Stellina Pizzeria
Stellina Pizzeria Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“I didn’t expect it to be a thing, but I’m finding myself constantly explaining why we do what we do,” says Cielo Rojo co- owner Carolina McCandless. “People are constantly asking why we don’t have servers and why they have to wait in line to give their order. I was surprised by the pushback. I wasn’t aware of how new it was.” 

McCandless and her business partner and husband, David Perez, moved to the area from San Francisco, where a new style of dining known as “fine casual” or “fast fine” has taken hold. At these restaurants, customers order at the counter, get a number to display on their table, and wait for someone to drop off their meal. 

They differ from build-a-bowl fast casual chains like sweetgreen, Chipotle, and CAVA because the prices are significantly higher; there’s usually an alcoholic beverage offering; and the atmosphere and design more closely mimic an upscale, full-service restaurant.

These formula-breaking, line-blurring eateries are now finding their footing locally. Like San Francisco, D.C. is full of workaholics who enjoy eating out but may not have the time to do so. Meals at fast fine restaurants place control back in the hands of the diner and put the emphasis almost entirely on the food.

Conversations with operators of four such establishments—Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park, Sonny’s Pizza in Park View, Stellina Pizzeria near Union Market, and CHIKO on Barracks Row and in Dupont Circle—reveal business-side benefits of fast fine restaurants. Diners, for the most part, are also enjoying this new eating experience.

When customers complain or are confused, McCandless explains her rationale. By cutting down on labor, she can sell her vegetarian-friendly Mexican food at more reasonable prices. “It’s possible to make better quality food for more people,” she says. “Someone can go into our restaurant and buy a $3 taco, or they could splurge and spend $70 and have cocktails and get the big fish dish.” 

Groups of friends with different budgets can dine together because the set-up lends itself to paying separately up front instead of facing a shared check at the end of a meal. “It makes it less scary for somebody who wants to go out to eat with their friends but knows they can’t afford to go out,” McCandless says.

Some customers, typically older ones, tell her they miss table service, but McCandless believes others are happier dining without interruptions. “The server ruins the experience for me because they’re constantly nagging you,” she explains. “Putting trust in a server to create the whole experience for the guest puts a lot of pressure on one person. It’s kind of nice to be left alone while you eat.” 

Not having to pay a fleet of servers positions Cielo Rojo to pay cooks more. “One of the things San Francisco deals with is the minimum wage is so high for the front of the house, so it doesn’t allow restaurants to give higher wages to hourly employees in the back,” McCandless explains. There hasn’t been a tipped minimum wage in San Francisco since the 1970s—restaurants must directly pay tipped workers the city’s full minimum wage of $15 an hour. 

When Initiative 77, the local ballot measure that sought to eliminate the tipped minimum wage locally, sent D.C. restaurant owners into a tailspin, many studied counter service models as they considered how they might adjust to higher labor costs. Though the tipped minimum wage remains in D.C., the fast fine approach seems to have staying power because of the flexibility it offers restaurateurs. 

Sonny’s Pizza co-owner Ben Heller says the service model can break down the divide between front-of-house and back-of-house employees. “Everyone is doing everything. It really is a team effort,” he says, adding that the restaurant is able to buy quality ingredients, ensure the space looks attractive, and pay staff competitively. 

Heller and his partner, Max Zuckerman, decided on counter service because they were familiar with it—they’ve operated Colony Club, a counter service bar and coffee shop next door to Sonny’s, since 2015. They also wanted to capture the feel of a New York City slice joint. “If you have servers or waiters you can’t quite get the same vibe,” says director of operations Cody Hochheiser. “There’s a certain expectation if you sit down and wait for someone to introduce themselves.” 

Another Italian operation, Stellina Pizzeria, also took the fast fine approach, though co-owner Antonio Matarazzo didn’t look to San Francisco or New York for inspiration. “I try to look at what’s happening in Italy too,” he says. “It’s not just a trend here. In Italy, people are looking for more gourmet things but in a fast casual environment.” 

Stellina, which opened this month, serves a broad menu of Italian fried food, house-made pastas, seafood crudos, pizzas, and gourmet paninis. A full bar serves beer, wine, and cocktails. 

A meal on a recent Saturday lasted about 40 minutes. “A lot of people don’t have much time anymore, especially during the week,” Matarazzo explains. “There’s no time to sit down and dine for hours when people need to go the gym and pick up the kids.”

