Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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D.C. will have about two dozen carriers of “The Card” by the end of this month. They’re made of metal, much like Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards. You can feel the weight of one in your pocket or purse—gravity does the work of reminding you that you’re a Very Important Person. 

But “The Card” isn’t for swiping or collecting airline miles. Rather, it’s Bourbon Steak’s new strategy for rewarding customers who have patronized the Georgetown steakhouse for the decade it’s been serving marbled beef and lobster pot pie. Have one? Call the restaurant, present them with your card number, and General Manager John Gilbert will guarantee you a table for up to four people within the hour. 

The promise is even good on bustling Friday and Saturday nights. “We’ve ordered 200 cards,” Gilbert says. “But that’s a very high number. If 200 people need a four-top on a Saturday night, I’m in deep trouble. We’re going to start with 25 and go from there.” How will free tables materialize in a fully committed dining room? “I don’t know, some magic I would say.” 

Don’t bother asking for one. The restaurant will hand-deliver the complimentary cards to their most loyal customers. They’re non-transferable and no other Bourbon Steak in the country has them. D.C.’s program is the pilot.

“Georgetown has a microclimate where there’s lots of competition,” Gilbert says. “Cafe Milano does a good job at guest recognition. So does Fiola Mare. And we have CUT [by Wolfgang Puck] that’s opening up. There’s going to be stiff competition and we want them to feel like we recognize their loyalty.”

Yes, there’s a cluster of restaurants competing for the black car set in Georgetown, but restaurants across D.C. are just as eager to fill tables with familiar faces to stay afloat.  Restaurateurs report that the population density required to support the city’s constant crush of new restaurants, plus the eateries that have endured for years, isn’t there yet.

When a restaurant opens, the buzz lasts about six months, then it drops off. Think of the last time you went on a double date. Did you and the other couple tick off new restaurants until you found one that no one in the group had sampled? You’re not alone. D.C.’s check-list diners are thirsty for new flavor combinations and cuisines, or at least angling to be among the first to Instagram a dish or a drink. 

Market forces make elusive regular diners worth their weight in caviar. That’s why restaurants carefully track their preferences—a favorite server, preferred table, or frequently ordered drink—and use the knowledge to pamper their regulars a little. Some send out gratis Champagne, a round of appetizers, or dessert. Still more train employees to recognize regulars’ faces and encourage them to remember kids’ names and favorite sports teams. 

Others, like Bourbon Steak, formalize customer retention programs. If you don’t think you’re a contender for “The Card,” look for something a little more mainstream. All-Purpose Pizzeria’s “Super Fun Pizza Wizards Club” proves that punch cards aren’t just for coffee shops. Buy six pizzas for lunch or take-out and the seventh one is free. 

General Manager Jared Barker, who coined the club’s name, says it’s the restaurant’s way of showing guests hospitality if they can’t dine in. It also boosts business in areas where there’s room for growth. They hand out the cards liberally. 

“We want people that are coming here more frequently to feel like they’re better taken care of,” he says. “We don’t have VIPs because of who they are. We have VIPs because they’re important to us. They’re the people who live around the corner or who had their first date here. We love to reward good behavior and good people.” 

He predicts other restaurants in the upscale casual space will look to adopt similar programs. “There’s general fear in the market,” he says. “People thought their brands were strong enough … that they didn’t have to go after it.” 

Frenchy’s Naturel has a loyalty card the EatWell DC group carried over from the previous restaurant they operated in the same space off Logan Circle, The Bird. Regular guests receive loyalty cards that admit them into “The Breakfast Club.” You don’t have to quote the coming-of-age flick to cash in on free coffee and non-alcoholic drinks with every brunch visit. After five brunch meals, cardholders earn free appetizers during dinner.

“Our brunch business was very strong and we were trying to improve dinner business,” explains Assistant General Manager Ben Bronstein. The card creates an incentive to come in after the sun sets. “Regulars are one of the most important things right now because there is so much competition,” Bronstein continues. “So many restaurants are opening all the time and you see places that have been around for quite a while that aren’t able to compete anymore.” 

Bronstein believes EatWell DC has carved out a niche for itself by operating neighborhood restaurants. Their portfolio also includes Commissary, Logan Tavern, and The Pig, all less than a mile from Frenchy’s Naturel. “At our core it’s all about hospitality and really getting people to come in not just one time for a great experience, but over and over again,” he says. “Finding our regulars and developing more regulars is one of the most important things we can do.” 

“Neighborhood restaurant” is becoming a watered-down term. Restaurants often fold the buzzwords into press materials, social media posts, and job boards before they open, signaling they’re looking for repeat business from the immediate surrounding area, when in actuality their goals are much loftier—Michelin Star! Destination restaurant! Hottest table in town!

“We are thrilled to partner with celebrated chef Wolfgang Puck to launch a new neighborhood restaurant that will further ignite the local dining scene,” reads a press release announcing CUT’s forthcoming opening inside the Rosewood Washington, D.C. hotel, for example. 

CUT’s New York City location serves a pan-roasted 2-pound Maine lobster with French black truffle sabayon. Not exactly Tuesday night fare compared to the $27 steak served with green salad, bottomless fries, and a choice of a sauce at Frenchy’s Naturel. 

That’s not to say refined restaurants can’t hook regulars. Seafood-tower spot Whaley’s has a unique approach to convincing neighborhood diners to return, especially since the number of eateries in Navy Yard seems to have tripled over the past two years. Co-owner Nick Wiseman partnered with restaurant financing app inKind to offer Whaley’s devotees the opportunity to create a “house account.” 

A house account essentially asks diners to prepay for food and drinks in exchange for dining credit. If you put $250 into your house account, you get $310 to spend. The gifted money increases at each level. If you pay $500, you get $650, and if you pay $1,000 you get $1,335. 

“It’s basically a way to reward loyal customers,” Wiseman says. “That’s become one of the biggest challenges in full-service [dining] as people are chasing new restaurants. How do you become a neighborhood restaurant that’s more enduring?” 

In addition to bonus money, house account holders receive other perks like access to the Rosé Garden at Whaley’s before it opens. “It’s not about getting people into the door—it’s about the people who are there and a valued part of the community of the restaurant,” Wiseman says.

He recalls that Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants did something similar. A representative confirms that there is still a VIP Club, but she notes that they’ve reached their desired membership level and are not currently accepting new members.

Christianne Ricchi runs a different kind of club to keep diners engaged with her 30-year-old Italian restaurant, Ristorante i Ricchi. “I started a women’s club six or seven years ago,” she says. It’s a nod at the fact that the restaurant is woman owned and operated. On Tuesdays, members of the women’s club receive 50 percent off of their checks. 

“It encourages women to come and network or have fun or do business,” Ricchi says. And sometimes there are events tailored to women’s club members. Last Tuesday, designer Maria Pinto (who has made clothes for Oprah and Michelle Obama) put on a fashion show in the restaurant during lunch. 

Joining isn’t like pledging a sorority. All you have to do is turn over your email address so that it can be added to the restaurant’s e-newsletter that advises regular customers about upcoming events. Ricchi puts on “Need to Know” dinners featuring guest speakers like former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and Anita McBride, who once served as the chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush

Ricchi thinks her strategy of differentiating her restaurant from the competition through innovative clubs, events, and promotions is working. “It’s created a large community of regular customers,” she says. “Even if they don’t attend every single thing, we’re top of mind. If they have to book a special event or a private party for their business, they think of us. When you’ve been around as long as we have, you need to do things so people don’t forget about you.”