The rumors appear to be true: Michel Richard, the city’s most celebrated chef, will shift his “home” base to the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, where he will open a new fine-dining restaurant in the former Maestro space. It’s not clear yet what the move could mean for Citronelle, Richard’s current home at the Latham Hotel and one of D.C.’s most-honored restaurants, and whether the chef would abandon the spot completely.
Michel Richard Restaurants mailed a packet of information to potential investors last week, seeking nearly $2 million to develop the 5,000-square-foot, 110-seat restaurant inside the Ritz. The celebrity chef, according to the document, “plans to enter into a 10-year primary lease on or about April 30, 2009” for the dining space made famous by chef Fabio Trabocchi, who left Maestro in September 2007. The restaurant has been dark since.
“Citronelle is not closing…Michel’s offices are still there, his kitchen that he loves is still there, and business is going on as usual,” says Mel Davis, PR coordinator for Richard. “I have to reiterate, there are no plans to move or close Citronelle from the Latham Hotel.”
Mark Sherwin, general manager for the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, emphasizes that no contract has been signed for the Maestro space. “We continue to talk to a number of high-profile chefs,” Sherwin says. The Ritz has narrowed the list down to three different groups, the GM adds, but he isn’t at liberty to name any of them.
The investor packet, however, makes it sound like a done deal. The working name of the proposed restaurant is, simply, Michel Richard, and it will be considered, according to the investor packet, “Michel Richard’s home,” where the chef “will likely be in the kitchen most evenings.”
Those statements clearly imply either the death or the diminishment of Richard’s Citronelle, which has suffered some indignities in recent months. Last fall, the Post’s Tom Sietsema docked Citronelle a star in his 2008 Dining Guide; in January, the gastronomic temple laid off a number of employees and cut back on operating hours; and in March, long-time sommelier Mark Slater left Citronelle to work at Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington.
The statements also pour cold water on the rumors that firebrand British chef Gordon Ramsay will take over the Maestro space, which perhaps wasn’t a surprising turn of events. Ramsay’s restaurant group was already facing serious financial troubles, and the chef recently sold his Los Angeles operation, Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood.
But the Ritz is obviously interested in a celebrity chef for the space. The hotel chain has done well with famous cooks in the kitchen, whether Eric Ripert at the Westend Bistro or Dean Fearing at his eponymous place at the Ritz’s Dallas property.
In preparation for Richard, the former Maestro space will be “re-designed in its entirety as a modern French-influenced restaurant” and “will change dramatically from its prior iteration, which, while luxurious, lacked a distinctive independent operator feel.” The restaurant’s open kitchen will be “re-tiled to have a more contemporary aesthetic,” while the once-expansive dining room will be broken up into spaces that look, based on preliminary architectural sketches, as if they could be sealed off for private dining. There will also be a chef’s table and a bar area with six stools and three cocktail tables.
Group Goetz Architects, the same company that designed Central Michel Richard on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, has been hired to design the Ritz space. No general contractor has been selected yet. Richard’s team at the Ritz will include Carl Halvorson, currently the director of operations for Citronelle and director of operations/partner at Central.
The Ritz, according to the investor packet, is providing a “significant build-out allowance” for Richard, but it’s apparently not enough to cover all the costs. Richard’s team is seeking between $1.7 million and $1.8 million to construct what it hopes will be “Washington’s finest restaurant.”
Michel Richard is expected to open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner sometime during the fourth quarter of this year.
If the detailed investor packet weren’t enough to convince skeptics that Richard is moving his base of operations to Tysons, then the return address on the mailer itself all but confirms it. According to the envelope, Michel Richard Restaurants is located at 1700 Tysons Blvd. in McLean: the address of the Ritz-Carlton.
The intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Prout Street SE doesn’t have much to recommend it—unless, that is, you’re in need of gas. There’s a Sunoco on the western side of Prout and a Citgo on the northeastern side of Pennsylvania. Cars, vans, and 18-wheelers rumble in both directions along the six-plus lanes that pass in front of the future site of the Grays on Pennsylvania, a mixed-use condo development that, at present, is just a giant hole in the ground at this intersection south of the Anacostia River.
If any condo’s in dire need of a selling point, it has to be the Grays on Pennsylvania, which may explain the sign that hangs from the construction site’s protective fencing. The billboard-sized sign features a lifelike rendering of the development, right down to the commercial stores on the ground floor. Front and center in that retail row is a familiar name, spelled out in that unmistakable red-cursive script that has lit up U Street for five decades now: Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Could a developer ask for a better spokesbusiness? Let’s all repeat the record together: The Shaw institution has survived the 1968 riots, a Metro expansion, several recessions, and Bill Cosby’s creeping senility to mark 50 years of slinging its signature half-smokes slathered in chili. Every politician, tourist, and Travel Channel producer who traipses through town, sooner or later, makes a pilgrimage to Ben’s, usually with camera in hand, to try and capture the joint’s smoky, raucous charms for the folks back home. Even President Obama paid his respects to the Bowl with a surprise visit before his inauguration in January, instantly turning a local landmark into an international icon.
No one may know what a Ben’s half-smoke is, but everybody wants one now, including the District’s developers who have been sniffing around the Ali family like a domestic auto manufacturer sniffing around TARP cash. They all ask the same thing of the Alis: Would you please, please, please open a Ben’s Chili Bowl in our condo?
Chapman Development, the company behind the Grays on Pennsylvania, was one such suitor. About six months ago, managing member Tim Chapman approached the Alis about his ground-floor space, which he thought would look oh-so-fine with a Ben’s Chili Bowl in it. The family investigated the future site, looked at Chapman’s renderings (including the one with Ben’s, of course), and then said thanks but no thanks. The timing just wasn’t right for Ben’s, says Nizam Ali, son of founders Ben and Virginia Ali.
Chapman calls the still-hanging sign an honest mistake. He had more than one rendering of the Grays stored on a computer, he says, and his marketing person sent the wrong one to the printer. Over the phone, Chapman exudes the air of a man falsely accused of exploiting Ben’s good name, and he has promised Nizam Ali to quickly fix the sign. He makes no apologies, of course, for trying to lure Ben’s his way. “Are you kidding? It’d be Ben’s Chili Bowl east of the river!” he says. “I’d put a Ben’s Chili Bowl in my living room.”
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