What Do Eve’s Renovations Say About the State of Fine Dining?
You may wonder why I care about the mostly cosmetic renovations taking place in Restaurant Eve's Tasting Room. I mean, why should most people care that owners Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong have purchased new furniture and fixtures for their showcase dining room, where a prix-fixe, multi-course meal can easily surpass $200 a head?
Let me tell you why: Because the renovations say something about the state of fine dining in the D.C. area. It says the market is shrinking, and those who continue to trade in these pricey menus had better polish their silver to a high gloss, because expectations are jacked through the roof for those diners still willing to shell out for these special occasion meals.
The Armstrongs have invested $125,000 in making over their Tasting Room and the adjacent Sunflower Room. Most of that money has gone to the custom-made furniture designed by Decorium in Alexandria, with the remainder paying for new fixtures, wall hangings, a refinished hardwood floor, and the installation of some doors to separate the Tasting Room from the Sunflower Room. (The latter two tasks will be finished in a week or two.)
But the most startling part of the renovation may be what's missing — eight seats. Eve's owners actually decreased the capacity in both rooms from approximately 54 to 46 seats, Meshelle Armstrong told me last week during a tour of the space. That amounts to, very roughly, a $3,200 loss every weekend, assuming the Friday and Saturday seatings are fully booked.
"Fine dining is not dead," Meshelle Armstrong says, "but [diners] are going to be very choosy where they're going."
The Armstrongs weren't going to take any chances that Eve might get bypassed in favor of some other fine-dining temple around town. So six and a half years after they opened Eve in Old Town, Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong decided to give their showcase rooms a facelift.
The old rooms needed it. They were so generic, I couldn't even remember what they looked like. I had to go back and view old video footage online. What I found were minimalist rooms that almost bordered on the ascetic. Banquettes the color of maple butter. Spare wood chairs. Nondescript illustrations of gourds, greens, and melons adorned the walls, as if Team Eve had just ripped pages from Cooks Illustrated and framed them.
The new Tasting Room is alive with color — teal and ruby and persimmon. Your opinion of the new look may depend on your opinion of peacocks. The design of room is based on a painting of a peacock that hangs in the breezeway leading to the restaurant; a local artist gave the painting to the owners, and Meshelle Armstrong loves it. She told her designer one word — "peacocks" — and designer "got it," she says.
Aside from color, the Tasting Room also has a personality now. Three of the new banquettes seat only one or two people, but the banquettes' extremely high backs and deep wings exude an air of royalty, as if they were once thrones in some alternative Alice in Wonderland story. The peacock theme is expressed in the banquettes' fabric, which is designed to resemble the "eyes" and tail feathers of the bird. Two other banquettes are low-slung and curvy, almost sensual compared to the strutting overstuffed peacocks nearby.
But regardless of what banquette you slide into, one thing will remain the same. You'll have lots of space and privacy as you bite into Cathal Armstrong's multi-course tasting menus. This privacy (and personality), of course, comes at a cost to the Armstrongs, who have raised the price of the five-course tasting menu from $110 to $120 to help recoup the costs.
"Special dining is not about making money," Cathal Armstrong tells me during our tour. "This is really about a pleasurable experience."
I attempt to push back gently and suggest to the chef that he's not running a charity. He wholeheartedly agrees, but then he gently reminds me that with his 35 percent food costs, there are much easier ways to make money than with a fine-dining operation.