Some diners don’t catch onto the format immediately, according to Matarazzo. They’ll sit before ordering and wait for a server who never comes. He tries to intercept them as they enter to direct them to the cashier and explain how things work. CHIKO, which became one of D.C.’s first fine casual restaurant when it opened in 2017, also trains staff to greet first-time customers.

“You walk in and there’s an employee who seems to have some happy juice or something,” says CHIKO customer Samer Farha. “They’re right there with a menu asking if you if you’ve been there before pointing out how to order. It was a very painless introduction. I’ve seen more people confused at Potbelly.” 

Partners Danny Lee, Scott Drewno, and Drew Kim all have backgrounds in full-service dining but knew they wanted to chart a different, more casual course with CHIKO. “We wanted to create a model where we could still cook everything from scratch and not have people build their own bowls,” Lee says. “If you have too many options and you’re leaving the guest to build whatever they want, those flavors haven’t been tested.” 

At CHIKO they cook a set menu to order. Top sellers include a cumin lamb stir fry with wheat noodles and a rice bowl topped with chopped brisket, furikake butter, and a soy-brined soft egg. Once dishes are plated, employees run the food to customers. “Yeah, you walk up, order, and get a tray, but you sit down and staff will take care of you,” Lee says.

As operators look to open smaller businesses with less overhead, fast fine concepts begin to make more sense, according to Lee. “We’re moving away from 400 to 500 seat restaurants,” he says. “Rent has severely increased. The amount of extra money you need just for 50 more square feet is astounding.” A rash of sprawling, full-service restaurants have closed in recent months, including Acadiana, Pennsylvania 6, and J. Paul’s

Volume is everything in small fast fine restaurants that can’t rely on pricey wine lists or multiple rounds of drinks to offset food costs. “Even if there’s a long line at CHIKO, it’s a very quick line,” Lee says. “We’re able to turn over tables at a pretty fast pace.” Neither location takes reservations, except for special kitchen counter experiences. 

“There are people who walk in and see there are no tables and turn around and walk out,” says CHIKO customer Kim Stryker. “Anytime I’ve gone I’ve had to wait maybe 10 minutes.” She describes the atmosphere inside as collegial. “People have said, ‘Oh hey we’re getting up in a minute.’ I’ve had experiences where we’ve shared tables if someone is eating alone. It appeals to younger customers. Your grandma isn’t going to be as comfortable at CHIKO because of the seating arrangement and the chaos of it.”

In Farha’s mind, the inability to linger is the only drawback to this concept. “This doesn’t encourage that,” he explains. “You go in, get your food, and maybe one drink. No one’s ever told me, ‘Your time’s up, get out!’ but there’s a feeling that once you’re done eating you should leave so someone else can have the table.” 

Another CHIKO customer, Ezugo, appreciates how fast fine dining puts the emphasis on what he eats. “It limits the interaction you have with service members. So it’s all about the food and whoever you’re with to enjoy the whole dining experience,” he says.

Only tipping trips him up. “Do we still tip since we’re not really being waited on?” he asks. “I still tip just to help the people at the counter. With the Chipotle model, you don’t really tip. This felt like a gray area compared to that.”

Lee says the tip average has been a lot closer to the standard 20 percent than he expected. “We had no idea how much guests would tip when we opened,” he says. “We were very surprised by how generous our customers have been, but that’s due to the staff we have.” He believes CHIKO is still “a service-oriented restaurant even if the concept doesn’t seem like it.” 

McCandless agrees. “It’s just a different kind of service,” she says. “People who have worked in this industry know how much it takes to keep a restaurant clean and running. Just because we don’t have servers doesn’t mean we don’t have people cleaning tables, running food, and making sure everyone has what they want.”

Some customers have balked at tipping in advance of their meal when they order at the Cielo Rojo counter. “What I say to them is that they don’t have to tip,” McCandless says. “If they want to leave a tip afterwards, there’s a tip jar by the register.”

Servers shouldn’t be shaking in their Dansko clogs wondering if their jobs are in jeopardy. There will always be a place for long meals and full-service dining. But D.C. can expect a rise in fine casual restaurants given their early success and scalability.

“We get a lot of exploratory questions from chefs and restaurant groups,” Lee says. “We see people visit and taking pictures and video-taping stuff. I think you’re going to see more concepts like this. Whether it’s size or labor or the menu model or the service model, you’re seeing a trend where everyone is trying to be as efficient as possible.”