You’ve heard of Newton’s third law that for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. It applies to D.C. dining. The District has been flooded with incoming talent lately. David Chang opened Momofuku CCDC. Edward Lee will land a downtown location of Succotash. Bostonian Michael Schlow is building a mini-empire of District restaurants. And the owners of Vedge in Philadelphia are launching a vegan restaurant here.
But at the same time, chefs and other restaurant pros who have dedicated most of their careers to feeding District denizens are quietly scramming for both the nearby and more distant suburbs. Many who commute from Virginia or Maryland to kitchens in D.C. proper are reaching breaking points when it comes to traffic.
“Fiola was a killer,” says Stefano Frigerio, who was driving from Purcellville, Virginia, to lead the Michelin-starred downtown restaurant. “I was spending four hours a day just to go to work, plus the 12- or 14-hour shift. The work Fiola does is phenomenal, but I didn’t see my kids. I didn’t see anyone.”
Beyond skirting life sentences behind the wheel, there are other, more nuanced reasons why chefs are fleeing for the ’burbs. Not the least of which is demand, which Santosh Tiptur banked on when he opened The Conche in Leesburg, Virginia, in May. Much like downtown’s Co Co. Sala, which Tiptur has operated for nearly a decade, the 2,880-square-foot Virginia restaurant has a chocolate theme.
“This is the right time,” Tiptur says. “The caliber of restaurants in D.C. are not here.” His realtor told him he’d be a pioneer by bringing “something like this” to the region.
Tiptur characterizes new Loudoun County developments as world class and says property owners are thirsty for unique restaurants to fill voids the recession left behind. “The spaces were designed for bigger stores,” he explains. “This was built around 2005 or 2006, but when the recession hit, everyone backed out. Borders and Best Buy were supposed to be here.”
There are plenty of people to fill Tiptur’s expansive restaurant thanks in part to nearby offerings of kids’ classes ranging from taekwondo to trampoline. And it helps that The Conche is as Willy Wonka as it gets: There’s a chocolate lab in the center of the room where diners can watch their desserts being plated.
“In terms of deciding to open in this location, it was much needed,” he says. “I talk to guests who haven’t been to D.C. in two years because they know how painful it is,” especially for families, to fight the traffic or deal with crowded public transit.
And it’s not just families who want a taste of the city in the suburbs, says Jeremy Ross, general manager and beverage director of Sense of Thai in Ashburn, Virginia. “You never knew there was so much suppressed partying until you give someone a DJ,” he says, adding that he once had to ask a group of housewives out on a girls’ night not to dance on the bar.
Unlike most places, his restaurant stays open until 2 a.m. on weekends because nightlife is in such demand. “Before, they were either driving or taking an 8-hour Uber to D.C.,” he says with hyperbole. “Now they have it in their backyard.”
The 27-year-old who made a name for himself at several Ashok Bajaj restaurants, including D.C.’s The Oval Room and NoPa Kitchen + Bar, didn’t expect to drop everything to shake fish sauce-spiked cocktails within the One Loudoun development. Life just hung a surprising dog-leg left.
“I got to a certain level where I needed to learn more, but I couldn’t get it from this company,” he says. “I was already looking for an exit plan.” The goal was to jet to Chicago, but Ross had a chance meeting with the Sense of Thai owners and seized the opportunity to open the restaurant two years ago.
Ross says he thrives on satisfying his customers, who are as varied as the herbs used in Thai cooking. “You have families out here—get the crayons ready—but at the same time parents want an escape,” he says. “Give parents a city vibe, cater to the kids, and then there’s an assisted living facility steps away from the restaurant. You have to master them all.”
Restaurants that do will cultivate regular customers—an increasingly foreign notion in D.C., where many diners book tables based on checklists of new restaurants. There’s a real sense of community at Sense of Thai, where Ross says diners go from guests to regulars to friends.
“Instead of impressing a critic, we want to impress the people who are here every day,” he says. “Our focus is to make sure the orthodontists we know get their dish as fast as possible because they have an appointment instead of [thinking] ‘what would [Washington Post food critic] Tom Sietsema like today?’”
Chef Tim Rowley agrees. He left the District, where he cooked at Bibiana, Fiola, Beuchert’s Saloon, and Room 11, to run The Wine Kitchen in Leesburg, Virginia. “While I still want to strive and push the food, it’s nice to know that I’m not getting Tom Sietsema in once a month,” he says.
He doesn’t mind the diminished competition either. “Anytime a chef says he’s opening something else—until he says he’s opening something in Loudoun County—I don’t worry about it too much.”
Rowley found the job passively perusing Craigslist. “I want to wind up there eventually,” he says. “Why wait until I’m looking?” He has long enjoyed visiting Loudoun County on his days off. “I’m really happy out there. To me, it’s not that far out, but to D.C. people, it’s another civilization.”
He loves being close to farms and texting farmers to ask for strawberries that arrive still warm from the sun. He prefers to let farmers dictate what’s on his menu instead of the reverse.
“My friends in D.C. are trying to do it more and more, but it’s a lot harder with that 40-mile difference between Leesburg and D.C.,” Rowley says. When he worked in the District, some farms could only deliver on Mondays or Tuesdays instead of daily.
Rowley, who is about to get married, also enjoys the work-life balance the outer suburbs allow. “Leesburg closes down early at 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. and nobody notices or cares,” he says. “It gives me an extra hour with Katie [Reineberg]. That’s a good selling point.”
But there’s no guarantee, as Chef Tony Conte found out when he bowed out of The Oval Room after nine years to open Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown, Maryland. He’d been stalking a space in a shopping center and when it freed up, he jumped on it. “It wasn’t by accident,” he says. “It came at a time when the love for the day-to-day wasn’t there any longer. The essence of it wasn’t fun anymore.”
He too wanted more personal time. “Time goes by so fast. It’s amazing how fast the clock ticks once you cross 25,” he says. But being close to home hasn’t stopped him from going to the restaurant daily. “Trying to find that balance is like finding the perfect dough recipe.” They’re both elusive.
Frigerio, who left Fiola to open Purcellville crêperie Petit Loulou, actually misses the pressure that Rowley, Ross, and others are content to escape. “I like the pressure when I work,” he says. “It drives me to do more every time. You can have a food critic from a major publication come in anytime. I miss it. I need the tension, the drive, the craziness you have on a Saturday night.”
While he happily trades the thrill of high-pressure kitchens for more time with family, he’s frustrated about staffing—the Achilles’ heel of opening where pastures are more prominent than parking lots. “It’s hard to find anyone who will spend eight hours a day in the kitchen,” Frigerio says. “They do it because it’s summer and they need a job, but it’s not a career.”
Tiptur agrees, saying staffing front-of-house positions like servers is just as challenging. “We have 50 percent of staff that have serving experience, but the rest are high school kids,” he says. “I think the summer will be OK, but when September comes, I’m worried.”
Despite this challenge, Chef Justus Frank is pleased with his decision to open his first solo venture outside of D.C. proper, and not just because the price-per-square-foot is more forgiving.
Like Frigerio and Rowley, Frank worked at Fiola as well as the short-lived Nonna’s Kitchen on U Street NW. His Southern food restaurant Live Oak is in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia.
He finds cooking there rewarding because “people are more in love with their neighborhoods than people passing through D.C. for a year or two at a time.” He predicts that as D.C. becomes more saturated, the outside areas will reap the benefits, and so he encourages other first-time restaurateurs to branch out.
“Anything’s doable if your concept is solid and translates to the neighborhood,” Frank says. “Since the whole hospitality industry is thriving right now, there’s motivation for someone young and hungry to get their food in there and become someone, become a contender.”
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