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Every day before diners arrive, the cooks and servers of Table in Shaw gather around for “family meal.” A “family shelf” in the fridge is stocked with a hodgepodge of leftover ingredients that the kitchen crew transforms into ramen, or pizza, or potato gratin for the staff to eat before their shifts. It’s a restaurant ritual that plays out daily at many spots around town, but it typically remains hidden from guests.
A couple weeks ago, Table decided to change that. They posted a message on Facebook inviting the public to join them at 5 p.m. the next day for their family meal at $20 a pop. Within an hour, the 20 spots they were hoping to fill, plus some, were claimed. Diners arrived to find tables pushed together for communal seating and big bowls of cassoulet, kale salad, roasted potatoes, and a ground chicken and cabbage dish with sriracha sour cream.
At first, there was bit of a high school cafeteria-type divide between the staff and the public, with the cooks and servers lingering around the open kitchen and diners seated at tables. But one of the cooks came and sat down at a table, and people started passing around plates. Chef Patrick Robinson, who has a newborn, chatted with a mother who brought her baby. Another cook, who was off that night, came in anyway with a date.
When it came time for dessert, everyone—apron or not—lined up together for chocolate bread pudding with homemade whipped cream and strawberries.
Events like this are creating a more casual relationship between staff and patrons. In recent years, open kitchens have invited the public to peer into what was once a mysterious place in the back where the food was made. Now, restaurants and bars are hosting public family meals and industry happy hours and other events, which invite diners not just to see what’s happening behind the scenes, but to be a part of the dining world’s culture.
“Everyone kind of wants to be an insider,” says Table Director of Sales & Marketing Erika Kauder. “There’s something so magical to me about being able to go and meet the chefs and say, ‘Hey, I know these guys. I can go in and they’ll remember who I am.’”
Kauder says the idea was conceived late night when she, the general manager, and some of the chefs were sitting around discussing the next day’s family meal. “We were like, ‘You know, it would be really cool if we could invite the public to these.’” Three days later, they did. The goal was to get the neighborhood more involved in the restaurant and build more of a personal connection with diners.
“A lot of restaurants are going more toward openness, open kitchens,” says chef Robinson. “People are very intrigued by who’s preparing their food, how it’s being prepared… They come up and talk to my cooks.”
Kauder admits the open family meal was also a way to reintroduce people to the restaurant since chef Frederik de Pue left his post in January in the midst of litigation with his fellow business owners.
As an added bonus, the family meal brings in people between 5 and 6 p.m., when the restaurant doesn’t normally do a lot of business. (The staff otherwise eats at 4 p.m. or earlier.) They tried to do a happy hour last year, but the place doesn’t have a bar. For now, the restaurant plans to continue public family meals on a monthly basis, with the next one happening at a yet-to-be-determined date later in March.
Lots of other restaurants serve meals to their staff as a perk of the job, since they’re working during normal dinner hours. At Minibar, chef Johnny Spero gives the world a glimpse of the restaurant’s most epic feasts—sushi or a roasted pork carving station—by posting photos on Instagram. And these aren’t the only places trying to make the public a part of its family meal in some way. Since its 2011 opening, District Commons has offered family meal specials to the dining room every evening at 10 p.m. (or Sundays at 8 p.m.). At that time, the staff rings a dinner bell, and whatever the kitchen is eating that night—fried chicken, pupusas, fish tacos— is also available to diners at $12 a plate. (Unlike Table, however, staff and diners don’t all eat at the same table or from the same platters.)
Spanish restaurant SER, which recently opened in Ballston, has taken the idea in yet another direction by putting a “family table” used for pre-shift staff meals in the middle of the dining room. When the restaurant extends its hours from lunch to dinner around the end of this month, anyone who’s stopping by for an early happy hour or afternoon bite will see the cooks and servers eating alongside them. The owners may even invite guests over to sit down with them and try whatever it is the staff is chowing down on.
“We want this place to be an extension of our home,” says co-owner Christiana Candon. “When we eat at home and we do dinner parties, we don’t eat somewhere different. We just open it up to everybody.”
