Photo of Adam Greenberg by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Adam Greenberg by Darrow Montgomery

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“It’s like Urban Outfitters meets a Wes Anderson movie,” Chef Adam Greenberg says, as he gesticulates wildly, his arms brandished with tattoos of food emojis. He’s describing Coconut Club, set to open near Union Market next spring with island-inspired small plates and tropical fresh juice cocktails that may well be served in glass disco balls or pineapples.

Greenberg hopes to paint the building owned by EDENS (540 Penn St. NE) pink—signaling that he wants customers to feel like they have escaped D.C. for spring break as they pass around pu pu platters in the 3,000-square-foot restaurant that might even offer cabana seating. 

“On vacation I feel carefree with no limits, no plans—just living life and experiencing culture,” Greenberg says. “How do you create that in a bubble in a restaurant is what I want to do, so that when you leave work on a shitty day you can feel a sense of escapism.” 

The 37-year-old hopes the city’s young professionals will freely snap photos of neon signs while listening to reggae, hip-hop, and beachy tunes from the likes of artist Odesza. “If I get a few noise complaints from people inside the restaurant, I’m not mad at it,” he says. “I want to move forward in asking, what do millennials want? I’m not living in my world. I’m living in their world.” 

To straddle the line between cool and kitsch, Greenberg has hired Lauren Winter and Megan Capo of Edit Lab at Streetsense to handle design. Their work can also be seen at Tail Up Goat, Tiger Fork, Whaley’s, Daikaya, and other eye-catching restaurants. But one bit of aesthetic Greenberg is passionate about is Hawaiian scenes. That’s why he’ll be taking his iPhone-sized drone to Hawaii in September during a research and development trip, flying it over surfers and waterfalls to capture idyllic images.

Greenberg has an ambitious list of restaurants, bars, and poke places on his Oahu itinerary. The Aloha state is perhaps his biggest muse for the Coconut Club food menu, but don’t expect to see things like purple, starchy poi.

“I don’t want anyone from Hawaii to come and say, ‘They’ve bastardized this.’ I just want to cook food I really want to cook with an island influence,” he says. 

The dinner menu will be split into small plates and shareable entrees. Greenberg envisions diners starting off with customizable seafood platters from the raw bar and large portions of overtly voguish poke served chips-and-dip style with nori crisps, cucumbers, and other vessels for scooping Hawaiian-style cubed raw fish.

Fresh off a visit to Yakitori Totto in New York, Greenberg says he will try his hand at the Japanese skewered meats, plus spam-fried rice, pork belly and pineapple, and a chicken-based ramen in the colder months. He’s also entertaining the idea of serving TGI Fridays-style appetizer samplers on Lazy Susans. 

Larger plates will span rotisserie jerk chicken, whole grilled fish with escabeche (spicy, pickled vegetables), Kalua pork wrapped in banana leaves, and steak dressed in dark rum sauce. 

For dessert, Greenberg is toying with coconut-milk-based soft-serve ice cream because he hasn’t found soft serve he enjoys locally. “Milk Bar is too sweet, overly sweet,” he says. “My wife and I drive 25 minutes to Falls Church to get Dairy Queen.” 

Soft serve won’t be the only frozen offering if Greenberg executes on his hope to serve drinks that emulate poolside service on a cruise ship. “When you’re on a deck and you get a white coconut drink with a red swirl in it and pineapples in it, it’s cheesy, but I’m just in heaven,” he says. “It’s just so refreshing.” 

Greenberg isn’t labeling the drink program as tiki, but rum will take the lead with drinks like a Painkiller and Mai Tai. He hopes to team up with a local juice company such as JRINK or Misfit Juicery for mixers because one thing Greenberg loves about D.C. is its collaborative nature. 

Coconut Club could open just about anywhere, but there’s one moment that solidified the District as home for the chef: the 2015 Pride Parade. At the end of his nearly 10-year stint with Barteca Restaurant Group, Greenberg was asked to cook at the 14th Street NW location of Barcelona Wine Bar. The end of the parade route snakes its way past the scenester tapas restaurant. 

“I got to see kids being held on their parents shoulders to see what world we should be living in,” he recalls, adding that he appreciated seeing people of all ages and races pushing the “love, peace, and togetherness” agenda. “I need to be here.” 

Greenberg’s road to owning his own restaurant started in his hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut, which he describes as a “very Vineyard Vine-ish, pleasantville type of town.” After a year at Syracuse University, he dropped out and returned home to start working at Max A Mia—a family friend’s restaurant in nearby Avon that opened in 1991. 

He started by plating pre-made desserts before quickly moving through the various kitchen stations. Big-name Boston Chef Jamie Bissonnette was the sous chef there at the time, and Greenberg says he inspired him to become a chef. 

Flashing forward a few decades, Bissonnette’s restaurant Little Donkey will inform how Greenberg draws up his eclectic menu at Coconut Club. He recently cooked out of the kitchen there to prepare for an industry pop-up. “You’re hearing verbal calls for fried chicken, biryani, tamales—it’s all over the map,” Greenberg says.

At age 19, he enrolled in culinary school at Johnson & Wales University and landed an externship at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. He stayed at the beloved dining room for a year and later worked as the sous chef at Providence Oyster Bar in Rhode Island.

Greenberg’s next big gig was with The Capital Grille. “I was being thoughtful about my trajectory and wanted to step out of the food world to go learn business,” he says of the move to the staid steakhouse that feels antithetical to Greenberg’s exuberant personality. 

But that’s where he learned the most about hospitality. The Capital Grille, he explains, is laser-focused on the guest experience and teaches its employees core values that come with a fancy acronym: EDGE (Exceptionally Distinguished Guest Experience). 

If Greenberg looks familiar, it’s because he’s been on the Food Network show Chopped three times, netting a hat trick of wins. But he’s careful not to let his small screen string of luck color his career. 

“People in the industry are tired of it, but investors and regular people love it,” he says. It doesn’t prove anything or make him a great chef, according to Greenberg, but it could help draw customers to his destination restaurant. “If that’s the reason you come in, great.”

The nouveau Union Market district is still young, but Greenberg is encouraged by his neighbors’ successes and looks forward to being a part of the community. “You can pre-game at Cotton & Reed, go to Masseria for a tasting, and come to us for soft-serve or a drink,” he says. The chef will also look to hire deaf workers from the neighborhood, the home of Gallaudet University, and is enrolling in sign language classes. 

“The challenge is there,” he says, because the neighborhood isn’t as dense as other parts of D.C. that have apartment complexes and Metro stops. “But the only way to go is up. I’m betting on myself. I’m betting on the neighborhood.

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