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Photo: Kait Ebbinger
Photo: Kait Ebbinger

DC Eats: Top 20 Spots of 2018

All year long, On Tap keeps locals in the know about the hottest new food and drink spots around town in our New & Notable column. Now, we’re looking back at the year in dining, which brought buzzy new restaurants each and every month. Global influences continued to land in DC, two hip hotels championed local talent, addictive favorites like hummus and bagels won hearts and stomachs, and beloved chefs expanded their empires. Amid dozens of openings in 2017, these 20 are the ones that cut through the noise and should continue to impress in 2019.

Elle

Ellē only has four letters in common with its 80-year-old predecessor, Heller’s Bakery. The new Mount Pleasant café and restaurant from the minds behind Paisley Fig and Room 11 has reimagined the bakery concept for the modern day. From morning until afternoon, linger over coffee, unusual pastries and hearty sandwiches. Don’t forget to grab a fresh baguette or a loaf of country sourdough to take home. The real magic begins during dinner, when Chef Brad Deboy turns out forward-thinking plates like grilled kimchi toast and charred sweet potato curry, showcasing fermentation, meticulous technique and one-of-a-kind ingredients. 3221 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, DC; www.eatatelle.com

A Rake’s Progress

The LINE Hotel might just be the most Instagrammed spot of the year. What used to be a neoclassical church has been beautifully renovated into a hotel with five distinct food and beverage options. Head up the stairs and you’ll find Spike Gjerde’s hyperlocal A Rake’s Progress. A wood-burning hearth is the focus, and the flames add flavor to small game like rabbit, quail and duck, as well as pork, squash and more. Many dishes are presented tableside and then carved or finished off at the centrally located carving station to give diners a show. 1770 Euclid St. NW, DC; www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues

Sababa

After a quick set change, Ashok Bajaj opened SABABA in the space formerly occupied by Ardeo. The new restaurant’s menu focuses on modern Israeli cuisine, which has roots in both Jewish and Arab traditions. Dishes display influences from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece. Meals often start with salatim – small portions of salads and spreads to share – and then progress into hummus and small plates. The vegetarian dishes shine, from charred eggplant and roasted halloumi to fried cauliflower and Israeli salad. Kebabs and large plates are also available, like sumac- and onion-marinated steak and braised lamb shank. 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.sababauptown.com

Fancy Radish

Vegans and omnivores alike rejoiced when Vedge Restaurant Group out of Philadelphia planted their first restaurant in DC. While everything on the menu is completely vegan, owners Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby aren’t trying to push an agenda. They’re just serving vegetables. It’s the way they serve them that makes a splash. Each dish takes a humble piece of produce – like a radish – and elevates it with artful techniques and vibrant flavors. The menu strikes a balance between the refined cuisine at their flagship Vedge and the edgy street food at V Street, with small plates like trumpet mushroom “fazzoletti” and spicy dan dan noodles. 600 H St. NE, DC; www.fancyradishdc.com

Kaliwa

Restaurateur power couple Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong, known for Alexandria hot spots Society Fair, Hummingbird and more, opened their latest restaurant at The Wharf last spring. Kaliwa offers three Asian cuisines that are near and dear to the duo’s hearts: Filipino, honoring Meshelle’s heritage; Korean, as an ode to Chef Cathal’s Taekwondo training; and Thai, because it’s their family’s food of choice. The menu is divided into sections for each country, with milder flavors in Filipino dishes like Kalderetang Cordero, slightly spicier funky notes in Korean Jae Yuk Gui and super hot spice levels in Thai Nuer Pad Prik. 751 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.kaliwadc.com

Spoken English

Erik Bruner-Yang’s second project within the LINE Hotel is unlike any restaurant you’ve visited in DC. Spoken English is modeled after the Japanese Tachinomiya – a standing-room only restaurant where people stop by for snacks and drinks after work. The casual, communal concept is situated in the kitchen with two counters facing a wood-fired Grillworks oven, only accommodating between 12 to 16 diners at a time. The menu provides a choice between having a few bites, like skewers and small plates, or enjoying a full meal of whole roast duck and chicken yakitori. 1770 Euclid St. NW; www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues

