The Clarendon Grill Closes. Goodnight to a Great Bar.

Last week the Clarendon Grill in Arlington, VA closed after 22 years. Even locally, this was not major news—bars close all the time. For many of us who were a part of the Grill, however, it was a significant event. For me, it has opened a floodgate of memory.

I first walked into the Grill off the street in the summer of 1998. Fresh out of college with a Creative Writing degree and consequently no viable job prospects, my only goal of the summer was to get a job that would allow me to move out of my mom’s basement.

I knew I loved the restaurant business, but I had barely any experience. Naturally, I thought I should be a bartender. I spent the day in the city getting turned down left and right, and after getting off the Metro in Clarendon to head home, I made one last stop.

I thought it was cool that this bar had things on the menu like a lamb shank and local art on the walls. What the Hell, I thought. Maybe they will hire me.

I immediately sat for the interview with Dave Pressley, a culinary school grad who was running the front of the house. Dave promptly told me that I could never get hired as a bartender, but they needed a server. The honesty was refreshing, and I took the job. In many ways, that interview with Dave started my career. I remain grateful that he gave me the time after so many that day had not.

And I was in.

I quickly took on whatever work I could get other than serving. Bar back, host, the occasional bar shift, and even security. Yes, I was a bouncer. They key to that job was to stay (hide?) behind head of security, Jeff Mozingo, and just do whatever he said. I managed to remain largely unscathed.

Months later, I was a manager—number two in charge with absolutely no qualifications to be there. I had the keys to the bar and the trust of General Manager Danny Garcia. It is safe to say that Danny took a big chance giving a 22-year-old kid the job, and I tried as hard as I could to not screw it up.

The job was intoxicating. Weekends were loud and crazy with a line around the block every single night (there were VERY few bars in the neighborhood at the time). The bar was hot and buzzing with the electricity of twenty-somethings. The noise was at times deafening from the bands, and the whole scene was clouded in a haze of smoke (yes, like actual cigarette smoke. Different time).

People laughed and cried, sang and danced, drank and fought. Something always broke, someone always quit and whatever could go wrong would go wrong. Every night was crazy but different, and I had to try to figure out how to hold it together. I absolutely loved it.

The job made me realize that I needed some chaos and uncertainty to work at my best. It didn’t lay out a career path, but it helped push me towards one. And some of the contacts that I made there continue to be some of the most important in my life. One of them I lost, but others have stayed with me.

Like my wife.

Meredith and I grew up together, but we were apart for high school and college. We both moved back to our hometown around the same time, and back then there was only one real spot for recent grads in Arlington to come together.

And I was working there.

So when there was a line—and there was always a line–I would get a call. I tried to play it cool as I let this beautiful woman slip in the back and take my breath away.

Time went on and things worked out for us.

Meredith and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary—we have a middle schooler and a mortgage, we go to bed early at night and every morning there seems to be more gray hairs. We are at a different point in our lives, but in many ways, our story started at the corner of Highland and 11th St.

My story was not the only one that started there to be sure, and that is what a great place can do—spider webs of interactions and connections spiral out and create moments and memories that exist far beyond the four walls and can last far longer than the place itself.

The Clarendon Grill was that kind of place.

For all of this, I am grateful to Pete Pflug for coming up with a crazy idea to build a construction-site themed bar on that corner all those years ago.

Thanks, Pete—it was a great run.

Nashville

It is not just hot chicken and country music.

In fact, if I never have hot chicken again, that would be fine with me. Sorry to be a hater, but I didn’t get it. I felt like the heat and discomfort was just making it impossible to enjoy a good plate of fried chicken. But hey, that’s me.

As to country music, I could care less about the pop country crap, but Nashville is inseparable from the real stuff—The Ryman, Ernest Tubb’s record shop and so on. I wanted to be near that history, and I could go see all that again. And again. However, it was great to see some music from other genres which Nashville is full of. I got to see Elise Davis at The High Watt. Great stuff, and thanks to Brooklyn Brewery for putting on the show and supporting great music. And for the old stuff, Robert’s Western World was just as described—and the grilled cheese was a nice bonus.

