Young and Hungry

To Perfect and Serve: For Some New Restaurants, It’s Never Too Early to Shut Down and Start Over

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The day before Azur closed for good, the downstairs din-ing room and bar was, unsurprisingly, empty. Over the course of a two-hour Thursday happy hour, maybe a dozen people strolled into the Penn Quarter seafood restaurant. The bar had run out of grapefruit juice. The calamari—which on a previous visit came dressed in a nuoc cham vinaigrette with peanuts, basil, and mint—showed up completely naked. And speaking of barely dressed, gone was the racy photo in the women’s restroom of two seductive blondes wearing lace blindfolds.

Most notably missing? The chef and owner. Frederik de Pue, who also owns Table in Shaw, wasn’t around for the last two days of his dream restaurant. He was in Belgium.

Unlike most other restaurants that burn out fast and bright, this one will eventually sputter back to life like a trick candle on a birthday cake. De Pue is simply hitting the reset button. Azur wasn’t the success he hoped, and so after only five months, he’s shut it down with plans to reopen the restaurant in a few months as Menu, a more casual eatery with a market on the ground floor.

De Pue is not the only restaurateur making a bold switcheroo this summer. The Gryphon closed after about three months to renovate and reconceptualize its Dupont dining room, which will reopen in mid-October. Meanwhile, Tex-Mex restaurant Diego was open only two weeks before it decided it needed to start over.

This sort of approach is something you’d more likely see on Broadway than in restaurants. The musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark famously suffered technical difficulties with stunts, cast injuries, negative reviews, and other troubles upon its debut. The producers suspended the show for an overhaul. It went on to become a hit, breaking Broadway box office records. (But not without a cost: It’s also one of the most expensive shows ever produced.)

Now a handful of Washington restaurateurs are making similarly dramatic moves. Their thinking: A restaurant will stand stronger on completely new legs. Better to amputate early on than bleed to death.

Perhaps because the dining scene is more competitive than ever, with new establishments opening constantly, restaurants can’t afford a mediocre launch, much less a bad one. D.C. diners are eager to try new eateries as soon as they open, and if they aren’t wowed, there are always newer, shinier, trendier restaurants to try. The first few weeks and months of a restaurant can seal its fate.

It’s still rare for such young restaurants to close after only a few weeks or months in order to make things right. Sure, it’s not uncommon to shut down for renovations and reopen with a new look, new menu, or even a new concept. But typically, that happens after the place has been around at least a few years, and the carpet has grown dingy and the menu outdated.

By contrast, Diego had barely introduced itself to the 14th Street corridor when it suddenly shuttered in early August.  “We were not happy with the service and the food, honestly, and we decided to shut it off,” says co-owner Michael Askarinam. “We were doing very good business, but it wasn’t to my satisfaction.” (On my lone visit in the opening week, steamed baby carrots and broccoli made for a perplexing garnish on a chicken and shrimp dish smothered in tomatillo sauce that looked like baby spit-up. And grayish guacamole looked like it had been scooped from a bucket rather than made fresh.)

Askarinam declined to get into specifics of what happened with the opening chef, who is no longer working there. “We made a mistake, and I have to really own it. We didn’t have the right crew together,” Askarinam says. That left Diego’s kitchen leaderless in its critical opening weeks.

Askarinam says the most important person in a restaurant is the chef; without one, he felt it was better to close and reboot. “One or two months of extra rent is the cost of opening a restaurant,” he says. “And I really believe it is worth it to reorganize and open the restaurant with the right people. You have to be proud of what you do.”

Two months later, Askarinam found chef Billy McCormick, who previously worked for the restaurant group behind Commissary, Logan Tavern, and The Pig. McCormick says he lives near Diego, and although he never got to try it, he was intrigued by the mysterious closing. “The longer it went on, the spookier it got,” he says. Finally, he found out who owned the restaurant and reached out. After cooking for the owners several times, he was hired.

When the restaurant reopens in mid-October, Diego will still have staples like enchiladas and tacos, but McCormick says he plans to use more local ingredients, with a focus on barbacoa meats. “It looked kind of confused, like there was a couple people drawing it up,” McCormick says of the previous menu. “Before it was more Lauriol Plaza. It was a little bit more toward comfort. I don’t want to build our menu around refried beans and rice.”

For The Gryphon, it was more than the kitchen that needed an overhaul. Co-owner Tony Hudgins says his team rushed the restaurant’s March debut. Construction had already delayed the opening about three months, and they didn’t want to lose their employees or miss out on the crowds March Madness would bring. “We probably—and we’re not afraid to say it—shot ourselves in the foot opening at that point,” Hudgins says. “Service just wasn’t up to par.”

The concept, it turned out, wasn’t what Hudgins and his partners Rich Vasey and David Karim envisioned either. The restaurant, decked out with flat screen TVs and antler chandeliers, was branded as a sports bar gastropub. But the owners felt The Gryphon was being pigeonholed as too much of a sports bar. Hudgins says they considered staying open and making tweaks, but ultimately the changes were too big. So The Gryphon closed in mid-June and will reopen in mid-October as what Hudgins calls a loungy “high-energy steakhouse.” The sports bar aspect will be downplayed in the new space, which will have fewer TVs and a more intimate dining room layout with a “warmer” look. Joseph Evans remains as chef, but he will be revamping the food offerings to more closely resemble the steak-heavy menu at The Gryphon’s sister restaurant, Lost Society—except with more seafood and a raw bar.

Hudgins says the temporary closure has been possible thanks to the restaurant’s financial backing and good relationship with the landlord. “He wants us to be successful, and we’ve known him for a long time,” Hudgins says.

It’s even easier to get away with shutting down for a few months when you are your own landlord, which is the case for both Diego and Azur. While there are still mortgages to pay, owning the building means more flexibility in timeline. Because they’re invested in the property, they have double imperatives to make the restaurants work.

For De Pue, the decision to change the restaurant was both business and personal. Since the restaurant’s opening, he’d made a series of adjustments. The drink menu, for example, featured a number of cocktails that cost more than $20, including one with a $40 price tag. Within a month, that was replaced by a much smaller cocktail list with no drink for more than $12. De Pue also tried to make the rest of the menu feel more budget-friendly, adding a happy hour with dollar oysters and a power lunch deal.

But ultimately, the restaurant wasn’t getting enough traffic.

“I love the Azur concept,” De Pue says. “But it wasn’t a perfect fit for a space that size, and as both the owner and the chef, I am in a position where I can make necessary changes quickly.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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