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It might look like Tico owner Michael Schlow is just another big name out-of-town chef jumping on the 14th Street NW bandwagon now that the corridor is the hip new place to eat. But the Boston-based restaurateur says he actually began looking at the neighborhood seven years ago.
At the time, his close friend and commercial real estate broker Eric Rubin was helping him find a location. Despite Schlow’s uncertainty, Rubin swore 14th Street was going to become a hot neighborhood. “I’d always look at where Le Diplomate is now. I said, ‘What’s in that dry cleaner?’ He’s like, ‘You don’t even want to touch that. You know how much money that’s going to cost? It’s a big renovation.’”
But then very suddenly in 2010, Rubin died of a heart attack. “I was supposed to meet him the day he died,” Schlow says. “I stopped looking. I was heartbroken.”
A couple years later, a woman who works for JBG Companies approached Schlow about a new development on 14th Street. She had lived and Boston and was a big fan of his restaurants. Schlow still wanted to come to the neighborhood. (After all, he already had roots in the area: His father’s from D.C. and his sister went to school here.) “I waited for this to be built,” he says of his location next to Trader Joe’s. “We signed this deal before they put a hole in the ground.”
Tico officially opened over the weekend with a menu inspired by Schlow’s travels to Spain, Mexico, and Latin America. The restaurant has another location in Boston, but Schlow says this one isn’t a carbon copy. He estimates that about 65 percent of the menu will be similar.
Among the dishes to look out for: tacos (crunchy edamame, blue crab salad), ceviches, and small plates (lamb meatballs, chorizo risotto, fried oysters). A short list of entrees ranges from a bacon cheeseburger to fresh fish of the day. Can’t decide? You can just pick a price—$35, $55, or $85—and the kitchen will just cook for you. “The $85 is the full-on, blow-out Tico experience,” Schlow says. “A suckling pig might come to your table.”
Some of the menu is based on Schlow’s bachelor days and the late-night meals he would concoct with a half-empty fridge. “As the food would dwindle down, I wouldn’t go buy more stuff. I’d play this game to see can I still make a meal with what’s in the refrigerator.” In fact, one of the most popular dishes on the Tico Boston menu—a shredded cabbage salad with salsa verde vinaigrette and crushed almonds—was created because all Schlow had in his fridge one night was a half a head of cabbage, herbs, half a zucchini, and some almonds.
And here’s something you don’t hear most chefs brag about: “None of the food is particularly authentic,” he says. “I am deliberately trying to not be authentic here.”
At the bar, Tico has more than 125 tequilas and mezcals as well as a tequila club, where you get swag and invitations to special tastings and dinners if you drink 88 different tequilas in eight months. The drink menu will also have some Latin and local beers, 20 or so wines by the glass, and porrons—Spanish drinking vessels where you try to create a stream between your mouth and the spout. Director of Operations Steve Uhr also obtained some Añejo tequila barrels, which DC Brau used to age its Citizen Belgian ale for about three months. The resulting beer will be available exclusively at Tico.
Schlow is also kind of obsessed with the sound. The entire ceiling at Tico is made out of absorbing acoustic material. “It’s a real expense, but everybody that comes to my restaurants says that’s one of their favorite parts is that they can speak to each other without screaming,” Schlow says. He also controls every song that gets played in his restaurants and personally creates eclectic playlists for different times and different crowds—from jazz to South American electronica. “If it’s an older crowd, it’s a little bit more mellow,” Schlow says. “When it’s 4 to 6 when it’s happy hour, you want it to feel one way. You come in here at 11 o’clock at night for a drink, you want it to feel a little bit different.”
Schlow is also hands on about the decor: His photos from travels to Spain decorate the walls of the 150-seat restaurant, along with paintings from his wife, Adrienne Schlow, who’s a professional artist. Schlow also wants to have a nod to his friend Rubin, who helped bring him to 14th Street.
“There will be something somewhere here for him, whether it’s a dish we name after him, or I’ll put his initials up on the wall,” Schlow says. “Somewhere there will be something with Eric Rubin here.”
Tico will be open from 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Tico, 1926 14th St. NW; (202) 319-1400; ticodc.com
Photo courtesy Tico