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Mike Isabella comes back to DC, fresh off of his "Top Chef" run, to open a restaurant.

Restaurants 3.0

by Erin Hartigan | DC magazine | April 28, 2011
A lot can happen in a year. Less than 12 months ago, restaurateur Hilda Staples had one restaurant, Frederick’s Volt, which she co-owns with Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio. Now, Staples has an ownership stake in two of this year’s most anticipated new restaurants: Rogue 24 by R.J. Cooper and Graffiato by Top Chef All-Stars runner-up Mike Isabella. This might seem stunning, but for Washington’s current unprecedented restaurant renaissance. Reportedly, spring 2011 will see more new restaurants in the Greater Washington area than in all of 2010.    The restaurant industry, which suffered several blows—including the recession and last year’s snow disasters—is rebounding with a packed roster of both first-timers and new ideas from longtime restaurateurs. Cooper’s formal dining concept—an elaborate 24-plate tasting experience—has its own air of prerecession indulgence. “Economically, I could’ve gone safe, but I wanted to show my personality,” Cooper says. “I want this to be an affordable, but special, luxury.” The James Beard Award winner will offer an audacious 24 cocktail pairings as well, by none other than Derek Brown.    Cooper jokes that he and Isabella have raced to open first. The duo shares not only investor Staples, but their landlord, Douglas Development. Cooper will occupy a space that he describes as a “gritty urban oasis” in Shaw. Blocks away, Isabella’s Graffiato will be a more casual restaurant, showcasing Italian-inspired cuisine, including several dishes that propelled him to the Top Chef finale.    Real estate agents have seen increased interest from would-be restaurant tenants. Commercial agent Brian Hill of Next Realty says, “We always had people out kicking tires, but now they’re trying to make deals quickly.” Ralph Ours of Federal Realty, which developed Bethesda Row, believes restaurants have shifted focus. “High price points are harder to do, but there’s a huge demand for fast-casual,” he says, citing Mussel Bar and the new Cava Mezze.    National concepts, such as Bobby’s Burger Palace by Bobby Flay, Shake Shack and Serendipity III, all said to be opening in spring 2011, have gotten DC’s lower-key message, as have locals Todd and Ellen Gray of the White House favorite Equinox. The couple just opened Watershed inside NoMa’s new Hilton Garden Inn. Unlike the cutting-edge, white-tablecloth Equinox, Watershed aims to attract casual diners with sandwiches, a raw bar and glasses of wine for less than $10. “We started to develop this concept during the downturn,” Ellen says. “Consumers are savvier; so we’re excited to be in a hotel that’s approachable, with a reasonably priced restaurant.”   Chef Fabio Trabocchi, who dazzled at the tony Tysons Corner Maestro and moved to Manhattan upon its close, is back and cooking more relatively accessible food at his new Fiola in Penn Quarter. “It felt right to return to Washington,” Trabocchi says. “I want people to enjoy the rustic Italian cooking that I grew up with, but I want them to enjoy it often, not just for special occasions.”   Gus DiMillo’s Passion Food Hospitality will open both a high-end and fast-casual concept this spring in Foggy Bottom. District Commons will feature what DiMillo calls “the revolution of American artisanal charcuterie and cheese,” while the casual Burger, Tap & Shake will serve grass-fed beef. “If we’d talked a year and a half ago, I’d have said ‘Let’s hold tight,’” DiMillo says. “But now’s the time to move forward and plan not just for 2011, but 2012. Things are getting better.”   

On the Menu

This spring will welcome the area’s largest number of prominent restaurant openings by local restaurateurs at one time. Here are a few you won’t want to miss.    Medium Rare  (Opened in early spring) Steak is the star at this Cleveland Park newcomer. The Paris-inspired prix-fixe menu offers bread, salad and steak with an affordable wine list. 3500 Connecticut Ave. NW, mediumrarerestaurant.‌com   Lost Society  (Early May) Grass-fed steaks will star at this luxe steakhouse, which features art-deco-inspired design and a roof deck overlooking U Street. 2001 14th St. NW, lostsociety-dc.‌com   Virtue Feed & Grain  (Late spring) Cathal Armstrong and his team of talented chefs and mixologists are at it again with this funky gastropub, walk-up window and lounge. 106 S. Union St., Old Town Alexandria, virtuefeedandgrain.‌com   Freddie’s Lobster and Clams  (Late May) New England’s lobster shacks inspired this casual seafood restaurant from Jeff Heineman of Grapeseed. 4867 Cordell Ave., Bethesda   901  (Mid-June) Multinational tapas will star at this Penn Quarter lounge alongside signature craft beers from Capitol City Brewing Company. 901 Ninth St. NW, 901dc.‌com