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Stepping into Eric Hilton’s newest restaurant, Chez Billy, I thought back to my first visit to one of his establishments, Dragonfly. I remember the old place. Sort of.
The design of the Dupont Circle eatery, with its stark white palette and minimalist furnishings, seemed strikingly chic, especially for D.C. in the early to mid-2000s. Japanese anime films, projected onto the walls, lent the place a funky Far East feel. Electronic music thumped in the background.
It was lounge-y and loud, a cool place to hang out with friends and have a few drinks. OK, lots of drinks. I clearly recall downing a bevy of boilermakers on one evening in particular.
The sushi, though, is a total blank.
My total recall of the vibe and fuzzy recounting of the food neatly sums up the Hilton brand of hospitality, which is currently spreading across Northwest D.C.—all the way up to Chez Billy’s location on a formerly uncool stretch of Georgia Avenue in Petworth—at an unprecedented rate. The boom speaks to D.C.’s robust appetite for stylishly designed boozy boîtes and its not-so-robust attention to the quality of the accompanying nibbles.
Hilton, of course, is half of the Grammy-nominated duo Thievery Corporation, who, alongside fellow DJ Farid Ali, famously opened his own club, Eighteenth Street Lounge, in 1995 in order to create a viable stage for his music. The sonic side of Hilton’s enterprise, the D.C.-based recording label ESL Music, has since attained a respectable level of international acclaim, while the boozy side of the business has become a significant driver of local economic redevelopment, particularly along the U Street NW corridor.
At this point, it’s hard to say exactly which side is sustaining the other. But, it’s a good bet that, given the current sad-sack state of the recording industry, liquor remains the primary economic engine.
Dragonfly shuttered in 2007. But the burgeoning roster of Hilton spots has grown. There’s still Eighteenth Street Lounge, located just across Connecticut Ave NW from the old sushi spot. There are five establishments located close by the U Street corridor: American Ice Company (barbecue), Blackbyrd (sandwiches), Gibson (cocktails), Patty Boom Boom (Jamaican) and Marvin (Southern-cum-Belgian). A couple more are in the works for the same neighborhood: the British pub-themed Brixton and the taqueria El Ray. Hilton and his business-partner brother, Ian Hilton, are also investors in another nearby venue, U Street Music Hall. Across town, they’re planning a new tavern on H Street NE.
The brothers have been so busy lately, in fact, that they recently unloaded another planned restaurant, an Italian-themed gastro-pub concept in the former HR-57 space on 14th Street NW, to Ari Gejdenson, currently executive chef at Capitol Hill’s Acqua Al 2.
That could be good news for diners, if not scenesters: The formula at all of the Hilton-owned eateries seems to be one that produces a reliably fashionable vibe, but unreliably delectable eats. Among my less-than-thrilling experiences at Hilton joints, a few stand out. Like the crispy fried chicken (good!) sullied by soggy waffles (lame!) at Marvin, on 14th Street NW. Or the passable if unremarkable barbecue at American Ice, several blocks to the northeast.
Which meant my good-time expectations were high and my good-grub expectations were low when I walked into Chez Billy, a French-themed bistro that opened earlier this month in Petworth. Executive chef Brendan L’Etoile, after all, is the former sous at Marvin.
Sure enough, the ambiance mirrors the U Street-area flagship. As with Marvin, Chez Billy has foregone the old Philippe Starck-style blank palette of the former Dragonfly in favor of a more modern gloom, with exposed brick, dark wood paneling and candlelight. The layout of the place also speaks to the Hiltons’ standard MO. The ground-level bar area, with its high ceiling and antiquish chandeliers, serves as the central hub, with an upstairs mezzanine full of stools and tiny tables overlooking the libation station below. Several of my dining companions took immediate note of the row of two-seat “make-out nooks” along the southern wall. Actual canoodling in these cozy cubicles was rare, if present at all, during my multiple visits.
Meanwhile, the dining room, located in the historically preserved shell of the former Billy Simpson’s House of Seafood, from which the new venue takes its name, seems a total afterthought in terms of décor. The modest room, with its low-slung ceiling, feels practically claustrophobic compared to the airy adjacent saloon space. Mirrors mounted to the wall barely ease the feeling of congestion. On return trips, I sat at the bar.
My first impression of the food, though, was surprisingly good. The roasted bone marrow ($12) was so rich and salty that my friend and I soon found ourselves gnawing on the leftover limbs like dogs. The daube de boeuf, a fancy French term for a big slab of beef cheek ($25), proved both hefty and hearty. The best dish of the night, however, turned out to be the duck confit ($21). Encased in a delightfully crispy skin, the supple meat arrived a deep ruby red color and almost pastrami-like in appearance and texture.
A sadly under-seasoned if nicely grilled mackerel ($21) was the lone disappointment on this night.
Rounding out the initial meal, a trio of profiteroles ($10) smothered in glossy chocolate sauce capped an unexpectedly delectable evening.
Had the Hiltons finally made the food match the atmosphere? Alas, return visits proved much less pleasing. A shared bowl of onion soup ($10) tasted too sweet and a plate of skate ($22) smacked of too much salt. My friend and I barely touched the pile of bland pan-fried gnocchi ($18) atop its disquieting green pea puree.
On another night, I was confounded by the toasted slices of white bread served alongside an indistinctive rabbit mousse ($11)—an unusual choice of side, considering the house’s tasty dinner rolls and grilled slices of lightly oiled baguette that accompanied other dishes.
The steak frites seemed quite standard for the Franco-bistro genre but expensive ($27), especially for the surrounding neighborhood. You can get two full orders of the “juicy beef” at Sala Thai across the street for same price.
The Thai joint, however, doesn’t quite convey the same cool cred as Chez Billy, nor the same promise of additional retail development that tends to follow the Hiltons. As such, the brothers are doing their city a service: In helping create vibrant, dynamic nightlife where little of it existed previously, they’re making D.C. a more attractive place—and probably growing our tax rolls, too. That’s at least part of what you’re paying for when you order that overpriced steak frites. But while it may earn the Hiltons a medal from the mayor, it’s cold comfort when you leave a restaurant feeling less satisfied than either the ambitious aesthetics or up-market check would suggest. The Hiltons’ sit-down diners deserve as much as barroom patrons or their economic-development partners.
With any luck, Petworth will one day benefit from multiple outposts of the brothers’ ever-expanding hospitality empire. Perhaps by then someone else will come along, serving more memorable food.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Chez Billy, 3815 Georgia Ave NW; (202) 506-2080
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