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Shy Nair’s attitude toward restauranting is so laissez-faire that she’s reluctant to even call her restaurant a business. Nair owns the Pasta In with two other partners, Joe Lawrence and Raul Pineda, and she has a staff of three chefs whom she keeps on the payroll even when she doesn’t have a kitchen for them to work in. So it’s not as if she doesn’t care. She’s just loath to care too much. At Pasta In, a toy animal serves as a “complaint box”—squeeze it and it laughs. “People take eating out a little too seriously sometimes,” says Nair. “If you don’t like a dish, tell me and I’ll take it off the check. I’ll change it. But don’t cry about it. It’s not blood.”
Nair is not an anomaly among restaurateurs; history’s proven that insouciance can be every bit as appealing to diners as high-minded artistry. In the service business, however, the problem with nonchalance is that it tends to become intriguing only over time, and Nair lets her free-spiritedness carry her and her restaurant where it will.
Nair and Pineda became business partners while running, along with Nair’s siblings, Tomato Tango in Olney. When Nair’s brother decided he wanted out of the restaurant business, Nair decided to sell Tango outright, even though it was bringing in decent cash and had garnered some favorable reviews over its five-year lifespan. “My whole thing is that I have the confidence to do this anywhere,” Nair says, less boasting than simply telling it how it is. “What I do is simple. You know, spaghetti marinara. Put a smile on your face and they’ll come.”
They came, if not necessarily in droves, when Nair and Pineda opened Pasta In on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. The restaurant’s menu, like Tango’s, is Nair’s creation. She’s a self-taught chef who prefers richness to nuance, and she gives away desserts for free. The staples—crisp, thin-crust pizza, lasagna that doesn’t apologize for being lasagna—are reliable, though many of Nair’s dishes live and die by her whatever-goes ethos. Banana-sized shrimp over linguine hold their own against a pesto coating and a splash of cream; a chicken and spaghetti dish flavored with honey and chili pepper is sweet and spicy in all the wrong ways.
Nair doesn’t consider her food to be spectacular. “I don’t think it blows anyone out of the water,” she says, adding that there are several pasta places within walking distance of hers that she considers superior. Whether such honesty is good for business doesn’t really concern her. When someone offered to buy Pasta In’s lease earlier this year, Nair and Pineda sold—they didn’t want out of the business so much as they just needed the money. Instead of starting anew somewhere else, they entered into a peculiar arrangement with Giorgio, an old-school Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill: Giorgio’s regular staff would work lunches; Nair, Pineda, and their crew of cooks would take care of dinner. The partnership lasted a week. “It sounds like such a joke,” Nair explains, “but the crew was so unhappy there. One of Raul’s brothers is a line cook. Our good friend is another line cook. We were unhappy. There was so much cleaning involved. Life’s too short.”
Short, yes, but also funny. From the day Pasta In disappeared, Joe Lawrence had been fielding questions from his customers about what had happened to the place. And he knew. Two weeks after Pasta In first launched, Lawrence had opened India 2000 just down the street. Over the months, Lawrence made a habit of chatting up Nair. They engaged mostly in restaurant talk. He kidded her that she had stolen his recipe for sesame chicken; she countered that it was the other way around. Love ensued, and then a partnership. Lawrence’s frustration with the tough margins inherent in serving Indian fusion cuisine coincided nicely with Pasta In’s homelessness. After a makeover that lasted less than two days this past summer—the three partners did the painting themselves; Pineda and Lawrence recovered the chairs—India 2000 became Pasta In.
“Selling pasta is much easier than selling Indian food,” Lawrence says, by way of explaining the birth of what is perhaps the area’s first Italian restaurant to be run by a Malaysian (Nair), Salvadoran (Pineda), and Indian (Lawrence). The temperament of the partners couldn’t be more different. Pineda is quirky and gracious with the thank yous; Lawrence is a seasoned pro who learned his trade working in hotels and, later, studying at Cornell. Nair is another matter. She likes to say that she treats everyone “like family,” but the cliche isn’t totally accurate. Nair sets the tone in the dining room by treating her customers as if she’s meeting them at a party. Her gift is in managing to be sassy and polite at the same time. She’s in this business for the fun of it, period, and she’s good at remembering faces. When I meet her for the first time, she recalls having seen me before, observing, “You know, you’re really hard to talk to.”
All partners claim that business has been good and that, perhaps more important, they’re having fun. Never mind that Nair gets upbraided at the local grocery store by India 2000’s erstwhile regulars; one of her partners is her best friend, and the other one’s her squeeze. Currently, the trio has an option to extend their lease for another nine years. The prospect of that kind of longevity humors Nair. “So what do you think, guys?” she asks, slapping a knee of each of her partners. “Are we going to be here for nine more years?” After taking a quick moment to laugh, she answers herself: “I doubt it.”
Pasta In, 1847 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 667-2400.
Rocky’s Cafe is the restaurant that took over Pasta In’s old space, and if things keep evolving as they have, its owners could even plan to stay a while. Chef Paul Belt, like Rocky’s owners, is an old Tabard Inn employee, and his yuca vichyssoise helped me cope through more than a couple of ridiculously hot days last August. One reader deems the black-bean-and-Guinness crust of Rocky’s pizza the finest creation “since power locks.” I’m more thankful to find a Cuban pork sandwich that’s worthy of the calories.
Rocky’s Cafe, 1817 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 387-2580.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.