But, I was mostly there for the beer. And man, was there a lot of it. Thousands descended on the Music City Center to talk craft beer at the annual Craft Brewer’s Conference. I was struck by how focused, motivated and friendly the crowds were. The seminars, whether on bacteria in brewhouses or raising capital, were packed daily. The expansive floor was full of suppliers and brewers all trying to figure out where the industry was going next.

For a nascent brewery like our partner, City-State Brewing Company, this was an invaluable opportunity, and founder James Warner made the most of it. We were up, down and all around, trying to soak up as much as we can (and yes, drinking up a fair amount as well).

We left with the sense that the brewery we are building—a robust taproom in a great area with an eye towards a strong local distribution presence—is exactly the right spot for us to be in. For an entrepreneur, feeling like you are on the right rack is one of the most helpful things that can ever happen.

Thank you to the Brewer’s Association for an incredible conference, and to the dozens of helpful colleagues we met. We hope to see you all next year in Denver.

For Mothersauce, this was also a chance to see Nashville, and hear its story about what food and beverage means down there these days. I spent the mornings and the evenings learning about the city, and I enjoyed nearly every minute.

Nashville gets compared to Austin a lot, and while I can see that is irritating to proud locals, as a native of neither, I get it. From the surrounding hills, the heat, the river cutting through the middle, its easy manner, and most of all the explosive growth, it is easy to see a parallel.

As far as food culture, there is a kinship as well. Both cities have a very powerful, historical food tradition (tex-mex & barbecue in Austin, hot chicken & southern meat-and-three in Nashville), and yet with their growth has come a burgeoning food scene that often is completely outside the tradition.

So where will they go?

To me, coffee is always a marker. If a city has a vibrant coffee culture—independent shops, high quality local roasting—that is always a good sign. Nashville certainly has that. Regional chain Revelator Coffee is great, but my favorites were Barista Parlor (most stunning setting I can recall) and Crema (perched high above the river with the whole city to stare at). Great coffee at all, friendly people, and a clear devotion to the craft.

Next, the top end of the dining scene (yes, in price, but also in commitment to ingredients and skill) can say a lot. Is it all steakhouses? Is it “high-end” barbecue (why people try that I will never understand)? Is it national chains planting flags to tell a city what they should like? All those things are bad indicators.

I confess I was disappointed that a number of people recommended some steak and chop houses when I asked where to go to eat, but coming from DC where I sometimes think we invented the concept, or at least are responsible for keeping it alive, it isn’t really fair for me to judge too harshly.

That aside, what I found were some extraordinary concepts that would sit right at home in DC or anywhere. My favorite meal was easily Rolf & Daughters. Great service, excellent cocktails and wine, and one of the best pasta dishes I can recall. They have the benefit, along with honorable mention City House, of being in Germantown, a very charming neighborhood that I could see living in and being right at home.

The company in town to talk about is definitely Strategic Hospitality. It seemed half my list of recommended places were under their umbrella. They are doing a fantastic job bringing original, fun and unique concepts to Nashville. I love seeing a company working to elevate the dining scene of an entire city.

Since we are about to open a bowling concept, their multi-purpose spot Pinewood Social was a must. We bowled, we drank, we ate and it was all a blast. It was great to see that you can have the most proletariat of pastimes combined with elevated food and drink, and it just works. Again, nothing makes the terror of entrepreneurship easier to take than when you feel you are on the right track. Look for our version, The Eleanor, in NoMa this June, by the way.

From wandering in East Nashville to hanging out down in the Gulch, from Vanderbilt to Germantown, there were many more places that I enjoyed. It isn’t a walkable city, really, but it isn’t big, and you can hop from area to area very easily. I think I could easily fill another few days with more research. I am already scouring the tours of my favorite artists to see if I can catch one at the Ryman next time I am down there.

dining-trends-restaurant

New Year, New Food Trends, No Poke

As Mothersauce wraps up its first calendar year of operations, I am looking back with pride at all that we have done, but I am mostly looking ahead to what we are going to do. Our future is very bright, and I will soon announce some incredible projects for 2018.

