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The neon sign spelling “awesome” on the concrete wall at Rose’s Luxury may just be the most Instagrammed thing in a D.C. restaurant right now. Glowing in full view of the open kitchen, the sign is not just a mantra for the cooks, but also the word on every food fanatic’s lips right now.
Just a month after opening, the Barracks Row restaurant seems to be getting almost nothing but raves for its homey dinner-party vibe and eclectic menu, which spans from popcorn soup with lobster to Vietnamese pâté. Such uniform praise and early status as a critic’s darling is rare in the constant churn of openings, especially for a first-time restaurateur who’s not already a known entity in the local dining scene.
But Aaron Silverman isn’t a total stranger. The 31-year-old from Rockville is merely returning home after years in some of the country’s best kitchens. The tatted-up chef is trying to combine the finesse of fine dining with the casual effortlessness of a neighborhood haunt. The appeal of Rose’s Luxury is the polish of its rough edges. As another framed sign upstairs reads: “Fuck perfect.”
This wasn’t what Silverman set out to do. He went to Northeastern University in Boston, where he studied accounting and political science. “I was not happy,” Silverman says. “And I was like, ‘This sucks. I don’t want to do this the rest of my life.’” He hadn’t done much cooking, but he thought it was fun. During winter break in his last year of college, Silverman came back home and met with Jonathan Krinn, who was chef at 2941 in Falls Church at the time and is a friend of Silverman’s family. Silverman asked if there was any way he might be able to come work for a day or two for free to see how he liked being in a kitchen. “He said, ‘Put on an apron and jacket, and you can work any day you want.’”
The winter break stint in the kitchen inspired Silverman to graduate early and head to L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. While he was in school and for a year afterward, he continued to work at 2941. That’s where he says he developed his work ethic and his philosophy on running a kitchen: “Part of your job is being a teacher and teaching people how to become better cooks, how to work cleaner, more efficiently, think smarter, think differently…They’re not here for just money. They’re here to learn from you, and it’s your job to teach them.”
Silverman moved on to New York in 2006, where he worked at Italian-influenced new American restaurant Jovia (now closed), then at Momofuku Noodle Bar—before chef David Chang expanded his empire. “I had no idea who they were. I had no idea what they were doing,” Silverman recalls of Momofuku. “I was just like, ‘Oh, the menu looks cool.’ And I needed a job…It started to blow up immediately after I got there.” After two years at Momofuku, Silverman wanted to learn about the art of pasta making, so he headed to chef Marco Canora’s now-closed Italian restaurant Insieme and then eventually to Portuguese-influenced Aldea. After five years in New York, seeking to do something different, he headed to the James Beard Award–winning Southern fine dining restaurant McCrady’s, in Charleston, S.C.
But after a year, his learning curve had slowed significantly. Silverman says he knew the answers to everyone’s questions, front of the house and back. He recalls one of Krinn’s first pieces of advice at 2941: Just cook and keep your head down and don’t think about opening a restaurant for 10 years. That advice stuck; Silverman opened Rose’s Luxury exactly 10 years after he first started cooking.
D.C. was a natural choice for the restaurant. Silverman says he considered New York, which would involve an exhausting lifestyle and even more intense competition, and Charleston, where he’d have to compete with his old boss. But ultimately D.C. was where his friends and family were, and many of them helped fund the restaurant. Plus, the city had changed since his time growing up in the suburbs. Five years ago, he says, he’d never have come back. But with hip new eateries and a growing foodie culture, the time was right.
Rose’s Luxury is named after Silverman’s grandmother, Rose. “She was a great cook, she wrote poetry, she threw parties,” Silverman says. He never met her, but “I have this suspicion that that’s where a lot of this came from.”
Luxury, meanwhile, refers more to a feeling than white-gloved waiters or an excessive number of salad forks. “We want to make people feel like they’re being taken care of…Like you’re getting more than you deserve,” Silverman explains. “It can be in a place that has tables that don’t all match.” Still, there are some winks to the fine-dining idea of luxury: A loaf of complimentary potato bread arrives on antique china. Juicy slabs of brisket with slices of buttery toast, slaw, and a creamy horseradish spread seem more like the stuff of plastic plates, but at Rose’s, the family-style dish arrives on a literal silver platter.
