Young and Hungry

Breakfast of Transients: Equinox’s Dynamic Duo Try to Heighten the Hotel Buffet

Lukewarm eggs in a steely buffet tray. Little boxes of breakfast cereals. Cartons of supermarket yogurt. Bagels and a toaster. This is a Todd Gray restaurant?

The stylish logos on the staff uniforms say yes. But a quick survey of the morning spread suggests diners looking for an early-morning version of Gray’s popular Equinox restaurant are in for a surprise. With self-serve juice dispensers, a do-it-yourself waffle maker, and a moderate selection of pastries and muffins, this could be the continental breakfast at any mid-priced hotel around the country.

In fact, Gray’s newest outpost is located in the new Hilton Garden Inn at Constitution Square. That’s the sliver of Northeast, adjacent to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that’s been undergoing massive transformation and being marketed as "NoMa." The glassy 204-room hotel, which opened last week, is the national chain’s most expensive building to date, with rates currently starting at $279 per night.

In the run-up to the hotel’s opening, its restaurant—run by renowned chef Gray and his wife Ellen Kassoff Gray, the manager and co-owner—was a big part of its promotional push. Known as Watershed, the duo’s newest eatery was going to elevate the Washington hotel dining experience, with breakfast playing a starring role. "D.C. has a real need for power breakfast spots," Ellen Gray announced in a January press release. "Breakfast meetings are a huge thing, and there are so few places that do a good breakfast."

They were off to a pretty good start, too. The original breakfast menu posted online offered all sorts of tantalizing options, including a bruleed banana and almond-butter crostini and an Italian-style frittata with spinach and Fontina cheese. You could choose from three different kinds of smoothies and three different styles of eggs Benedict, most notably a blue crab variety served with leek fondue. The vast listings also included a buffet option for $15.

Yet when I arrived at the newly opened eatery shortly after 8 a.m. one weekday last week, there was only one option: the buffet. And it cost $17.95. Appetites whetted for blue crab bennies and the like, my dining companion and I were a little let down by the single-serving to-go cups of Jif peanut butter. "Have you ever seen this before?" she asked. "I haven’t."

Even at peak breakfast time, the eggs, the grits, and the gravy, had all turned chilly by the time it reached our table, as it tends to do with your typical buffet. The heat-it-yourself stuff was a bit more appealing. "I don’t hate the bagel," my friend said. "After two rounds of toasting."

I was worried the Grays had given up on breakfast, entirely, after barely a week in service, a fear further compounded by the story our server told us when we complained about the sudden elimination of those tantalizing menu items. "All I know is, the Hilton inspectors came," she says. "Now, the a la carte menu is gone."

But the Grays explain the situation differently. To hear them tell it, the higher-ups at Hilton are among the most hands-off overlords in the entire lodging industry, and the dramatic scaling back of their breakfast ambitions is simply a function of the restaurateurs' own learning curve. "It was more the stuff that we’re trying to iron out, volume and staffing in the morning and what’s really doable," Todd Gray says.

Breakfast, in fact, is an entirely new meal for the couple. Before opening Watershed, they scoured breakfast fare at hotels around town. "We went to the Hay-Adams. We went to the Sofitel. We went to Adour [in the St. Regis], the Liaison," Todd Gray says.

Given the up-market scouting expeditions—and the Grays’ own history as award-winning fine-dining purveyors—relegation to the hotel buffet line might seem like a tremendous setback. But the Grays say they were inspired by a speech from first lady Michelle Obama asking restaurateurs to be conscious of feeding America at all levels. "You can take the Ritz Carlton, you can take the Four Seasons, you can take the W’s—it’s easy to get chefs in there," Ellen Gray says. "This is real D.C. down here."

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and I give you your choice of Corn Flakes, Honey Grahams, or Cheerios—for $17.95.

Despite the slimmed-down spread, the chef insists he’s still determined to bring the hotel breakfast to new heights at Watershed. "We would love to," he says, "but you’ve got to make sure you don’t go broke doing it."

There are reasons to worry about that fate. The last time a prominent D.C. restaurant attempted to transcend the typical egg sandwich and coffee to-go, it didn’t turn out so well. Located smack in the middle of downtown, Restaurant K, opened in 2007 to similar claims of being the new center for the ever-elusive power breakfast. Tuesday through Friday mornings, chef Alison Swope prepared such diverse offerings as apple and brie omelets, chilequiles with eggs, blue crab quiches, and fresh fruit smoothies. Despite earning some faint praise for its efforts, including best-breakfast props in this very newspaper in 2008, the purported morning meal mecca shuttered less than a year later.

Determined not to sink in their own smoothie-laden debacle, the Grays have taken down their ambitious original menu and decided to pick their battles along the traditional buffet line instead. "You can visualize things in your head," Ellen Gray says. "Reality is another story."

What’s so complicated about serving a nice breakfast? Part of the issue, the Grays say, is the customer. "People who are coming for breakfast now, even in the neighborhood, a lot of them are getting stuff to go," says Todd Gray. "They're coming here with their suitcases and they want to get out. That’s why you do a buffet. They just serve themselves and go when they want to."

And despite an unemployment rate that would seem to give employers the advantage, Ellen Gray also says they had a hard time recruiting top-flight talent for an early-morning gig. It’s hard “getting people to come in here at 5 o’clock in the morning,” she groans. (Apparently, the D.C. Department of Employment Services can’t locate NoMa on a map, either.)

With hurried patrons and limited staff, the couple has at least tried to fill the buffet trays with better-than-average ingredients. Compared to the usual Hilton fare, they proudly say, this is the Cadillac of hotel buffets. "The Hilton Garden Inn uses powdered eggs around the country, which is abominable. We crack our eggs here," Ellen Gray says. "Those are farm eggs that are coming down from South Mountain Creamery," her husband adds.

The grits, meanwhile, have real grit, Todd Gray says; it’s the stuff ground at Byrd Mill outside Richmond. "There's mascarpone in there also, so they’re rich and creamy,” he says. “If you’re going to do grits, we wanted to do something that people would talk about."

And I can confirm that people did talk: At the Watershed bar the night before, a patron was raving to me about those same grits. “And I’m from Charleston, South Carolina,” he said. "I don’t mince words about grits." But the stuff tasted a lot better to me coming hot and fresh out of the kitchen at dinner time, topped with plump barbecue shrimp and green onions (you know, the kind of fare you expect from Todd Gray), than it did from the chilly buffet tray the next morning.

The chef goes on to note that the bacon is of the venerable applewood-smoked variety and the red-eye gravy comes from a classic recipe containing Béchamel sauce and espresso. It’s all pretty fancy stuff, not particularly the kind of product you want sitting out to congeal for hours. But what else can a couple with a reputation for sustainable food service actually do with it?

"We're not going to take eggs out of the thing and throw them in the trash can because they’re not as fresh," says Ellen Gray. "That’s horrible waste….That's the thing with buffets that scares me a little right now, the waste. What do you do if you put all that out and then what do you do at the end of the day? Well, I walk around feeding the staff now. I’d rather people eat than throw it in the trash."
Eventually, Todd Gray says, Watershed hopes to roll out some of the original breakfast items that were shelved in favor of the buffet. But, he says, they won’t be served at breakfast. Brunch maybe. "That’s probably going to be realistically more of a Saturday and Sunday type of thing," he says.

Watershed, 1225 1st St. NE, (202) 534-1350

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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