Homegrown Empires

For the creators of Arlington’s indie restaurant scene, it’s not just business. It’s personal.

Lost Dog Café co-owner Pam McAlwee likes to tease Jim Barnes, Mike Barnes, Mike Danner and Wes Clough like they’re her own pups. It’s a dynamic that existed well before the four 30-somethings franchised her pizza-and-sandwich joint three years ago. Surveying the scene inside their new office on Lee Highway, she asks, “Just how big is that TV?”

It’s a 72-inch plasma screen, Jim Barnes sheepishly admits as we settle into black leather La-Z-Boys with the TV tuned to ESPN on mute. There’s a pool table behind us. They offer me a beer—a Natty Light can, to be exact.

Freckled and lean with wavy blond hair, McAlwee, 48, ambles through the story of Lost Dog, the neighborhood eatery she opened with Ross Underwood, back in 1985. She recounts the shop’s first pizza oven, which held only two pies at a time; the pet adoption operation that she and Underwood ran out of the back of the first restaurant in Westover; the time Danner (then a 16-year-old delivery boy) nearly got fired for being late to work.

In retrospect, it’s a good thing Danner kept his job. Twelve years later, he joined forces with his friends to open an offshoot of the ’Dog on Columbia Pike—one so successful that it quickly expanded into the space next door. An additional shop in McLean followed. This fall, the partners will open a third franchise location in Merrifield. They’ve all been friends ever since their days together at Yorktown High School.

Pam, Ross and “the guys,” as she calls them, are now practically family, which is how the newer iterations of the pizza spot still manage to feel more like family restaurants than franchise operations.

“Somebody from the outside coming in buying your business? [At first] I thought, ‘That’s just not authentic,’ ” says McAlwee, who still works in the Westover ’Dog and its sister establishment, the Stray Cat Café, most days. What changed her mind was who wanted to replicate the concept.

“Even though we are a franchise, I don’t feel like we’re a chain,” she says. “We still have that mom-and-pop feel.”

Lost Dog isn’t the only successful homegrown enterprise in an area that has seen a restaurant explosion over the past decade. More than 400 restaurants have opened in the county in the past 10 years, according to Arlington’s commissioner of revenue. And many of them are kin.

The incorporated names may not be well-known, but their properties are: The Liberty Tavern, Lyon Hall and Northside Social. Whitlow’s and Restaurant 3. Clarendon Grill, Clarendon Ballroom, Spider Kelly’s and Eventide. Ray’s, in its many incarnations. The list goes on.

Diverse though their personalities and menus may be, these restaurant groups share a common thread. They’ve nailed a sweet spot in the dining landscape that falls somewhere between faceless corporate conglomerate and tiny local haunt. It’s an edge they hope they can hang on to even as their businesses continue to expand.

Maintaining a local, welcoming feeling is a priority that’s ever top of mind for Dany Abi-Najm and his family, who own and operate Lebanese Taverna’s expanding cadre of Middle Eastern restaurants in the greater D.C. area.

Dany was a boy when his parents, Tanios and Maria, emigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon with their five children in the late 1970s to escape the political turmoil in their home country. They settled in Arlington and, in 1979, took over a little restaurant in Westover called the Greek Taverna.

Now, with accents that range from noticeable to barely there—and a melodic way of pronouncing hommos that will make you hungry every time—Dany and his sisters, Gladys and Grace, recount how their family grew the concept from that single spot to 11 locations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

At times, it seems like “a miracle” that it all works, says Grace, the youngest at 38.

But the fact that it’s a family business holds considerable cachet with customers. That, and the authentic Lebanese menu that was designed by their mother, Maria—an unstoppable force who recently came out of retirement at 69 because she missed working. She’s now back to visiting the restaurants daily to spot-check her dishes. “She demands excellence,” notes Grace, laughing.

Just Don’t Call them chains. Dany Abi-Najm is careful to avoid the “c” word, noting that his family’s business is really “more of a group.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by many of the restaurateurs interviewed for this story. They may run multiple kitchens, but they don’t operate much like chains. Menus change frequently, the owners are on hand much of the time, and staff turnover is minimal.

This is certainly true at the three Clarendon hot spots created by Brian Normile and brothers Stephen and Mark Fedorchak. The concepts behind the The Liberty Tavern, Lyon Hall and Northside Social are markedly different, but all are less than a five-minute walk from each other. It’s not uncommon to see kitchen staff wheeling supplies between restaurants on a cart.

