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Restaurants' Recess Strategies

Eateries Find Ways to Offset the Lull When Lawmakers, Staff Are Away

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Zest Bistro is one of many venues that has embraced restaurant week during August, one of the slowest months.

Running a successful restaurant in D.C. is plenty stressful enough. But Capitol Hill hospitality providers must deal with the added (sur)reality of losing hundreds of clients each time Congress takes one of its little breaks - none more painful than the annual summer recess.

Zest Bistro owner Amanda Briggs suggested that although its clientele is perhaps more driven by staff than Members, the whole place becomes a ghost town come late July. "It just seems like in D.C., the whole town empties out," she said, estimating that "everyone kind of takes their cues from the government."

Briggs said she rolls with the punches by moving servers around the schedule and giving the chef a much-needed rest. She has also taken to availing herself of summer restaurant week, a hospitality-led response to the 9/11 attacks (launched in winter 2002) wherein participating restaurants vied to draw people out of their homes with prix-fixe, multicourse menus.

"People really enjoy and come out for that," she said of the now biannual (since 2004) dining open house.

An aide at the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington billed the most recent summer restaurant week as the most successful yet. The program garnered 248 participating restaurants, a roughly 10 percent increase from last August (225 restaurants signed on) and a decent uptick from the winter roster (235 participants).

Break Time

Monocle owner John Valanos has been onboard with restaurant week since the beginning. But he's not one to complain about the August exodus.  

"It gives us a good time to give our staff a break," he said of the well-
anticipated monthlong recess. Valanos has traditionally shuttered the restaurant during the two weeks leading up to Labor Day, affording staff time for R&R and repairmen unfettered access to the aging townhouse.

Valanos is also a fan of the staggered recesses adopted by the 112th Congress, noting that as long as at least one chamber is around, lobbyists and staffers reliably find their way to his restaurant.

"Of course, I'd like 'em in 365 days a year," he quipped. (Don't even joke about that.)

Patrick Chiappetta, general manager and food and beverage director at Art and Soul, another restaurant week convert - "This year we saw covers go up and more interest in wine," he noted - affirmed that under regular order, weekday lunches are dominated by Congressional and K street types.

That's why the restaurant has instituted a three-course power lunch (45 minutes, tops) specifically designed to cater to on-the-go politicians and harried influence peddlers.

But by the weekend, he said, the restaurant becomes a playground for lounging food and cocktail lovers from surrounding 'hoods (Capitol Hill, Penn Quarter) - a clientele it is hoping to continue courting with extracurricular events like seasonal crab boils and an upcoming election night soiree.

Non-restaurant-week participants have found other ways to cope.

Capitol Hill dining impresario Spike Mendelsohn got rather stoic about it, hinting that when one door closes, another opens.

"Capitol Hill neighbors know that this is a good time to come in as the line is shorter without the Hill staffers," the empire-building cheflebrity shared.

Granville Moore's chef/owner Teddy Folkman doesn't rely specifically on Congressional foot traffic; he estimates it's maybe 5 percent of his business.  But he also doesn't peg his hopes on randoms darkening his door.

The brew-lover helped found the now-annual D.C. Beer Week and has lent his support to the fledgling "H Street Eats" festival.

And he's not done yet. Folkman is adding Wednesday-through-Friday lunch service to his repertoire beginning Sept. 19, plans to flip Granville's entire menu each month "to get in as much of the goodies as possible," and is orchestrating a Belgian pub grub-Korean food beer dinner with Los Angeles chef Debbie Lee later this fall.

Other fall specials include blue catfish at Zest Bistro this October (part of Maryland's "From the Bay, for the Bay" promotional blitz), a pre-Nats game, two-course steak dinner for pennant watchers at the Monocle, and new Saturday Suppers, monthly meals incorporating artisan producers into a theme-related menu, at Art and Soul.

The first such experiment was a gin-led dinner on Saturday. Look for Flying Dog beers and German-style cooking to come together Oct. 13, while wild game and bourbon will be given their chance to shine Nov. 10.

Bored Now

The food service business also slows across the Capitol complex during long Congressional recesses.

The throngs of staffers who normally flood the House and Senate cafeterias at peak feeding hours are diminished, as many overworked legislative aides take overdue vacations during their bosses' sojourns to states and districts.

And because there are fewer bodies on campus, most of the dining establishments keep shorter hours. Other food spots, including the Members' dining rooms, the Longworth Cafeteria and the Senate carryout, are closed entirely.

Restaurant Associates, the private vendor that oversees food services on both sides of the Capitol, maximizes resources during recess weeks to avoid significant financial loss. For their employees, the biggest complaint is that things just get, well, boring.

"I can't wait for people to come back and things can pick back up again," one House-side cashier said. "Things are just so slow!"

The only independent restaurant in the Capitol is Cups & Co., a coffee and sandwich shop in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building. The mornings are still busy times for the business, says Charlie Chung, manager for almost a decade. And people still pick the spot for business meetings and talking shop.

Other times, Chung said, it is "very slow."

"But we've experienced recess before," he said. "We don't lose that much money. Some days we can even shut down if we want to."

Is Chung excited for business to pick up again, though?

"Yes and no," he said with a laugh. "Everyone got to take time off last month except me!"

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