meal, and the result is Fast Casual 2.0. “People have more freedom to eat out,” said Kurt Schnaubelt, co-head of the restaurant, hospitality and leisure practice at AlixPartners, a global consulting firm. “And what they want is the experience and flavors of fine dining, but with convenience and speed.”
It helps that an increasing number of big names have already entered the fast-casual sector, like José Andrés with Beefsteak and, of course, Danny Meyer's Shake Shack. For them, fast casuals can require less cash upfront: Running a restaurant that serves a bulk of its food to go — versus a sit-down establishment — means spending less on glassware, plates, tablecloths and labor. The concepts are also easier to replicate on a national scale.
“What’s happening is chefs who, historically speaking, have had awful hours and intense work pressures and aren’t paid what they’re worth, are recognizing that they can have better hours, make just as much money and have the culinary creativity they might not find in a fine dining restaurant,” Oches says.
Victor Albisu, who has over a decade of experience in fine dining, says it's slightly more complex than that. “My hours, quite frankly, continue to suck,” says Albisu, the chef and owner of upscale Del Campo downtown, as well as Taco Bamba, a fast-casual taqueria in Falls Church. “I'm doing it because it's what I love, and I enjoy the two drastic extremes of cooking.”
Drewno can attest that his days at ChiKo are just as long — and the pressures of owning a restaurant are just as intense — as the Source, despite the more relaxed setting customers are getting upfront.
There is at least one perk: As opposed to the chef's coat he wore daily at his old job, “I get to go to work in a T-shirt.”