City Paper is not for tourists
A visit to the original Nava Thai always had a sort of Kansas-to-Oz quality. Once you tripped upon the place in the back of a small, drab, gray parking lot and walked through the front door, you entered a whole other world, where the heat and the smells and the flavors took on a Techicolor intensity. The new Nava Thai has a different kind of surrealism.
Located just down the street from the original, Nava Thai is now housed in what looks like the last colonial mansion left standing in Wheaton. The location features 7,000 square feet of space and more than 200 seats (compared to 1,200 square feet and 40 seats at the old spot). The new Nava is, in fact, so large that owners Suchart and Ladavan Srigatesook turn off the lights in certain sections of the dining room to remind staff not to seat anyone in them; while they have extra space now, the Srigatesooks still don’t have the extra staff to cook for all those new customers.
My first visit to this Mount Vernon of Thai cooking produced the kind of vertigo you’d expect: The food was familiar, the surroundings utterly foreign. The floating market noodle soup still sent my mouth to the burn unit; the tom kha soup still curled my tongue with its sharp galangalsourness; and the sweet heat of the panang curry still made all other versions seem like children’s plates. So why didn’t this meal feel as satisfying as before?
Perhaps it was the faintly Italianate color scheme or the red brick archway in the middle of the dining room? Perhaps it was the model clipper ships placed willy-nilly? Or the empty wine rack against one wall or Starbucks-like lights hanging from the ceiling? Whatever the reason, my disorientation reminded of the old philosophical saw: You can’t step in the same river twice. I think there’s a hospitality-industry take on that maxim: You can’t visit the same restaurant after it’s moved.
Washingtonians have had plenty of chances in recent years to test that theorem. Johnny’s Half Shell moved from its tiny Dupont location to a sprawling Capitol Hill address in 2006. That same year, Stoney’s moved from its dingy digs on L Street to a yup-centric spot on Logan Circle. Corduroy moved last year from the bloodless Four Points by Sheraton to a cozy town house across from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. And, much like Nava Thai, Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington is expected to move just up the street from its old location. None of these places will ever be the same, and sometimes that’s exactly the plan.
Take Corduroy. Chef/owner Tom Power’s stay at the Four Points was starting to crimp his style. The demands of running a hotel restaurant “made planning the menu a little challenging,” Power admits. Complex dishes, for the most part, were out of the question since his kitchen had to cook not only for dining room patrons but also for hotel guests and the occasional deluge of banqueters. Power could never trust that his cooks would have enough time to prepare something extraordinary when, at any moment, they could get a hail storm of room service calls for two dozen cheeseburgers.
At his new spot, Power has less staff and greater creative control. The dining room is warmer and more personal, even if the bar is less rowdy than at the Four Points. If he wants to prepare lobster tail or lamb loin with homemade sausage, Power now has the time to make them. The new Corduroy is not a clone but an offspring, one with better genes. “It is a different restaurant,” Power says, “but with the same name and same ideas and same philosophies.”
John Fulchino and Ann Cashion weren’t trying to escape a bad situation when they moved Johnny’s Half Shell; they were just looking for more space, which they got in a hurry. The business partners went from 50 seats to more than 300 and, as a result, had to nearly double their staff to accommodate all those potential new diners. But Fulchino and Cashion were determined to maintain the spirit and feel of the old Johnny’s; they relied on the same color scheme and the same tile-and-wood materials; they even incorporated pieces from the original place, like the fish tank and light fixtures. They made sure to leave the menu exactly the same.
And it still wasn’t enough. Diners and critics (including me) complained that something was lost in the transition without understanding that something new was being created in the process.
Fulchino and Cashion expected such knee-jerk reactions. People “want it to be the same,” Fulchino says. “They don’t like change. You just got to take it in stride.” Their faith has been rewarded. In the past two years, Johnny’s has developed a personality of its own, separate from the P Street original, which is now just a memory. The new Johnny’s is a power player; it’s the Hill’s answer to Old Ebbitt Grill but with truly personal food and far more soul.
In that sense, restaurant moves are often more an evolution than a change of address. “Transformation” is the word Michael Landrum likes to use when describing the second generation of Ray’s the Steaks. The newer, bigger location will continue to funnel Landrum’s populist, anti-puffery philosophies, and its no-frills décor will continue to serve as a tabula rasa for customers, who will continue to project their own thoughts and desires onto those whitewashed walls. But still, Landrum almost seems to dread the move, with a mix of nostalgia for his original and a fear of what’s to come.
“I’ve been procrastinating on shit…just because I can’t bring myself to move. I’m serious,” Landrum says. “No matter what I do, people are still going to say that they like the old place better, that it lost some of its special feeling.”
Suchart and Ladavan Srigatesook didn’t have the luxury of a long-term development plan and an expensive build-out with Nava Thai. The owners had to move in a hurry once their former landlord decided to reclaim the old space. Their new location fulfills their basic needs for a clean space, more room, and a prime address in Wheaton. The latter was important “because all the Thai people [in Wheaton who] buy all the Thai groceries,” Ladavan Srigatesook says. “They can stop by and eat first.”
The Srigatesooks used their expanded space as an excuse to expand their menu, but they will stop short of adding pizza, as their new landlord suggested, in order to take advantage of the pie oven in the kitchen. “Thai and pizza…” Ladavan Srigatesook says absently. Then she laughs. Then I laugh. Some changes are just too absurd to consider.
Nava Thai, 11301 Fern St., Silver Spring, (240) 430-0495.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.