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To what degree is Washington’s economy on the mend? After I confronted a two-and-a-half hour wait at Bethesda’s Mussel Bar last Saturday, I decided to ask Robert Wiedmaier, the chef and restaurateur of Marcel’s, Brabo, Brasserie Beck, and Mussel Bar. I was wondering if packed nights are the norm or an anomaly and if he is seeing them in each of his restaurants across the board.
Q: How has the recession affected your restaurants?
A: When Brasserie Beck opened as one of the first big brasseries downtown [in 2007], we saw an average check amount of $75 a person. We still had the same number of people during the recession, but check amounts dropped to $51, $52 a person. Over the past six months, they’re up again, topping off at $68 or so.
I’ve had an interesting perspective during the economy in that I have four restaurants that hit four different audiences and price points: Marcel’s, where the average price is $128; Brabo, $75; Beck as I mentioned and Mussel Bar, $27. Strange enough, Marcel’s has never been affected by the recession and the average check amount has actually seen a steady rise.
Q: When I went to Mussel Bar last weekend, there was a two-and-a-half hour wait. Is that normal? A: Yes. There’s really nothing like it in Montgomery County. Not many people are serving food this way—a pared down menu of mussels and frites, with some nightly specials: a whole pig, Sunday fried chicken…The beer list is huge and people can go high or low, whether it’s accessible or esoteric. That said, people love it or hate it. It is a bar—loud music, lots of people.
Folks in this area aren’t used to something that’s common in New York—the no-reservations policy. People have actually gotten mad at me about embracing that policy at Mussel Bar. That said, when someone waits two hours for a table, they’re hungry. Their guns are loaded. They might be cranky. There is no room for error.
Q: Do you think that we’ll be seeing more restaurants that don’t accept reservations?
A: Absolutely. People appreciate fast, casual food that goes beyond wings, burgers, and nachos. The reason you’re seeing a two-and-a-half hour wait at places like Mussel Bar is because there’s a need for more places like that. Customers appreciate creative bar food.