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The only way to avoid a lemon is not to buy it. Jeff Black would have told you the same thing seven years ago. But back in 1999, as Black was looking to purchase Gulf Coast Kitchen in Bethesda, he agreed to owner Wes Utterback’s pre-sale stipulation: that all inspections take place early in the morning. Utterback had his reasons. Suffering from liver disease and barely able to walk, Utterback knew that if his employees found out he was trying to sell, they would split, leaving him with the nearly impossible task of managing a restaurant.
“Our inspections were brief,” says Black. “We would come in during extreme off hours.” Still, Black did unearth a broken ice machine and another piece of malfunctioning equipment; he negotiated a $10,000 credit, and happily paid the rest of Utterback’s asking price: $290,000. Black figured it was the “right thing to do” for Utterback, who said he wanted the money for his daughter.
It didn’t take long for Black and his wife, Barbara, to learn they had bought a restaurant that, like its former owner, was not in good condition.
The problems went beyond faulty equipment. Almost every aspect of the Gulf Coast Kitchen, from prep area to personnel, troubled the Blacks. The new owners first tried to work with the existing crew, but they soon discovered the hopelessness of such a “bohemian benevolent idea,” Black says. “We finally gave up and said, ‘We’re going to close. We’re going to remodel. We’re going to put a new name out front, and any staff that’s here is going to have to re-interview for a position.’”
The place reopened as Black’s Bar & Kitchen later that year, with minor cosmetic alterations but major staff changes. Though the Blacks had solved their personnel issues, they’d merely put off dealing with the larger structural problems of a building designed more for a bar than for a restaurant. For years, they limped along with a cramped kitchen, antiquated plumbing, a dish room too small for all its china, and, worst of all, a climate-control system that left the dining room hot in the summer and cold in the winter. “My hostesses always had to have a space heater next to them. They were always freezing cold,” says Black, whose mini-empire also includes Addie’s, BlackSalt, and Black Market Bistro.
Last year, Black decided to do something about the dish room. “I was gonna borrow $50,000, and we were going to fix the dish room,” Black says. “Literally the next day, the bar manager calls me up, and says, ‘Hey, chef, one of the big coolers went down.’ I’m like, ‘Fine, I’m about to borrow money from the bank. I’ll put another $5,000 on there, and we’ll get a new cooler.’…Then it was something else, and it got up to [$100,000].” Black finally realized that he had to shut down Black’s again and “go ahead and do it right” this time.
Doing it right would cost the Blacks $2.6 million. When Black presented the massive renovation plan to his landlord, “I think I almost gave him a heart attack.” The landlord figured it’d be better to sell the structure to the Blacks, which actually helped them secure a better long-term financing deal. Still, for a man who prides himself on never using credit cards, Jeff Black found himself $5.6 million in the hole, including $3 million for a property that has been recently assessed at $1.72 million.
Black admits that the borrowed money causes him “many, many sleepless nights,” but he says that two brokers have already told him they could now sell the property for $5 million. “Let’s say they were off by a million dollars,” Black says, “I’d still be in an OK position.”
The new Black’s Bar & Kitchen was unveiled on June 28. The bar area is covered, floor to ceiling, in recycled wormy maple, and the dining room boasts a massive image of a vineyard, which took considerable digital manipulation to stretch along the entire back wall. The front of the restaurant looks onto a black-pebble patio where a large wooden monolith dwarfs diners. GrizForm Design Architects strove for a naturalistic space, if not a green one.
With former Black’s chef David Craig running his own restaurant around the corner, the kitchen is now headed by former Addie’s executive chef, Mallory Buford, who has installed a modern American menu with a few guidelines from the boss. Though the kitchen crew is still learning the nuances of Buford’s menu and the restaurant’s new wood-burning grill—an organic salmon that I ordered recently was nearly sushi-raw in the middle—there are indications that Black’s fresh direction will justify all the debt. The small plates menu promises to be a particularly fertile ground, where Buford can experiment with such treats as a “corn dog,” a boudin blanc of foie gras and white chicken served with a purple mustard made with grape must.
With the top-to-bottom overhaul, Black has swept away the last remnant of Utterback’s old Gulf Coast Kitchen. Even though the restaurant that bears his name finally has his personal stamp on it, Black doesn’t want the mark to be permanent. “I’m a big proponent of a store, a menu, a concept, everything, evolving as you grow with it,” he says.
Black’s Bar & Kitchen, 7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, (301) 652-6278. —Tim Carman
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