Stephen and Brian, who are both 43, were college friends at Binghamton University in New York. Stephen worked in the restaurant business for two decades (most recently at Capital Grille, which he helped grow from three locations to more than 40) before Brian, a builder who had been developing residential properties in Clarendon for years, called him with the idea to renovate and open a restaurant in the old Masonic Lodge at the corner of Wilson and Washington boulevards.

It wasn’t long after that Stephen persuaded his brother Mark, 32, to come down from upstate New York to help open The Liberty Tavern in 2007. The partners wanted to shake up what people were used to eating in the neighborhood by offering a seasonal, farm-to-table menu as an alternative.

“There were a lot safer plays to how to do the food,” Normile says, adding that new construction also would have been easier than renovating and retrofitting an existing building. But safe and easy wasn’t their style.

Capitalizing on Liberty’s success, the partners followed up by opening, within a week of one another, Northside Social (a coffee shop in the quirky red house that’s become a Clarendon landmark) and Lyon Hall in the old trophy shop building at Highland and 10th streets. The latter’s Alsatian-themed menu—which includes sausages, schnitzel and European beers—wasn’t exactly what the neighborhood was expecting. And that’s turned out to be a good thing.

 

It has grown on people such as Ballston residents Perry and Kristin Lindstrom, whom I find sitting at a corner table in the sleek, dark-toned bar on a weeknight. They often go for the charcuterie and cheese sampler. Or, if they’re looking for something on the lighter side, one of Lyon Hall’s intricate salads.

Perry says they’ve always felt at home in Normile and the Fedorchaks’ restaurants. “Now we know so many people when we come here, it’s like ‘Cheers’, without Norm.” Kristin adds.

Whereas the chain mentality is to find a magic formula and replicate it, Stephen Fedorchak says that repeating one of their existing concepts isn’t likely. The fact that each of their businesses has been custom-designed for an idiosyncratic location is partly what’s turned so many diners into regulars.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be more jewels in their crown, however; it’s just a matter of finding the right spot—preferably something old, with a lot of character, he says.

Arlington’s most prolific restaurateurs may not be churning out carbon copies of the same eateries, but they have learned to stick with what’s working when it comes to location. Once they have one success under their belts, it makes sense to open  something else in the same community, thus leveraging that reputation with customers and landlords alike.

Perhaps no one has deployed this strategy more effectively than Peter Pflug, one of the godfathers of Clarendon nightlife, who opened the Clarendon Grill in 1996. He has since played a hand in numerous openings, including live-music venue and club Clarendon Ballroom in 2000; Tallula in 2004; Eventide in 2009; and the hole-in-the-wall-turned-massive-sports-bar Spider Kelly’s in 2010—all in Clarendon.

Pflug researched local real estate for a brokerage house before he got into the restaurant business, and he could tell early on that Clarendon was going to be big. As a Clarendon resident in the late 1980s, he noticed that everyone went out downtown.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we just keep them in Arlington?’ ” Pflug says.

He’s done a good job of it. On weekend nights, lines now form out the door of many of his venues, each of which offers something a little different. At the Grill, it’s live music. The Ballroom serves up a club atmosphere with a sprawling rooftop. Spider Kelly’s is an upscale sports bar with an endless number of TVs and games to entertain.

But again, it’s that sense of welcome collegiality that keeps customers coming back.  

“I’ve been friends with people who work here, [and] they always know my name,” Jim Jackson, 26, tells me at Spider Kelly’s on a recent Tuesday. A software developer who works in the neighborhood, he’s there for half-price burger night. “On weekends, you can come in here, have a couple of drinks, and then head to the Ballroom afterwards,” he adds.

The fact that each bar and restaurant has its own personality adds to the collective energy of the neighborhood, says Nick Freshman, who, along with Nick Langman, partnered with Pflug to open Eventide and Spider Kelly’s.

“One of the reasons I like sticking around is feeling like we’re coming up with neat ideas and trying to give the neighborhood what it seems like it wants,” Freshman says.

The fact that Clarendon has relatively few national chain restaurants and bars for such an affluent area is a phenomenon that Matt Hussman, executive director of the Clarendon Alliance, chalks up to local residents’ discriminating tastes. “They’re not afraid to go to a restaurant or bar they haven’t heard of,” he says. “In fact, they want to seek that out. If you’re good, word will get around.”

For some discerning diners, the allure of the neighborhood kitchen is about more than the food. Fans of the area’s more successful (and colorful) entrepreneurs consider watching and waiting for their next move part of the fun.