In general, restaurants and diners have shifted away from the attitude that servers are “servants,” says bar owner Derek Brown. It’s more common for staff to act more like old pals than butlers. “With the recognition of chefs and bartenders as people who are part of a creative industry… that’s attractive for people to spend time around,” Brown says.
At his Shaw oyster bar Eat The Rich, Brown offers an industry happy hour from 11 p.m. (9:30 p.m. on Sundays) to close every day it’s open, with $1 oysters plus $7 for Natty Boh and a shot of Overholt. While Brown started it to cater to people who work in bars and restaurants and finish their shifts around the time when the special runs, it’s open to everyone.
Similar “industry night” events and happy hours have proliferated at establishments across the city, offering the public a chance to be a part of the late-night drinking rituals of restaurant and bar staff. Rather than just running informal, unadvertised get-togethers or discounts for off-duty chefs and bartenders, more places are publicly promoting these specials.
“There’s always been probably a few million dollars just passing around the city from bartender to bartender,” says Brown. “You sit down at somebody’s bar and you order a drink, and there’s some inexplicit discount, then you give them a big tip, and they come to your bar, same thing. And that money never actually touches the actual economy. It’s like some weird shadow economy.”
Brown felt it made more sense to make that industry happy hour more official. He also says it makes no sense to cordon it off or keep it quiet when it’s something everyone can enjoy. “We don’t know who else has those same issues that they might need a late night place to have food, whether they’re a nurse or whatever,” he says.
Mike Isabella’s “Industry Takeover Night” at Graffiato was one of the first big industry nights promoted to all. On the first Monday of every month, a rotating cast of chefs and bartenders from around D.C. and the country would take over the first-floor pizza bar, and service industry folks and patrons alike would crowd the place for free snacks and discounted drinks. The idea was inspired by Amis in Philadelphia, where chef Marc Vetri hosts his own monthly industry nights. There, a restaurant pay stub was required to gain access to the industry meal, but Isabella opened his to everyone.
After two years, Isabella ultimately decided to end the events in January, but a new group quickly stepped up to take its place. Chaplin’s Restaurant head bartender Chad Spangler and the partners in his event productions company, Closed Sessions, launched their own industry night series earlier this month. Unlike Graffiato’s, these events will rotate locations and focus on cocktails. There’s a $10 cover charge, half of which goes to environmental and sustainable food-related charities.
The festivities take place at 10 p.m. the first Monday of every month. Sundays and Mondays are essentially the weekend for servers, cooks, and bartenders, whose busiest shifts are Fridays and Saturdays. Even though that’s not the most convenient for patrons with a traditional desk job, Spangler wants the events to be open to everyone.
“There’s still a lot of people outside of our network and a whole lot of other groups of people that just run in totally different circles that we wouldn’t be able to send an email to or we wouldn’t reach,” he says. “It’s not about just us and the people we already know.”
GBD launched an industry happy hour about a year ago that begins at 9 p.m. every Sunday. Deals include $3 punch and wine and three special beers under $5. Because Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates GBD, has nearly 20 restaurants, staff from throughout the company make up at least 80 percent of attendees, says general manager Fritz Gomez Wood. Still, “you don’t need to be a card-carrying member to take part of the happy hour,” he says. “We’re not going to check your ID and your pay stub.”
For anyone who doesn’t work in the service industry, Wood sees the happy hour as an opportunity to get some honest insight: “They get the insider feel, and they get to hear servers talking honestly about all the beers you like.” In a restaurant setting, servers aren’t usually supposed to say they flat-out don’t like something. “You have to say, ‘Well, that’s not really my style of beer. I prefer X, Y, and Z,” Wood says. “Taking away that millimeter of apron between you and the guest where you can talk like friends, that opens up so many more avenues for discussion.”
Likewise, Brown says that while they might not be chefs or bartenders, plenty of people like to cook or make drinks at home and want to be around people with the same interests. Regardless of what they do and whether they’re part of the ominous sounding “industry,” he appreciates “the late-night people, the vampires of the world” who are out at 11 p.m. on a weeknight for oysters and beers.
“We’re all in this together,” Brown says, “even if we’re serving you.”
Photo of the family meal at Table by Darrow Montgomery