In the meantime, I get asked a lot about trends—what is the next one, which one is a fad, what’s my favorite. Occasionally, I get asked a better question—where do I see the food and beverage business going? While that question is mostly tailored to DC, it is always valuable to think more broadly and ask also where is the business going nationally?

This seems like the perfect topic for my end of the year blog post.

Thinking about where the food and beverage business is going is critical to deciding where to invest my company’s resources.

There are trends that I don’t think have any staying power (I love poke, but…), and there are trends that seem to be holding on and even growing (cider). Instead of exploring them all, l am looking at one that will continue to have a major impact:

Food halls.

Not food courts, of course. A food court is the place in Pentagon City where I get my hair cut and NEVER, EVER go to Panda Express. Especially not for beef with broccoli.

Dammit.

A food hall, or sometimes a food market, is a curated collection of vendors under one roof that eschews the traditional one building, one concept model. The key is a multitude of offerings, but not too much overlap (think of an all hamburger joint food hall. Overkill. And, gross). Like many things, the model is simple but not easy.

In our area, we are fortunate to be punching above our weight class (like we always do in food) by having two food halls in the nation’s top 20, Eastern Market and Union Market. Union Market, in fact, is in Bon Apetit’s top 5.

Newcomers like The Block have added more flavor and penetrated the suburbs, and there are so many more variations on the theme on the way, it is hard to count. Mike Isabella is claiming 40,000 square feet in Tyson’s (it is in a mall, but it is NOT a food court—got it?). Notable chef Jose Garces is opening a 20,000 square foot Latin-themed food hall around the corner from Union Market, and developers know that to offer the latest to their tenants, they need to get in on this—Forest City is planning to open “Quarter Market” as a part of their remodeling of the Ballston neighborhood in Arlington. Will Ballston finally be a cool place to go? Doubt it, but it’s a start.

There are many more, and there are some interesting twists. Incorporating retail not just for F&B, but clothing and home goods is an interesting way to create stickiness and offer vendors a platform other than a traditional shop. This winter, The Block borrowed from an Asian tradition, huge in LA, to open a “night market.”

What is consistent is the customer’s desire to access many different options in a setting that is cool, informal and easy. Everyone gets what they want, the experience is seamless and fun, and you want to go back.

But, how do they work for the partners involved? The landlord, the management company, and the vendors themselves? Hard to say, but what seems like an amazing thing from the customer’s perspective is rarely as clean and smooth behind the scenes. The logistics and the economics are far more complicated than with a traditional restaurant setup. Figuring that out will be the key to long term success for all the partners involved.

And if they do figure it out and pack the places, will they kill restaurants? No, not at all. But it is already having an impact on the food and drink scene, and it will continue to do so.

The real interesting question is how will they evolve. Right now, a food hall is basically a mixed-use development with tenants paying rent and sharing some amenities. Simple.

What more could it be? Is there an evolution that truly creates a win-win-win for the property owner, the customer AND the vendors? Perhaps someone out there is already working hard on that model…

Ahem.

The New Grandmothers

Last night I had the great honor to meet world-renowned Chef Massimo Bottura. Chef Bottura is much more than a perennial winner of Michelin stars, best restaurant awards and every other accolade that can be awarded in our business. He is in fact a transcendent figure with a vision that goes far beyond his restaurant in Modena. I encourage everyone to watch his episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix to see what I am talking about.

Chef was in town at American University to promote his new book, Bread is Gold, a collaboration with other chefs of great renown. It is a recipe book, but it is also a vision for the future. In Chef’s eyes, the key to providing food for those who need it lies not in increased production, but in decreased waste.

As part of a panel discussion with local thought leader Chef Spike Mendelsohn, the notion that culinary traditions—and guidance on how to appreciate and not waste food—is less and less a thing passed down from grandmothers or others in our families. Our society, particularly in America, lacks that generational connection in many ways. And so, who is there to replace them? Who can carry on the legacy of appreciating that food comes from effort, from the earth, and it must be savored when eaten, cared for with love, and least of all, wasted?

Perhaps chefs?