Michael Landrum, the eccentric chef whose fold comprises Ray’s The Steaks in Courthouse; Ray’s Hell Burger, Ray’s Hell Burger Too and Ray’s: To The Third in Rosslyn; and two other Ray’s in Maryland and D.C., is a good example. He’s had no shortage of unique ideas for his business, which has grown rapidly ever since the first steakhouse opened in Rosslyn in 2005.

Landrum—whose micro-empire takes its name from an ex-girlfriend who once sarcastically referred to him as a “ray of sunshine”—has become somewhat infamous for his mysterious concept changes and abrupt openings and closings. Ray’s Hell Burger Too briefly became Ray’s Steak and Cheese for one month in November 2011, only to return quickly to its original iteration. Ray’s: To The Third opened with little fanfare (its name and menu were not revealed until opening day). And one area of Ray’s The Steaks that is now known as “Ray’s Retro” features the more casual atmosphere—and the same prices—of the original, 2005 Ray’s.

Landrum explains that such changes have all been an attempt to use his existing spaces to test out new concepts before nailing down what he’ll do at a new venue.

The short-lived steak-and-cheese venture, he says, taught him that he needs to stay true to the expectations of his loyal followers—many of whom have been patronizing the original Ray’s The Steaks since it opened seven years ago.

“My philosophy in business is, you have to go home with the girl you brought to the dance,” he says. “People were so pissed off at us for taking away Hell Burger Too.”

Ask locals what they love about where they live, and you’re likely to hear a common refrain: the neighborhood. That’s something Texas native Wilson Whitney took to heart when he left his job with the Black-eyed Pea chain restaurant group to open Rhodeside Grill between Courthouse and Rosslyn in 1997. He quickly discovered an area that was ripe for a corner pub to call its own. And it wasn’t the only one.

Before long, two of Whitney’s employees, Chris Lefbom and Adam Lubar, realized he was onto something and came up with the idea for Ragtime in Courthouse. The two friends had known each other since working together at Fat Tuesday’s in Fairfax and had always wanted to open a bar together. Whitney invested to help them get their idea off the ground.

That mission of becoming the go-to bar for a particular area is one they’ve since continued at Dogwood Tavern in Falls Church, which launched in 2008, and more recently at William Jeffrey’s Tavern on Columbia Pike, which opened its doors in December.

For customer Amy Wilson, whom I find sitting at Ragtime’s bar for happy hour, the neighborhood vibe matters. She used to work nearby, and although she now lives in Vienna, she continues coming back to meet with friends.“It’s the atmosphere, the staff remembers us, they get to learn everyone’s name,” she explains.

Laura Bailey, a 20-something who is sipping wine with friends at EatBar on Washington Boulevard, expresses similar sentiments about her favorite place. She cites its “coziness” as a big draw.

Not surprisingly, the popularity of these folksy spots (and their turf) has attracted both attention and competition. Cava Mezze targeted Clarendon after having success in Rockville and Barracks Row on Capitol Hill. American Tap Room opened up its third D.C.-area location in September on a prominent corner across from the Clarendon Metro.

Circa, which maintained a stronghold in Dupont Circle for several years, opened a second bistro in Clarendon in February 2011. Its owners had had their eye on the location for a while. “We looked at all the area businesses, and their success and their formula,” says Matthew Carlin, CFO of MHG Restaurant Group, which owns Circa.

Whether those with home-field advantage will continue to grow their businesses in Arlington—or Clarendon specifically—is still a question. All of these tenacious entrepreneurs say they have ideas for new eateries, but at the same time, nearly everyone interviewed for this story described the Clarendon restaurant market as “saturated.”

Yet most of them still speak excitedly about the next thing—be it Lost Dog’s eventual expansion farther into Virginia, Lebanese Taverna’s renovation of its D.C. location and addition of a “bottomless hommos” happy hour or Stephen Fedorchak’s hint about being “really interested in taquerias” of late. (A little jealous of taco wunderkind District Taco’s breakfast, lunch and dinner business, perhaps?)

Landrum is the only exception, saying he has met or maybe even exceeded his limit. That feeling is what led him to devote part of the Ray’s dining room to Retro Ray’s and to renew his focus on the high-end, interesting meats and butchery that he originally envisaged when he opened the first shop.

“I’m very happy to be getting back to the things I love,” Landrum says.

That love of good food and drink—and of Arlington’s ability to still feel like a small town—are what keep them all going. “We’re proud residents … and we’re just really appreciative of the fact that we’ve been able to be successful in Arlington,” says Stephen Fedorchak. “We feel really gratified that we have popular restaurants in an area where people have choices.”

Rebecca Cooper is a freelance journalist and blogger covering food, dining and real estate throughout the D.C. region. She lives in Rosslyn.

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