Washington Post: At least 20 restaurants — and not a single national chain — planned for Wharf

Originally Published in Washington Post

The first eight restaurants and bars that will open in the multibillion-dollar Wharf project on the Southwest Waterfront all have roots in the District, the companies behind the project announced on Friday.

That includes new concepts by D.C. chefs Fabio Trabocchi and Mike Isabella as well as new locations of established brands such as Taylor Gourmet, Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Dolcezza Gelato and Hank’s Oyster Bar. There’s even a rum distillery and bar courtesy of Todd Thrasher, the trailblazing mixologist at Restaurant Eve and PX in Alexandria.

What won’t be found at the $2 billion Wharf? The same restaurants and watering holes found in just about every other city in America. “We have no national chains coming into the Wharf,” says Monty Hoffman, chief executive of developer PN Hoffman.

Both PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette, developers of the mile-long Wharf on the Washington Channel, want a project with a distinctly D.C. fingerprint, says Hoffman. That doesn’t necessarily mean every restaurant and bar will be owned and operated by Washingtonians. Some out-of-town eateries may be announced later. But it does mean these places collectively will become a destination unique to the District when the first ones open in October 2017. All told, the developers expect to attract 20 to 22 restaurants and bars.

“We searched for the best in class in Richmond, Philly, New York and D.C.,” Hoffman says. “We were also very selective about who we choose to come in here.”

Isabella, the chef and restaurateur behind an ever-expanding empire, had already announced plans to team with fellow “Top Chef” alum Jennifer Carroll to open a French-Mediterranean seafood restaurant, Requin, at the Wharf. And Trabocchi, another restless D.C. restaurateur, told the Washingtonian he would launch a Spanish seafood place, Del Mar, there. It will be his first restaurant not devoted to Italian cooking.

In an interview with The Post, Trabocchi calls José Andrés “the king of Spanish cooking in the U.S.” but says he himself has 20 years of experience with the cuisine, thanks to his wife and business partner, Maria Trabocchi, a Spanish native. The Trabocchis travel to Spain annually, including to the island of Mallorca, where Maria grew up.

“Our family is in the business of food, and the family has two components,” the chef says. “A Spanish component and an Italian component.”

Fearful he has not made his point well, Fabio Trabocchi texts a few minutes after our interview to clarify his decision to open a Spanish restaurant. “I like to say that I understand Spanish cooking today after 20 years with Maria,” he writes. “I love the cuisine of Spain but I also love Spain, [its] people and culture as much as I love Italy.”

That love will manifest itself in the largest and most expensive restaurant of Trabocchi’s career: Del Mar will cover 11,500 square feet over two stories, with an additional 1,900 square feet outside. Trabocchi says it’s too early to tell what the price tag will be, but he estimates construction will cost between $7 million and $7.5 million.

Despite the big budget, Trabocchi says he doesn’t expect Del Mar to be a fine-dining destination on the same level as his Fiola and Fiola Mare. He drops the term “upscale casual” to describe Del Mar (which means “from the sea” and happens to be Maria’s middle name).

“What’s important to us is that it has the same level of service and attention to detail,” he says. “That’s what we do.”

Chef and restaurateur Jamie Leeds will open oyster bar No. 4 at the Wharf, this one dubbed Hank’s on the Water. With about 120 seats inside and 60 outside, the new spot will be larger than the other three locations of Hank’s Oyster Bar, Leeds says. It will also be pricey. She expects to sink $1.2 million into the build-out.

“I’ve always wanted to have a place on the water,” Leeds says. “This opportunity came to me, and we were able to negotiate a good deal. It seemed like a perfect fit.”

Leeds won’t be the only one shucking oysters on the waterfront. Rappahannock Oyster Bar, the casual counter spot in Union Market started by Virginia oystermen Travis and Ryan Croxton, will open another location in a renovated shucking station in the historic Municipal Fish Market, often known as the Maine Avenue Fish Market. At about 40 seats indoors and another 40 outdoors, the Rappahannock project will be larger than the one at Union Market, Travis Croxton says, but it will keep the same tight focus on Chesapeake Bay oysters and crab cakes.

Neither Croxton nor Leeds is worried about the competition. Their oyster bars will be, essentially, on opposite sides of the Wharf. Plus, Leeds says, the project “will be big enough of a destination that it’ll be able to accommodate both.”

The most unconventional spot will be Potomac Distilling Company, a rum distillery and two-story tavern operated by Thrasher, who will join Restaurant Eve chef Cathal Armstrong on the Wharf. Armstrong earlier announced he will open an Asian restaurant, his first in Washington, which will focus on his refined interpretations of Filipino cooking, the native cuisine of his wife and business partner Meshelle Armstrong. Cathal Armstrong’s project, however, is not expected to open until 2018.

Two local chains plan to expand their presence even further: Taylor Gourmet and Dolcezza Gelato will open shops at the Wharf, attracting new customers among the tourists who are expected to jam the boardwalk.

There will be music on the Wharf beyond the planned concert venue by 9:30 Club owner Seth Hurwitz. Cantina Marina, a party-bar institution on Water Street SW, won’t be new to the Wharf, but the developers are warmly embracing the old fry house and live-music outpost as part of their sleek new project. Cantina Marina officially reopens for the season March 19 . In addition, Irish native and former Guinness employee Mark Kirwan will open — what else? — an Irish pub at the Wharf. Live music is part of the plan at Kirwan’s Irish Pub.

The eclectic nature of those tenants gives a sense of the clientele the Wharf wants to attract: everybody, basically. The college-age night-crawlers looking for cheap beer and fried food. Cocktail enthusiasts looking for locally distilled spirits beyond gin. Food hunters looking for the latest dishes from a James Beard Award winner. Families looking to share baskets of popcorn shrimp and hush puppies while watching the boats cruise by.

It’s like the old malls that used to mix high-end retail stores with lowbrow gift shops: Saks Fifth Avenue and Spencer’s under one roof. Times have changed. Malls are dead. But mixed-used developments are all the rage.

Or as Hoffman, the developer, says: “Restaurants are the new retail — experiential retail.”