The menu at Rose’s Luxury reflects the variety in Silverman’s cooking experience—Japanese, French, Italian, Southern. He calls his cuisine “eclectic American.” But the menu philosophy is not quite captured by the ubiquitous and vague banner of “American.” Like the chefs at other new restaurants, including Baby Wale and Bar Charley, instead of trying to fit the food into a theme or genre, Silverman is offering a grab bag of dishes he personally loves.
“The cohesion is that there isn’t cohesion,” Silverman says of his menu, which includes small plates like strawberry pasta and crispy octopus with burnt lemon, as well as rotating family-style platters of fried chicken or grilled pork chops. Silverman says sometimes he’ll have five Asian dishes or four pork dishes. “It’s too many. It’s starting to make too much sense. It needs to not make sense. It needs to be balanced in that it’s not balanced. Perfectly imperfect.”
Perfectly imperfect goes for everything from the decor to playlists. The dining room is outfitted in white-brushed exposed brick, mismatched artwork, and plants growing in washbasins, giving it that unpolished polished look that so many restaurateurs now strive for. And as for the music, Rose’s Luxury uses a service that builds playlists based on users’ personal music collections, then lets them filter individual songs with “yes” or “no.” Silverman says he listened to each of the couple thousand songs on the playlist before the opening. The upbeat mix is just as eclectic as the food, ranging from hip-hop to rock to Elvis. “It’s so eclectic that we can’t have a single song that doesn’t fit, otherwise it throws the whole balance off.”
Balance goes not just for the tunes, but the staff. Silverman talks just as obsessively about his staff’s work-life balance and happiness as he does of the happiness of his diners. “That’s what keeps me up at night,” he says. “I’m worried the servers aren’t going to do well.”
Konstantine Troupos, Silverman’s friend from Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville who’s helped run front-of-house operations at Rose’s Luxury’s as well as pop-ups leading up to its opening, describes his buddy as someone who “genuinely gives a shit” about his team. “You spend more than a third of your life at work, and you should really love the people you work with and the environment that you’re in,” Troupos says. “That’s shone through. I think that’s what makes the buzz the buzz. I think that’s what makes people feel that vibe is that they can feel that among all the employees.”
It helps that everyone on staff who works at least four days a week—from servers to dishwashers to managers—receives full health benefits, including vision and dental. That’s nearly unheard of for an independent restaurant. “I kind of do it for selfish reasons,” Silverman says. “If they’re happy, the guests will be happy. It also helps you attract the best people and helps you retain the best people. So in the long run, it’s totally worth the money.”
Silverman says it costs the restaurant an extra $50,000 a year to offer the benefits. “Most restaurants should be able to pay for that, it’s just a matter of being willing to,” he says. “Yeah, I want to make money, but my goal is not to make money. I want to do all the right things and be happy and have a happy place and happy employees…That’s how you build a really successful business and that’s how you grow, and I know the money will follow.”
Silverman loves to tell people that he’s not in the restaurant business, he’s in the “making people happy business.” The food and service and music, he explains, are “not the final dish. Those are the components of the dish you’re putting out.”
As he talks about his hospitality philosophy, Silverman pauses. “Hang on one second,” he interrupts. “If I don’t do this right now, I’ll forget.” He gets up and straightens the painting of a buck above us that’s slightly askew. “It’s fucking driving me crazy.”
When I ask if he is in fact a perfectionist, he brushes off the idea—“It’s a relative term.” But when I later ask Troupos, he doesn’t hesitate: “Yeah, for sure. They try every dish a million times…It’s almost too much. It’s insanity.”
But Silverman still defines his approach otherwise: “I like things fucked up and messed up,” he says. “Perfectly imperfect.”
Rose’s Luxury, 717 8th St. SE; rosesluxury.com
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery