Fledgling restaurants, particularly those replacing epicurean touchstones such as the late Mendocino Grille, must often strike a delicate balance between courting the next wave of regulars and appeasing the devout still lamenting what once was.
The tastemakers behind Unum, Georgetown's latest gem, make it look downright easy.
The restaurant (2917 M St. NW) was founded in late January by newly minted restaurateurs Phillip Blane and his wife, Laura Schiller. While her beaming countenance will be familiar to guests she's assisted in Unum's cave-like main dining room, most of our readers probably know Schiller best from her "day job" as chief of staff for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Blane might be a little harder to identify, given that the ambitious chef presides over the back of the house, juggling everything from sweet and savory cooking duties to inventory and ordering.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
Blane has paid his dues in high-profile kitchens around the area, learning the lay of the hospitality land during his days as opening chef of the Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant on Virginia's Eastern Shore before migrating north to man the burners at presidential favorite Equinox.
These days, he's calling the shots - and marveling at the audience he attracts night after hectic night.
"You certainly never know who's going to come through the front door," Blane said of the all-embracing spot he created specifically to celebrate the melting pot culture he so admires about D.C. (The name Unum was inspired by the motto "e pluribus unum," Latin for "out of many, one.")
Though separated from the street by only a glass-enclosed vestibule, the tony yet intimate interior seems miles away from the more opulent culinary haunts and collegiate dives that have long reigned over the heavily trafficked main drag.
Blane et al. managed to carve out three zones within the tightly knit expanse: a stone-walled main dining room dominated by a softly lit, burning bush-like feature emblazoned at the far end; a recessed cubby that takes privacy seekers off display but requires scooching together on a communal banquette; and a modest bar/lounge boasting a single, window-side table.
Those who choose to linger at the bar are welcome to avail themselves of the carefully curated library near the front. The built-in book rack celebrates those who contributed to the culinary arts (familiar titles included Barton Seaver's "For Cod and Country," Bill Buford's "Heat," and Gabrielle Hamilton's "Blood, Bones & Butter") as well as accomplished storytellers (we spotted the best works of Jonathan Franzen, Shel Silverstein and Dave Eggers on display).
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