Hard Times Cafe Paradiso fights downturn by expanding; Mallory Buford takes wing.

Case Study: Gresser gets hopped up for a move to a bigger location.
Darrow Montgomery

When last we heard about the retail space behind Blaine Mansion, Frank Ruta had pretty much given up hope of ever moving Palena there. The chef knew he had a better shot of relocating to the Green Zone than of getting a liquor licence in the West Dupont Circle Moratorium Zone. It looked, in fact, like no restaurant would move into the Mansion space period.

Well, it turns out that an existing licensee in West Dupont has had her eye on the location for a while now. Ruth Gresser has signed a deal to move her Pizzeria Paradiso into the former Bike Shop-District Hardware space at 2003 P St. NW. Gresser hopes to open in the expanded location by November, which would mark the 17th anniversary of Paradiso. The only potential obstacle is D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, which must approve the transfer of the liquor license. But given Paradiso’s good standing among neighbors, Gresser doesn’t expect any problems.

Gresser’s short hop down P Street will represent a giant leap forward in dining space and amenities. The current Paradiso, perched above street level at 2029 P St., can seat about 35 diners. The new spot will double the capacity, not including the 30 seats available on the patio during warmer months. Just as important to the hopheads who routinely make a pilgrimage to Gresser’s Birreria Paradiso in Georgetown, the expanded P Street space will feature a vast beer menu, including at least 10 different draft selections, some exclusive to the location. “I don’t expect that we’ll always have the same beer tapped at each place,” she says.

The move comes at a pivotal time for Paradiso, which has more competition than ever for a slice of the pie. Bebo Trattoria, Comet Ping Pong, RedRocks, Rustico, Mia’s, and Moroni & Brother’s have all started slinging pies in recent years—and many have already eclipsed Paradiso in the public’s imagination. “Bottom line,” wrote Don Rockwell last year on his self-named board, “Pizzeria Paradiso might still be a top-ten pizza in the area at this point; in no way does it crack the top five.”

But just as troubling, Paradiso is expanding at a time when the sagging economy screams for a more cautious business plan. In these days of rising food costs, it seems most restaurateurs would rather devote their attention to tabletop magic tricks—a clever slight of hand to hide smaller protein portions under a cloak of starches. Gresser confesses to some jitters about her expansion, particularly after a winter in which she worried whether her annual spring surge would ever arrive. It did.

Then again, worry seems to be Gresser’s constant companion: “If I have a bad day,” she admits, “I get concerned.” If you talk to local restaurateurs, however, they’ll tell you that neighborhood joints and comfort-food spots—and Paradiso certainly falls under both headings—are far better equipped to ride out this don’t-call-it-a-recession recession than the fine-dining palaces, many of which will no doubt die off this year. That may explain why Gresser isn’t yet ready to auction off her lease to the current location. She is, truth be told, thinking about opening up a third business—a carryout pizza joint. Now that’s my kind of aggressive thinking.

Lame Duck at Black’s

If you think Ruth Gresser is too bullish, consider the case of Mallory Buford. The executive chef at Black’s Bar and Kitchen is planning to leave one of the most stable dining companies in the region, confirms Black Restaurant Group (BRG) co-founder Jeff Black. Buford will remain in charge of Black’s kitchen at least through May, the chef says, before venturing out on his own with a still-undetermined restaurant.

The departure comes as no surprise to Black, who has known about the chef’s ambitions ever since he hired Buford for BRG’s Rockville restaurant, Addie’s, in 2004. It was Black, in fact, who suggested in late 2005 that Buford move from Addie’s and take over as executive chef at the Bethesda mothership, which was then undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation. The move would offer two benefits: Aside from leading a larger, more prominent kitchen, Buford would assume the role of company sponge, absorbing every last detail of the planning, construction, and staffing of the massive renovation.

Black figured it would be the best hands-on training a future restaurateur could ever ask for. Very few toques apparently know how to run a restaurant; cooking talent alone, Black says, doesn’t “mean that you know how to run a business.…It’s a very different beast when chefs go to the ownership side.”

So what did Buford learn from the experience? That everything is negotiable, the chef says, from leases to food costs. “I learned a lot from it,” the chef says. “That’s one of the reasons why I think I can open my own place.”

Buford just isn’t exactly sure what his own place will be yet. The Arkansas native has worked at some of the finest restaurants in the District and the country, including Colvin Run Tavern, Veritas, Le Bernardin, Union Pacific, and Yannick Cam’s Provence. But as he prepares to open his own place, Buford is seriously entertaining the idea of returning to his Southern roots and creating a modern Memphis-style barbecue joint, which I have to admit makes my heart go pitter-patter a little bit. “I would love to do it,” Buford says. “I think there’s a need for it, certainly a good quality one.”

If Buford is nervous about leaving behind the thriving BRG empire during these shaky times, he shows no signs of it. “I have a lot of confidence in myself,” he says. “I’m not really worried about it too much.” The future entrepreneur does admit, though, that things could change once he starts signing checks himself. “Then it will be…a little bit scarier,” he says.

Black doesn’t want to publicly name Buford’s replacement yet. He says he has hired an executive sous from a fine-dining restaurant in the District and plans to groom the young chef to take over Buford’s role overseeing nearly 40 employees at Black’s. “I do think he’s got what it takes,” Black says, “but it’s a big move [up the kitchen hierarchy].” The potential head toque will have at least one excellent trainer: Mallory Buford himself, who will likely maintain a position with BRG as he maps out his future. It’s a smart move for Buford. He’ll need the cash.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.

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