Mikko

The former chef to the Finnish ambassador opened his own café serving the food of his homeland. Mikko Kosonen got his start at his family’s restaurant in Stockholm and attended culinary school in Helsinki. In the U.S., he’s been cooking for diplomats, heads of state and royalty, but now he’s expanding his audience to include average Washingtonians. Nordic cuisine relies on simple preparations of ingredients like seafood, rye, mushrooms, berries and roots. The menu at Mikko is succinct but true to form, with specialties like house-smoked salmon, Finnish soups, Nordic pastries and Danish-style, open-faced sandwiches. 1636 R St. NW, DC; www.chefmikko.com

Pappe

Vipul Kapila never ordered lamb vindaloo in Indian restaurants in the DC area because he couldn’t find a version that lived up to the fiery dish he remembers eating growing up in Delhi. When he found a truly authentic rendition at a restaurant in Falls Church, he decided to team up with the chefs behind the dish to open Pappe and finally bring a neighborhood Indian restaurant to 14th Street. That vindaloo is a star curry on the menu, which also features popular dishes like butter chicken, vegetable samosas, fish chittnad and fire-grilled baingan bartha. 1317 14th St. NW, DC; www.pappedc.com

Poca Madre

To say Poca Madre is Victor Albisu’s passion project would be an understatement. The restaurant is a sincere homage to Mexico, celebrating the country’s history, culture, agriculture and cuisine. The menu is, simply put, an exploration of contemporary Mexican dining. But every aspect, from the sourcing to the recipes, tells a deeper story. Many ingredients are imported from Mexico to support local farmers, including sea salt, grasshoppers, cocoa nibs and dry maíz. The small plates and entrées put creative twists on traditions, like a corn risotto that conjures the flavors of elote and a shrimp and cuttlefish ceviche with flat noodles made from the two types of seafood. 777 I St. NW, DC; www.pocamadredc.com

San Lorenzo

Chef Massimo Fabbri, known and loved for his cooking at Tosca and Posto, opened his own restaurant in Shaw paying homage to his family and the cuisine of his home in Tuscany. The menu is succinct and simple, with classic Tuscan recipes and a few salutes to his time at Tosca. Start with antipasti like roasted calamari or fried squash blossoms, and be sure to sample the fresh pastas like tortelli stuffed with robiolina and black truffle complemented by a porcini mushroom sauce. Entrées range from a fish of the day to a New York strip. To finish, there’s a selection of traditional desserts like tiramisu infused with truffles and budino. 1316 9th St. NW, DC; www.sanlorenzodc.com

Gravitas

Matt Baker’s sophisticated restaurant is planted in the former Pappas Tomato Factory, which has been transformed into an urban oasis where minimalist fixtures, mossy accents and hanging terrariums are juxtaposed with original 1940s brick, windows and steel beams. Gravitas is the first tasting menu spot to hit the neighborhood with a selection of 15 dishes – half of which are vegetarian – that can be mixed and matched to create a custom experience. Baker focuses as much on sourcing as he does on experimentation, pulling ingredients almost exclusively from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 1401 Okie St. NE, DC; www.gravitasdc.com

The Green Zone

After four years of popping up around town, this Middle Eastern cocktail bar found a permanent home in the diverse Adams Morgan neighborhood. The spices and ingredients showcased in the drinks are ones that are commonly found in the region’s cuisine but haven’t often been translated to cocktails. Some recipes are riffs on classic nonalcoholic beverages like the seasonal frozen mint lemonade spiked with vodka or gin. The signature creation is the Janissary Corps, made with Green Hat gin, pistachio, lemon and “silky magic.” The food menu consists of Lebanese and Levantine street food like falafel, hummus, spicy wings and mana’ish. 2226 18th St. NW, DC;
www.facebook.com/thegreenzonedc

