There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Sitting in the lounge of his four-star Indian restaurant, Rasika, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj notices the wood on one of his orange-cushioned chairs is all nicked up.
“As a guest, you may not see a lot of things, but I do, ” he says. “Look at this. Time to change.”
By the end of this week, all the chairs will be on their way out. With the Penn Quarter restaurant’s 10-year anniversary approaching, Bajaj is spending nearly half a million dollars to give the dining room a makeover. He’s hired British designer Harry Gregory to outfit the dining room with a new ash and olive color scheme, “artichoke” light fixtures from England, patterned fabrics from Venice, artifacts from India, and more.
Bajaj is also adding some soundproof panels in the walls. When he opened Rasika, everyone wanted loud, happening restaurants. But now that the clientele is getting older, the opposite is true.
The changes won’t be limited to furnishings. As Bajaj discusses his plans, chef Vikram Sunderam walks in with 10 years’ worth of menus in his arms. The two have a meeting later in the afternoon to discuss which dishes they might bring back or add for a revamped menu.
Bajaj is also selecting new china and glassware, which he says is a six-month project in and of itself. One of his employees brings over a stack of half a dozen plates in different shapes and sizes—some white and some dark brown. “We’re thinking about sorbets on this one. We’re thinking about a lamb shank on this,” Bajaj says, sifting through the plates. He picks up one of the brown dishes: “I’m going to eat on this today to see how I feel about eating on this plate.”
It’s not necessarily that there’s anything wrong with the existing tableware, but Bajaj doesn’t want Rasika to get stale. In an ever-competitive dining landscape, a refresh is often necessary to keep an edge. And many restaurateurs are willing to pay big bucks to do it.
“It’s like wearing a new suit,” Bajaj says. “It makes you feel good.”
Bajaj has renovated and re-renovated all but his newer restaurants. He believes dining rooms are due for a makeover every seven to eight years. (Other restaurateurs say up to 10 years is the industry standard.) Bajaj’s first restaurant, Bombay Club, which opened in 1988, has been renovated three times. Oval Room likewise has undergone three renovations in 20 years, including a million dollar facelift last summer. Next up: a new look and structural changes for 701 Restaurant later this summer.
Rasika will only be closed for construction from July 5 through 9, but Bajaj has been working on the renovation for a year, finding designers and going back and forth to get exactly what he wants. “What are the in colors now?” Bajaj says. “What’s happening in Europe? What’s happening in London? London’s a fashionable city. What are the people using there, so I can brings some of those aspects here.”
Once he finds what he likes, it often needs to be custom made, which takes more time. Specialty lighting fixtures and wall coverings have to be ordered 12 to 14 weeks in advance. Most of the furnishings arrive at the restaurant premade, already measured and re-measured. Bajaj will have contractors in the restaurant 18 hours a day until the work is done.
Part of the renovation is about fixing the wear and tear. But it’s also about keeping the restaurant relevant in diners’ minds. “Restaurants are like human beings,” Bajaj says. “We don’t take care of them, they get sick.”
That’s especially true when there are so many healthy rivals. When Eatwell DC principal David Winer opened Logan Tavern in 2003, there wasn’t much competition in the Logan Circle area. More than a decade later, the place was surrounded by shiny new multi-million dollar restaurants. Last fall, Winer decided to go back and revamp some things he didn’t have money for the first time around, like a Carrera marble-topped bar. He spent around $60,000 on the four-day facelift. On top of that, EatWell DC budgets around $10,000 per restaurant per year on upkeep, whether it’s new patio furniture or plates.
“With the hundreds and hundreds of new restaurants in Washington, it’s all the more important to stay on top of one’s maintenance, one’s look, and one’s feel,” Winer says. “Because if you’re not going to do it, there’s someone out there who’s going to be happy to take business from you.”
A big overhaul doesn’t always pay off. EatWell DC spent around $45,000 to renovate the Heights in Columbia Heights about two years ago with the hope of turning things around. “Business was, frankly, so-so, and we thought by giving a new look, a new menu, new chef, trying to make it fresh and more pertinent, it would be useful,” says Winer. The renovations helped a little bit, but not to the extent he was hoping. He sold the restaurant after a year. “It doesn’t make it a bad place, it just meant that I wasn’t being rewarded enough for the time and the effort that went into it.”
