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Earlier this month, almost out of sympathy, I decided to check out Blue Ridge, the Glover Park restaurant that had in one short year seemingly lost everything: its high-profile chef, its cache, maybe even its commitment to farm-to-fork sophistication in a neighborhood that was content with pizza and burgers. I was taken aback by what I saw: a wall of craft beers sealed behind a glass enclosure in the bar area. A minute later, the waiter dropped a weighty binder on my table, its pages listing nearly 100 different beers, from a New Holland Full Circle kölsch to Troegenator double bock.
On a follow-up visit, I spotted a little chalkboard outside the place. The sidewalk sandwich board wasn’t tempting me with a sustainable seafood come-hither, as Blue Ridge’s former chef Barton Seaver might have done. No, it was advertising the eatery’s new beer garden out back, a spacious wood deck crisscrossed with strings of lights to cast a festive glow on the outdoor patio.
Just how did all this happen without the usual media blitz?
By design, it would appear. Without so much as a press release, Blue Ridge’s owners, Eli Hengst and Jared Rager, have all but ditched their extensive wine program and joined the burgeoning ranks of D.C.’s beer-centric dining spots. It’s hard to imagine two less-likely operators for this sudsy class of eateries that, four years ago, was dominated by the Brickskeller, Rustico, and Birreria Paradiso. But here they are, Hengst and Rager, trying to sneak in the back door of this crowded fraternity that now features such partiers as Granville Moore’s, Marvin, Restaurant 3, Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, and Biergarten Haus.
Blue Ridge’s transformation represents a dramatic about-face for the long-time business partners. Hengst and Rager, the duo behind Sonoma Restaurant & Wine Bar on Capitol Hill and Mendocino Grille & Wine Bar in Georgetown, thought they had read Glover Park just right. They figured the neighborhood, with its motley array of fast-casual joints, was in dire need of something more upscale. And that they were just the guys to do it.
Last year, the pair put together what appeared to be a bullet-proof business plan: They hired Seaver, fresh from his high-profile stint at Hook, who adapted his sustainable-dining approach to the Southern and mid-Atlantic fare that would define Blue Ridge. They built a lengthy wine list, almost 100 bottles long, half of which sold for $50 or less. And they designed a simple, country-quaint dining space that tried to recapture an early, turn-of-the-20th-century era, when farm-fresh ingredients were just a fact of life, not a culinary trend.
Even before Blue Ridge served its first meal last June, the place was generating hype. The Washington Post ran a pre-opening profile of Seaver, labeling him the “Alice Waters of seafood.” One blogger described Hengst and Rager as the “dynamic duo,” while another predicted their restaurant was “poised to bring a new level of sophistication to this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue without breaking the bank.”
The true gusher, however, came from New York, where Esquire last fall proclaimed Seaver the best new chef in America. “Eat a few dishes prepared by Esquire chef of the year Barton Seaver, thirty,” critic John Mariani wrote, “and you’ll feel good about living on earth.”
The backlash was swift, particularly from the online hecklers who either had an ax to grind against the media-saturated Seaver or sided with the local critics, who found the chef’s food at Blue Ridge wanting. “Count me among the disappointed diners,” the Post’s Tom Sietsema wrote. Washingtonian’s First Look column noted that the “biggest disappointment is that Seaver’s flavors are timid…” Writing in this space, I wondered “why Blue Ridge’s kitchen can’t seem to cook those farm-to-table ingredients any better.”
This perfect storm of hype and underachievement seemed to take its toll on Blue Ridge. The place, it was obvious to me, could no longer be judged on its merits alone, but on something less tangible: whether or not you liked Barton Seaver. “We were kind of collateral damage on that one, but Barton, he had this crazy bulls-eye on his back,” Hengst tells me. “I still don’t think we understand the vitriolic reaction of some.”
Seaver quietly removed the bulls-eye on his back in the spring. He left Blue Ridge to focus on his many other projects, but his departure, unlike his hiring, barely generated a peep from anyone in the media. It was as if the chef had gone into the witness relocation program, and we were all witting accomplices in the cover-up.
His replacement, former chef de cuisine Teddy Diggs, carried the load for awhile, but then he left, too—taking over the kitchen at the recently opened Ripple in Cleveland Park. The slow drain of talent left the vague impression that Blue Ridge was on life support, being kept alive with the remnants of a kitchen staff left over from Diggs’ turn at the stoves.