Little Havana

Restaurateur Alfredo Solis expanded his portfolio to include more than Mexican (El Sol and Mezcalero). He teamed up with Chef Joseph Osorio to bring a splash of Cuba to Columbia Heights. A painted “neon” sign emulating the Miami Vice logo ties together the murals covering the walls at Little Havana, featuring Cuba’s colorful streets as well as some of the country’s cultural icons. Classic dishes like ropa vieja, vaca frita and empanadas are offered alongside modern interpretations like Cuban rolls – essentially a Cubano sandwich crossed with a spring roll. Of course, Osorio also makes a traditional Cubano, which he says is perfect thanks to his godmother’s lechon recipe. 3704 14th St. NW, DC; www.littlehavanadc.com

Little Sesame

The original iteration of Little Sesame was an instant hit, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first standalone location opened with a line out the door that has continued to form each day during the lunch rush. Ronen Tenne, Nick Wiseman and David Wiseman are behind this wildly popular fast-casual hummus shop that serves up hummus bowls, pita sandwiches and seasonal salatim (vegetable sides). The hummus quite literally holds it all together, so its recipe was tweaked unto perfection. It’s enhanced by additions ranging from whole roasted vegetables and fresh produce to herbs and spices. 1828 L St. NW, DC; www.eatlittlesesame.com

St. Anselm

Joe Carroll, the man behind St. Anselm in Brooklyn, teamed up with restaurateur Stephen Starr and Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley to bring the grill-centric restaurant to the Union Market neighborhood. While it’s often hailed as a steakhouse, St. Anselm is about more than beef. The cooking relies heavily on fire, with everything from Spanish octopus and Romano beans to a rack of lamb and a pork porterhouse hitting the grill that sits in the center of the open kitchen. When it comes to beef, the cuts are on the unusual side – like hanger steak and flat iron. 1250 5th St. NE, DC; www.stanselmdc.com

Reverie

Your Uber driver might have a hard time finding Chef Johnny Spero’s Georgetown restaurant. Reverie is tucked down a cobblestone alley in a historic building near the canal. Though the exterior is timeworn, the interior is minimalist and modern, taking after Nordic design. The cuisine follows suit, with dishes that skip overwrought techniques in favor of letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Spero refines his burger with misozuke and reimagines lovage as a granita accented with elderflower. Large-format dishes like crispy roast duck with licorice and fennel are meant to be shared. 3201 Cherry Hill Ln. NW, DC; www.reveriedc.com

Call Your Mother Deli

When Andrew Dana and the Timber Pizza team were trying to come up with a name for their new deli, they tossed around phrases that a Jewish grandmother might yell. Someone shouted, “Call your mother!” and thus the deli was born. The Boca-meets-Brooklyn shop is branded as “Jew-ish” rather than Jewish because while they are traditional in some ways by serving deli classics, they strive to put modern twists on expected dishes. Their bagels are the main event, with the production line and custom, wood-fired Marra Forni bagel oven front and center in the open kitchen. 3301 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; www.callyourmotherdeli.com

Officina

Chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s latest project is three stories of Italian culinary exploration, starting on the first floor with a market and café, continuing upstairs with a neighborhood restaurant and amaro library, and culminating on the roof with an al fresco terrace and private dining room. Stefanelli intended each concept to have its own personality and purpose, and to be visited at different times of day for different moods. The expansive space lives up to its name – Officina means workshop in Italian – as an epicurean hub where everything from pasta-making to butchery is done in-house. 1120 Maine Ave. SW, DC; www.officinadc.com

American Son

Global brand Eaton Workshop opened their hotel on K Street last fall, with all four food and beverage concepts led by Chef Tim Ma. The main attraction on the first floor is the street-facing American Son, where Ma presents American food through the lens of immigrants. The name is a reflection of Ma’s childhood, growing up in the 70s and facing discrimination as one of the only Asian families in Arkansas. His parents tried to help Ma assimilate throughout his upbringing, even introducing him as “my American son.” Some dishes pull flavors from Ma’s Chinese heritage, while others are influenced by international cuisines like French and Middle Eastern. 1201 K St. NW, DC; www.eatonworkshop.com/hotel/dc/food-and-drink