If a restaurant is going to spend the money to make big interior changes, more often the concept changes as well, says restaurant designer Griz Dwight, the principal of GrizForm Design Architects. He points out that a restaurant is much more likely to get press and buzz when it’s brand new versus lightly refinished. (Farmers Fishers Bakers, formerly Agraria, is one example.)
The restaurants Dwight has helped renovate that didn’t change concepts were popular places with initial design flaws that needed to be fixed. Dupont Circle’s Firefly, for example, had noise issues and an awkward bar setup, and Urbana needed a bigger bar and more space for private events. But in both places (both operated by Kimpton Hotels), the changes weren’t just limited to those issues. “We more or less touched every surface,” Dwight says. “The goal at the end was to get a fresher place that looked different.”
Bajaj says a dropoff in business is not his motivation for renovations. Rasika, after all, is booked out for weeks, and its chef won a James Beard Award just last year. Because it’s already filled to capacity on a regular basis, Bajaj doesn’t anticipate that Rasika will see much of a revenue boost. But in other cases, a revamp can give a restaurant a bump. Bajaj estimates that converting part of the lounge area at 701 into a private dining room will increase the restaurant’s revenue 10 to 20 percent.
Southern restaurant Acadiana saw a bump after it underwent a $100,000 renovation less than two years ago. With new restaurants coming into CityCenterDC and the Marriott Marquis opening a block away, the owners felt the place needed a facelift to remain competitive. Co-owner and chef Jeff Tunks says one of the biggest expenses of the renovation was turning the patio into more of a permanent structure with TVs and heat lamps. The changes allowed for more year-round use, private bookings, and big outdoor events, including four or five sold-out crawfish boils this year. And it has helped: Over last year, the restaurant’s sales are up about six percent, says Tunks, although he also credits the traffic brought in by the new nearby developments.
Tunks adds that a renovation can be a good morale booster for the staff. If the plates are chipped and the restaurant doesn’t have enough glassware, employees will think the management doesn’t care about the business. “By doing this, it says, ‘Hey, we’re giving you the proper tools to make your job easier and better.’”
When Acadiana closed for a week for renovation, Tunks allowed staff to pick up shifts at other restaurants and bunched together vacations. The executive chef and general manager continued to work, doing a deep clean of the kitchen and organizing the office. “I don’t think we lost anybody,” he says. Then again, the restaurant was only closed for a relatively short period.
During the month-long renovation at Oval Room, Bajaj continued to pay his salaried staff including chefs, sous chefs, and managers. Many of the waitstaff took vacation days or went to work in Bajaj’s other restaurants. “Front of the house, everybody we wanted, they came back,” Bajaj says.
Down the block from Rasika, Bajaj enters the dining room at 701. The restaurateur spent around $800,000 renovating the 25-year-old restaurant in 2009.
“We’re changing all the furniture,” he declares, walking by the aqua-colored chairs. Then he points to the orbs of white wire that make up the light fixtures above the bar. “This has been here many years, so we’re going to put in new lighting here. Why? Does it need it? No. But you want a change, you want a change.”
Bajaj proceeds to the lounge area, which will soon be converted into a glass-enclosed private room. He’ll also add a new audio-visual system. People have been asking for it, and his competitors have them.
The black wall covering with white circles, which cost Baja $10,000, is scratched here and there, so he’ll replace that too. “The carpet is good, but I’ve got to change it,” he says.
With all these alterations, you might think Bajaj is the kind of person who gets bored easily. But he says that’s not the case. “I’m one of those people who’s blessed. I get to choose art. I get to design the menus with these creative people. And I get to do so many things which a lot of people want to do but they can’t do… I like challenging myself,” he says. “I want to stay on the cutting edge. I want to stay on top of the game.”
Photo of Ashok Bajaj by Darrow Montgomery