Sitting in their new beer garden, the sun setting on another sweltering summer day, Hengst and Rager acknowledge they misread the neighborhood. All those casual eateries, it seems, are not a sign of what’s missing in Glover Park. They are a sign of what Glover Park wants. “It’s funny,” says Rager. “Sometimes you see an unfilled market, and you think, ‘They need this.’”
“And that was wine,” chimes in Hengst, his friend since their days at Vermont’s Middlebury College. “We saw, ‘Hey, there’s nowhere in this market that has a good, relatively inexpensive for us, under a 100 bucks [wine program.]”
“And on occasion,” Rager completes the thought, “it turns out there’s kind of a reason there’s not that. It turns out that people don’t want that.”
But Glover Park’s relationship with Blue Ridge was complicated by another factor—expectations. Diners apparently didn’t know what to expect: Was it a fine-dining restaurant with a casual, plaid-clad-and-country vibe? Was it a neighborhood spot with a local celebrity chef, house-made charcuterie, and a few entrees crossing the $20 barrier? Or was it something else altogether?
“I think there were some things that shaped people’s expectations and they came in and it didn’t quite sync up,” says Hengst. “Some people, because of the menu we were putting out, expected, ‘Oh, this chef, this menu equals fine dining, but I’m coming in here and it’s a little casual.’”
Recalibrating those expectations is tough—especially in an insta-critic environment where restaurants have no time to work out the kinks before the media and the online community chew over every fault. This explains why Hengst and Rager decided not to issue a press release about Blue Ridge’s makeover, which they have been working on for nearly eight weeks. In all fairness, they were also reluctant to talk to me about their new direction, if mostly for one reason: They’re far from done with the rehab project.
Sometime in the early fall, the restaurant will close for renovations. The partners plan to ditch the quaint country décor and create an airy open space for Blue Ridge 2.0, a place that will open early for breakfast and coffee and stay open late for beer and sandwiches. If that sounds like a Glover Park version of Hengst’s first project, Tryst Coffeehouse in Adams Morgan, that’s not far off the mark.
With a menu shorn of the pricey entrées—Hengst and Rager say they’ll charge between $8 and $14 a dish, though the focus will remain on the local and the seasonal—the pair are creating a sort of craft-beer version of Northside Social, the Arlington spot that combines gourmet coffee service with an upstairs wine bar. They may even change Blue Ridge’s name.
To speed the conversion, Hengst and Rager have turned to consultants to build their coffee and beer programs. Former Rustico and Jackie’s chef, Frank Morales, has worked with the partners on the beer list, which will eventually feature between 100 and 200 bottles and 12 taps, perhaps even a cask.
“Unless we converted this whole outdoor area to, like, a giant walk-in, we’re not going to win the beer arms race,” Hengst says, brushing off any comparisons to ChurchKey, the Logan Circle spot with 500 bottles and 50 drafts. “Our initial approach to the beer program is—and it may be heretical to many serious beer drinkers—initially our focusing principle is domestic.”
“We don’t have the space and we don’t have the resources to do 30 taps or 20 taps,” he adds. “Our approach is really to have a very strong domestic focus and then within that, kind of our sub-focus will be mid-Atlantic and East Coast.”
In that way, new-look Blue Ridge will resemble the recently opened Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights, which also boasts a domestic beer list. But unlike some of their beer-oriented peers—and unlike Blue Ridge 1.0—the eatery will likely not rely on some celebrity in the kitchen to sell their place. In Glover Park, where the brand name chefs can be named on one hand, maybe one finger, Hengst and Rager have learned that a Barton Seaver doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.
As the subject of Blue Ridge’s next chef comes up, Rager turns to his partner and says, “Is it fair to say we don’t see the next iteration as being chef-driven?”
“No, I think that’s fair to say,” Hengst replies. “We’re not out there looking for a chef who brings his…
“We’re not going to park another Porsche in the driveway,” Rager interrupts. “That’s not to say we’re not going to lease or rent a Porsche or Zipcar a Porsche, because we do want somebody high caliber to help or somebody qualified or experienced to help us develop this next menu, but we don’t know who that is yet.”
Blue Ridge, 2340 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 333-4004
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