Philly Wing Fry

Philly cheesesteaks, chicken wings and waffle fries. The combination is a curious one, but for Chef Kwame Onwuachi, it’s simple: three of his favorite things in one meal. After opening Kith and Kin to critical acclaim, Onwuachi decided to revive his fast-casual concept Philly Wing Fry with locations in the new South Capitol Hill Whole Foods and Union Market. The menu is succinct, with sandwiches, tamarind-glazed confit chicken wings, waffle fries dusted with Ethiopian berbere spice and combo options. The crown jewel is the dry-aged Philly cheesesteak, but there’s also a vegetarian interpretation with crispy mushrooms. Whole Foods Market: 101 H St. SE, DC; www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/southcapitolhill // Union Market: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.unionmarketdc.com

Photo: Courtesy of Pisco y Nazca
Photo: Courtesy of Pisco y Nazca

New and Notable: Le Kon, Little Sesame, Pisco y Nazca and more

On Tap keeps locals in the know about the hottest new food and drink spots around town and the top culinary happenings of the month. Read on to get the inside scoop on what’s new and notable in the DC area.

New

Le Kon
Open: September 1
Location: Clarendon
Lowdown: Top Chef alum Katsuji Tanabe, who has roots in Mexico and Japan, expanded his restaurant portfolio to DC with a new Mexican restaurant that draws inspiration from Asia. Springfield native Patrick Tanyag oversees the kitchen, which delivers playful and eye-catching creations with bright ingredients like watermelon radish, pickled red onions and cucumber kimchi providing splashes of color. It’s almost like the menu was made for Instagram: an entire roasted pig head is presented tableside before being broken down into carnitas for tacos, and cotton candy is piled on a Fruity Pebbles tres leches cake. Portions are generous, with massive grilled steaks and tacos served in family-style platters so guests can build their own bites. The large dining room is accented with navy wainscoting, marble tile mosaic table tops and an industrial concrete bar. A purple and red ombre corn husk wall hanging stands out above the booths and fanciful Day of the Dead scenes play out on the wallpaper. Le Kon: 3227 Washington Blvd. Arlington, VA; www.lekonrestaurant.com

Little Sesame
Open: August 28
Location: Golden Triangle
Lowdown: The original iteration of Little Sesame was an instant hit, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first standalone location opened with a line out the door that has continued to form each day during the lunch rush. Ronen Tenne, Nick Wiseman and David Wiseman are behind this wildly popular fast-casual hummus shop that serves up hummus bowls, pita sandwiches and seasonal salatim (vegetable sides). The three formed a vision for their bright and airy restaurant by traveling – both across the U.S. and in Israel, where Tenne was born – and exploring the diversity of food and design in various kitchens. Nick Wiseman says the menu pulls from the food traditions of Middle Eastern countries like Yemen, Lebanon and Iran, all of which are reflected in Israel’s cuisine. The hummus quite literally holds it all together, so its recipe was tweaked to perfection. With only a handful of ingredients, the hummus is made daily with the highest quality chickpeas and tahini. Then, it’s enhanced by additions ranging from whole roasted vegetables and fresh produce to herbs and spices. Items like the classic bowl with chickpeas, tahini and schug and the chicken shawarma with tahini, amba and smashed cucumber salad will always be on the menu, while other offerings will change with the seasons. Expect squash, celery root, broccoli, brassicas and more this fall. Little Sesame: 1828 L St. NW, DC; www.eatlittlesesame.com

