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When his last executive chef bailed on him this past summer, restaurateur Seth McClelland needed to find a suitable replacement. Someone he could trust. Someone who could cook. And someone who was not afraid to make himself expendable by sharing his secrets with the staff.

He finally found the right guy: Seth McClelland.

“I don’t want to sound like I didn’t respect my previous chefs, or that I don’t respect the position of chef,” says McClelland, 29, now the co-owner and acting executive chef—not to mention occasional bartender—at One Lounge in Dupont Circle. (He prefers the title of food and beverage director.) “I think about other owners that I know. If they came to me and said, ‘Oh, we had two chefs and both sucked, so now I’m doing it,’ and you’re like, ‘Good luck, player!’”

Heading up his own kitchen is an old dream for the Alexandria native. The circumstances of McClelland’s arrival in the kitchen, though, were mainly about necessity.

McClelland’s former top toque, Christoph Marquette, a one-time acolyte of the revered Jean-Louis Palladin, showed up four hours late for work one Saturday in June, McClelland says, leaving the owner little choice but to oversee the cooking himself. When Marquette finally arrived, offering what McClelland describes as flimsy excuses, he was handed a written citation for his tardiness. “He balled up the letter, threw it in my face, told me to go fuck myself and walked out,” McClelland says. (Marquette admits he was late, but denies the assault-with-crumpled-paper charge. He says he refused to sign the document over other disputed issues and was fired.)

The chef-owner spat was just one of several gruff confrontations during a tumultuous year for One Lounge.

This past Sunday, the barely two-year-old boîte temporarily went dark. It’s closed “for renovations,” according to its website. Not mentioned there: The closing coincides with a five-day suspension of One Lounge’s liquor license, stemming from a New Year’s Eve incident.

Management, though, is mainly talking about the future. On Saturday, the venue is expected to reopen with a revamped menu and other new design touches. And on Dec. 15, a splashy party will commemorate the joint’s two full years in business.

As with any yuletide celebration, the event offers McClelland and company an opportunity to both look forward while also reflecting on lessons learned. His biggest mistake: “Having too many partners,” he says.

* * *

Back when he was a teenager, staffing the fryers at Damon’s in Springfield and later seating diners at Evening Star Café in Alexandria, McClelland wanted to be the chef. At least until an actual chef told him some blunt truths. McClelland remembers the conversation vividly: “You want to be a fucking chef? No, you don’t! You work Friday and Saturday ’til two. Your girl won’t fuck you because you smell like food. You’re never going to get laid. You make shit money.”

He took the reputed cook’s advice and decided to go into real estate instead.

As a property investor, McClelland is proud of the crafty deal that landed him the One Lounge space. For nearly three decades, the spot on 20th Street NW, just north of Dupont Circle, was home to restaurateur Vince MacDonald, whose original Italian eatery in that location, Vincenzo, was once cited as an inspiration by Obelisk’s Peter Pastan. Over the years, the name changed several times: Trattoria al Sole, then Sostanza, and finally, Etrusco, which shuttered in 2008.

McClelland, who owned a residential property nearby, was quick to haggle for the empty restaurant space. The landlord was looking for rent in the range of $100 per square foot; McClelland says he negotiated down to $35, offering to finance all the renovations himself, among other concessions.

There was just one problem: MacDonald still held the liquor license on the location. And, in Dupont Circle, an existing moratorium on new licenses made it virtually impossible for McClelland to get his hands on another one. In moratorium zones, unused licenses go for big bucks. McClelland says MacDonald wouldn’t sell his for less than $1 million. So McClelland says he took a different route: He looked up the restaurateur’s creditors and offered to buy MacDonald’s debt at a discount. He later foreclosed on the restaurateur’s personal property and wound up purchasing the license (essentially, from himself) at auction for just $30,000.

McClelland says he and his childhood friend Niko Papademetriou invested every dime they had into the new business. Originally, they also had two other partners.

Though McClelland came to the new venture with several years of restaurant experience, he made some rookie mistakes. “We didn’t know shit when we first opened,” he says.

The most costly gaffe occurred in the wee hours of last Jan. 1, when McClelland nor Papademetriou say neither were even on the premises. At approximately 3 a.m., an investigator with the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration dropped by during routine New Year’s Eve inspections and noticed a DJ on the premises—but no permit allowing One Lounge to host live music.

When the investigator asked to speak with an owner, McClelland’s then-partner, Filipp Zeldin, allegedly took him into the kitchen, where the inspector “believed he was being offered a bribe,” according to ABRA documents, “because Mr. Zeldin pulled him close and asked how they could take care of the matter and that no one else needed to be involved.”

At a later hearing, Zeldin apologized, claiming he was “so drunk I don’t remember anything” about the incident. Papademetriou subsequently testified that he and McClelland would be buying out Zeldin’s shares. In August, they closed the deal. But the incident continues to haunt the pair. In October, ABRA slapped the duo with $3,000 in fines for the violations and ordered the five-day suspension that’s now being served.

* * *

With fewer partners and no top chef to butt heads with, McClelland says he and Papademetriou are looking toward their third year as a “clean slate.” Having a single chef-owner in charge of the kitchen ensures a clear culinary vision moving forward. That’s good news, because, right now, as far as some patrons are aware, One Lounge doesn’t even serve any solids. “People who were regulars would say, ‘Do you guys have food?’” McClelland admits.

That’s a problem that could get the establishment in trouble yet again. One Lounge is technically a licensed restaurant, meaning that under District rules, it needs to meet certain food sales quotas (45 percent of gross annual receipts) in order to keep its liquor license. Meeting that mark hasn’t been easy: In May, under the previous chef, One Lounge made about $12,000 on food, compared to some $90,000 on liquor, McClelland says.

The imbalance has the pair headed back to ABRA for a hearing on Dec. 14.

McClelland calls it a perception problem. “Whether we like it or not, lounge is in our name,” he says. “People don’t necessarily think of food when they think of a lounge. In New York, they do. In London, they do. In L.A., they do. D.C. is not that market.”

In addition to introducing a new menu, McClelland has tried to fix things on the marketing front. Revised signage describes it as “One Lounge & Restaurant.” The website is even more descriptive: “One Lounge Kitchen & Cocktail Bar.” Another sign at the bar informs drinkers there’s a kitchen open until 1 a.m.

It appears to be working. “Now, we’re doing $15,000 a week [in food sales],” McClelland reports.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

One Lounge, 1606 20th Street NW, (202) 299-0909

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