Photo of Ryan Ratino by Laura Hayes

Memories of meals at Masa 14 are a little hazy for most Washingtonians. Especially for those who visited on Tuesdays, when all-night happy hour pricing meant swilling vodka-spiked strawberry lemonades in the downstairs bar before texting both exes to see who would show up on the roof for a little grind time (raises hand). Or, maybe it was the bottomless brunch that led to hazy recollections and Netflix-and-nap (raises hand).

But now, some diners are making new, and unexpected memories, at Masa 14, one of 14th Street’s first nightlife hubs. Instead of typical club grub, they’re delighting in foie gras and black truffles on house brioche, and later, dry-aged dairy cow with chanterelles and huckleberries. These dishes fly out of Chef Ryan Ratino’s kitchen and land with grace—and the occasional liquid nitrogen cloud—in front of diners at the chef’s counter that launched in May. The 26-year-old’s resume includes stints at Michelin-starred Big Apple restaurants Caviar Russe and WD-50, plus a term as executive chef at Virginia’s L’Auberge Provencale.

At $80 per person for about 10 courses ($125 with wine), D.C. diners hungering for a meal that’s both artful and technically impressive should be lining up to try it, but they’re not. “It’s tough,” Ratino says. “Masa’s not known for something like that. We’re getting bookings, but only here and there.”

What’s stifling success, both in terms of reservations and nods of enthusiasm from the press, is Masa 14’s reputation as a nightlife establishment—the kind where drinks flow and food is regarded as merely sustenance, not something to be savored. “I think the people who do come have an amazing time and find it super odd that we have this,” Ratino says. “That’s what I feel like is the hardest part, opening people’s minds up that something else is in the building that’s unlike anything offered before.”

Masa 14 Partner Kaz Okochi admits that when the restaurant opened they had a young crowd in mind, one that likes to stay out late. Okochi’s instincts were right, and the party crowd came in huge numbers. “Of course, we’re happy it was bringing in money, but still our focus is on the food.” Over the years, interest in the kitchen got lost, and Okochi says they have to work hard to change perception.

Other restaurants face the same problem. Once booze and a bumping atmosphere are the bigger draw, it’s more difficult to sell the food as serious. “I remember Lima, the chef was really good and I told a lot of people they serve great food, but a lot of people didn’t think it was a restaurant,” Okochi says of Lima Lounge & Fujimar Restaurant, which shuttered in January 2015.

With rising rents and growing competition, it’s obvious why a restaurant might want to embrace its lounge side, stay open later, and host a DJ: There’s a higher profit margin on alcohol, and people demand places to party. Just look at the lines snaking around the block for Marvin and Provision No. 14 long after the last canoodling couple finishes a meal. But can clubs and reputable cuisine coexist?

Yes, says Washingtonian magazine food critic Ann Limpert. “I’m in search of really good food wherever it is,” she says. “That goes for every type of place, whether it’s for a gas station or a club.”

But execution matters. Limpert describes a meal at Bar Pilar—another 14th Street spot popular with the drinking crowd where Chef Jesse Miller helms the kitchen. “We had an 8:30 dinner, and at 10 a DJ sets up and starts playing Ja Rule and J. Lo,” she says. “We were eating our brisket for two, and it was so incongruous—I expected that downstairs but not upstairs.”

Comparatively, Marvin and Provision No. 14 in the same neighborhood execute the dining and dancing dichotomy well because the spaces for each are separate. “We never have to ask people to leave or drop the disco ball on them,” says Marvin general manager Justin Marshall. The spaces share one entrance, but the doorman has a list of the restaurant’s reservations, and diners can cut the line to reach their tables. 

Same goes for Provision No. 14, with its downstairs dining room and DJ-fueled upstairs lounge that has a separate sound system. As a perk, servers invite dinner guests to use the back stairs to access the upstairs area, giving them first dibs.

When Mike Bramson was preparing to open Provision No. 14 with his Social Restaurant Group partners, he was warned that a dual concept can be tough. “We were told it’s hard to pull off, to have a solid culinary program and have that nightlife,” Bramson says. “I’ve seen it be successful overseas, so I wanted to attempt it.” He feels they are satisfying customers in the kitchen and upstairs.

Like Masa 14, both Marvin and Provision No. 14 have made recent chef hires to bring more attention to the dining room. Chef Angel Franco, formerly of Compass Rose, minibar, and Maketto, is consulting on Marvin’s menu while Provision No. 14 just hired new chef de cuisine Jacob Williams.

But it’s not easy for clubby restaurants to attract chefs with clout, says nightclub partner-turned-restaurateur Reese Gardner, who’s behind Copperwood Tavern, Orange Anchor, and others. He says restaurants have a better shot at longevity when they’re focused on the food. It’s about balance and finding a way for concepts to complement each other, which remains difficult. 

“I know a lot of chefs, and none of them want to work in a place that has a DJ booth,” he says. “The customers don’t appreciate them, they don’t take it seriously, and when you do dancing and stand-up drinking, it’s very tough on the venue.” CP

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