Moderator Mitchell Davis from the James Beard Foundation threw out that notion acknowledging that concurrent with the decline in family traditions, there is a rise in the celebrity status of chefs. No longer in the back of the house, they are now front and center on panels, at the White House, on TV and in every conceivable venue for influence that exists.

They wield great power in influencing our culture, especially the younger generations, on how to treat food. They can act as thought leaders and shape generations and perhaps solve this great problem in our world as we race towards a more crowded—and hungry—planet.

Quite a responsibility indeed. Especially when many of these men and women have responsibilities to their businesses and families. However, what an extraordinary opportunity. And it can be done in a granular level by showing people how to prepare food for themselves, in their homes, with love and care for the ingredients. Just like your grandmother might have shown you.

Chef Bottura’s career has been defined by bold—and perhaps reckless—visions that he makes into reality through a singular combination of passion, drive and savvy. And of course, with a tremendous team to support him. This latest vision represents just the latest move for a man who seems hellbent on leading the way and creating change. From Parmesan 5 Ways to making Cacio e Pepe a rallying cry for earthquake victims to driving our world to think differently about how it eats—and wastes—food.

Just another crazy idea. One that may be gold.

Grazie, Chef.

Help Wanted

What makes DC a great food city is not just the food, but the media that cover it. We are lucky to have a collection of passionate and hardworking journalists in DC who do more than just review the new poke place. Or the new poke place. Or the new…For real, what the Hell with poke?

To understand this business, you must look past the fabricated drama of openings and closings and what pop-up theme bar has the longest line. This is a business with many determiners of success existing behind the scenes. Recently, one of DC’s best food writers, Jessica Sidman at the Washingtonian, drew attention to what might be the single most critical factor in the success or failure of restaurants over the next couple of years.

Staff.

This piece draws attention to what is being considered a crisis. I have written that talk of a bubble is hyperbole, but this issue is very real, and while I don’t think it will deflate the industry, I do think that many restaurants that might otherwise have the pieces in place to be successful, will not be.

As the article points out, every operator in town is acutely aware of this issue, and it is not a new one. However, what makes this piece helpful is that it singles out the Wharf as particularly exacerbating the problem.

No doubt, the Wharf will be a good thing for the city. Growing up here, the SW waterfront was good for buying seafood, and that was it. It is certainly underutilized, and I look forward to seeing it succeed. I also look forward to someone inviting me to see the Foo Fighters opening night at The Anthem. Hello? Anyone? Sigh.

As the excitement builds towards the opening of the Wharf, residents are excited, and no thought at all is given to how many customers it will take to support these businesses. That should be a concern. There are simply too many places for everyone to do well. And with the prices these places have paid, they will need every customer they can get.

Reports are already out that several places will not meet the required opening deadline. That is expected but nonetheless troubling.

But again, that is not the real worry. Sidman’s article states that the Wharf will need nearly 900 employees just for the restaurants. And she rightly theorizes that those employees will certainly come from other restaurants. That of course is nothing new—staff routinely hop to the newer spots.

But there is still a gap.

There simply aren’t enough competent and well-trained employees to staff all these new places and all the other places that are continuously opening around the city.

The solution to that problem is complicated, but workforce development is key. There are solid jobs at every skill level to be had in restaurants, and there is substantial opportunity for growth. Whether it is local non-profits focusing on culinary specific job training (plug for my non-profit, La Cocina VA), or broader initiatives by local and national government, more needs to be done.

There is always talk about America needing better jobs, but that is not true here in DC. The jobs are here–we need the people to work them.

And to be clear, I do believe that our industry needs to do more. The antiquated ways in which we treat staff need to continue to evolve. The idea that long hours, low pay and tough conditions are part of the job is ridiculous.

If we want to attract the best and the brightest—and occasionally just get a warm body in there to fill a shift—then we need to do more ourselves to attract that talent.

I have had a lot of conversations of late with smart people in the business who are trying to figure this out. We are way past realizing there is a problem, but we also don’t have all the solutions in hand. Articles like this help to make the broader community aware of the crisis, and perhaps allow for outside solutions we haven’t thought of. I think that would be welcome.