Pisco y Nazca
Open: September 3
Location: Dupont Circle
Lowdown: The Miami-based Pisco y Nazca has brought a new option for modern Peruvian cuisine to DC. Like its sister restaurants, the bar at the latest location welcomes guests with a chandelier-like bottle display, and the rest of the dining room is spacious and open. The menu has an impressive array of ceviches, including a Japanese variation, a traditional preparation and a version with mushrooms. Starters include expected items like empanadas, anticucho carne and grilled octopus. The entrée selection plays on tradition as well, with arroz con mariscos, lomo saltado and a braised lamb shank with cilantro sauce. Of course, you can pair these dishes with Peruvian cocktails like a pisco sour or a Chilcano. Pisco y Nazca: 1823 L St. NW, DC; www.piscoynazca.com/dc

St. Anselm
Open: September 17
Location: NoMa
Lowdown: Joe Carroll, the man behind St. Anselm in Brooklyn, has teamed up with restaurateur Stephen Starr and Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley to bring the grill-centric restaurant to the Union Market neighborhood. While it’s often hailed as a steakhouse, St. Anselm is about more than beef. The cooking relies heavily on fire, with everything from Spanish octopus to Romano beans, a rack of lamb and a pork porterhouse hitting the grill that sits in the center of the open kitchen. When it comes to beef, the cuts are on the unusual side, like hanger steak and flat iron. The wine list also bucks convention, featuring light, high-acid red wines over heavy oaky ones. Plus, there will be a select few ciders, craft beers and cocktails. The surroundings straddle distinguished and whimsical, with snug private booths and vintage plates juxtaposed with embroidered banners from fraternal organizations and a taxidermied raccoon. There’s also a beefsteak room where the restaurant will host special events modeled after beefsteak dinners, which were political fundraising events common in the 1850s. St. Anselm: 1250 5th St. NE, DC; www.stanselmdc.com

Notable

Mr Lee’s Pop-up at Succotash
Location: Penn Quarter
Lowdown: Chef Edward Lee is transforming the upstairs bar and lounge of his Penn Quarter restaurant into a pop-up called Mr Lee’s. The concept is inspired by Asian night markets, with bold flavors in dishes like spicy pork belly and kimchi or duck confit, snow pea and basil dumplings. The menu will change weekly but will put an emphasis on ingredients from the neighboring farmers market. Signature cocktails complement the food, like the Miss Korea made with Soju, melon syrup, yuzu and egg white. Asian beers and spirits are also available. Mr Lee’s will run through the end of 2018. Mr Lee’s: 915 F St. NW, DC; www.facebook.com/mrleesatsuccotash or www.succotashrestaurant.com


Budweiser Marks Repeal of Prohibition Anniversary with Reserve Copper Lager

To mark the 85th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, Budweiser has partnered with Jim Beam bourbon to release a specially crafted Reserve Copper Lager brew. Brewed with two-row barley and aged on barrel staves once housing Jim Beam bourbon, the special beer features a delicious nutty taste, with notes of vanilla and caramel rye. Unlike other beers that are aged in the bourbon barrels, Budweiser chose to use the staves to give a more subtle bourbon taste and a slightly sweeter finish. The collaboration between two beverage makers that survived the Prohibition era has produced a terrifically tasty beer that will be available in bars and retail locations through the holiday season. Learn more about Budweiser’s Reserve Copper Lager at Budweiser.com.


New Culinary Team at Mirabelle
Location: Downtown
Lowdown: This chic upscale restaurant recently brought on a new culinary team and reopened in August with a new menu and a new identity in the kitchen. General manager and beverage director Jennifer Knowles has returned, and she’s joined by Executive Chef Keith Bombaugh and Pastry Chef Zoe Ezrailson. The menu features dishes that evoke memories of Knowles and Bombaugh’s experiences growing up on the South Shore of Boston, along with French cuisine marked by global influences. Lunch is served a la carte, but during dinner, there is the option to order a four-, five- or 12-course prix fixe menu. Wine pairings are available upon request. Many of the offerings are as fascinating to look at as they are to eat, like the grilled abalone with green curry tapioca served in a vibrantly blue polished abalone shell. Desserts follow suit – the lemon honey beehive is an artistic dome of Meyer lemon curd surrounded by toasted honey meringue. Mirabelle: 900 16th St. NW, DC; www.mirabelledc.com

Photos: Jean Schindler
Photos: Jean Schindler

Finnish Simplicity Reigns at Mikko

Lately, DC’s restaurant scene has been getting high off complicated-looking plates, exotic decor and ingredients we can’t pronounce. Wolfgang Puck called, and he wants his 90s life back. Not to be contrary, but there’s nothing I crave right now more than simple, clean flavors that don’t require a hovering waiter to explain.

Enter Mikko, the first restaurant from Mikko Kosonen, once chef at the Finnish Embassy, and recently of his eponymous catering firm, and now cheerfully ensconced on P St. and serving exactly what I’m craving.

With a minimalist Scandi look courtesy of local design agency INNATE, the cheerful, intimate space seamlessly blends retail, coffee counter, sandwich case, restaurant and bar. Order a cup of fish broth laden with cod, potatoes and dill, or one of the hearty pickled herring sandwiches on hearty brown bread, balanced with fresh cucumber and dill.

The contrast between the very preserved and the very fresh represents one of the most refreshing aspects of Finnish cuisine. The pastries have lots of fruits, cardamon and butter, and there are easy-drinking aquavit cocktails on offer.

Larger plates, including a wonderful venison with lingonberry sauce, are beautifully presented without pretension. The flavors are opinionated and crisp, honest and accessible. Just like Chef Mikko and his team. Now go eat!

Mikko: 1636 R St. NW, DC; 202-413-6419; www.chefmikko.com

Salted licorice ice cream.

Salted licorice ice cream.

Venison lingonberry.

Venison lingonberry.

Finish see bread.

Finish see bread.

Finnish Vodka.

Finnish Vodka.

A fish soup cocktail with Aquavite lemon soda and cucumber dill.

A fish soup cocktail with Aquavite lemon soda and cucumber dill.

Pancake and fresh berries.

Pancake and fresh berries.

Fish soup with cod salmon, potatos, peppercorns and dill.

Fish soup with cod salmon, potatos, peppercorns and dill.

Photo: Violetta Markelou
Photo: Violetta Markelou

A Day in the Life: Swatchroom’s Maggie O’Neill & Warren Weixler

An artist and an architect meet in DC, each with their own unique skill set. Realizing that they can accomplish more together, the artist says, “Let’s start a business.” And just like that, design, art and fabrication firm Swatchroom is founded.

While there’s more to their origin story than our abridged version above, a partnership did fall into place in 2013 because both artist and architect saw the strengths that could come with combining their individual experiences. Artist Maggie O’Neill’s background as a painter and designer paired with architect Warren Weixler’s experience at the helm of two design-build firms has made the duo unstoppable in the aesthetic formation of some of the DC area’s most sought-after interiors.

Swatchroom is responsible for the buzzworthy interiors of brand new Poca Madre in Penn Quarter and recently opened Morris American Bar in Shaw, just to name a few. No two Swatchroom designs are alike – the team takes pride in creating spaces that fit the vision of each space to a T while pushing creative boundaries and making people think. Weixler says every client has their own idiosyncrasies and way in which they like to function, so he and O’Neill have to learn what’s important to them and approach each design in a completely individualized way.

The designers are at the forefront of the creative renaissance that’s taken the city by storm over the past few years and continue to work in DC, and even across the globe, on a diverse portfolio of projects. We met the pair in their bustling Shaw studio, where the team was hard at work putting the finishing touches on several projects, to talk about their creative journey.

On Tap: How did you meet each other?
Maggie O’Neill: We met because I was working on a restaurant called Lincoln. [We started] collaborating on fabrication. In cases when I was designing for projects and I couldn’t bring [Warren] in as the architect, he would come in and help me work on a whole host of things.
Warren Weixler: I had a small boutique architecture firm called Design Operative. Around 2008, when the work went away and the bubble burst, I had the choice to lean on some other skill sets I had. When the work started to come back in, I had the choice to either get rid of all that stuff and just go back to only architecture, or to try and incorporate it all together. When Swatchroom started to stir about as an idea, I got really excited because I thought, “I can get away from the technical world of plans and permits and actually live in the architectural world.”

OT: What motivated you to station this brand-new business here in DC?
MO: I was born and raised here. Swatchroom had clients before it existed, so we have a base here. That base also has projects in other cities, which is exciting. That allows us to work in other markets across the U.S. and internationally.
WW: We want to try to lead some of the trends or the ways in which things are done. That’s much harder in a bigger city that’s established. If you go on Google and go to New York City and search “design firms,” like 2,000 pins drop. It doesn’t happen here. It’s growing, but we actually get to affect change in the restaurant industry [with] some of our clients. I think we’re extremely lucky to be in a position to help the growth of a city rather than try to fight everybody else to get jobs.

OT: A large portion of your work is restaurant and bar design. Why are you both drawn to those spaces?
MO: I’m a dreamer all day long, and we want you to use your imagination and to really just push people [to] this sort of Alice in Wonderland moment. You take somebody out of their real life and give them a treat for a little while. There’s just so much joy in that, and the restaurant industry has allowed us to do that.
WW: That is a new trend. How do you blur the lines of what [a space] is? The LINE Hotel is a perfect example of that. Is it a restaurant? Is it a hotel? Is it a workspace? Is it just a cool spot to hang out? It’s all of the above, it’s none of the above. Does it actually matter? Those conversations are really interesting. Rather than saying, “This is an office building, this is a restaurant, this is a hotel,” owners and developers are saying, “It doesn’t matter.”
MO: It’s great because there is no clean answer. I love all that muddiness. This is such a linear city, and it has been for so long. It’s been a city of Democrat versus Republican, “yes” versus “no,” you know – lines. And now there’s so much gray…
WW: …color, there’s so much color!
MO: I’m happy to say, while I don’t think we’re there yet, we’re a hell of a lot better off than we were.


Swatchroom Must-Haves
Music
Plants
Artwork
Natural light
Coffee in the a.m. + bar cart in the p.m.


OT: Your most recent restaurant project is Poca Madre, which opened its doors on June 19. Tell us about your design inspiration for this space.
MO: Victor Albisu is the chef, and he is [also] an artist and a passionate person. The aesthetic is modern Mexican and has this fresh, high contrast to it. It’s a lot of black and white with a ton of greenery and hints of brass, and a few powerful statements aesthetically and potentially politically. It’s a petite environment in that it’s not a big, vast space so wherever you are you will feel a kind of intimacy.
WW: [Albisu] came to us in a moment of growth. He wanted to change Del Campo, which had been around for five years or so, and wanted to bring a Taco Bamba to the city. He said “Okay, I’ll take the front half of the space, because it’s basically a big ‘L,’ and make that Taco Bamba on I Street. Let’s take the remainder and let’s make that this new concept.” We were not only part of the design, but also in helping another business owner get through a growth plateau to reinvent a space that they own.

OT: It sounds like every project you take on is very unique. Talk us through some of the everyday challenges you face.
WW: We have that responsibility as designers to say, “Don’t spend your money on that thing, spend it here,” so I think organizing the budget and the study of how that money works is super interesting. The other challenge from my technical mindset is how we tend to push the envelope on artwork with huge installations, large wall features and such. While all of that is extremely creative and flexible, building code is not. We’ll constantly come up with great ideas but have to worry about sprinkler heads or a fire alarm. How do we push the envelope but make sure it’s legal for the building? It’s fun to play in the conceptual world, but how do you actually execute that? I feel like that’s what we’re good at: figuring out how to get it done and how to get it made and who to use to do it.

OT: Would you say there’s a distinct Swatchroom style? How do you make each space different?
WW: Maybe we have a Swatchroom style, but I don’t know if it’s on purpose. I think we’ve really tried to dig into the narrative of the concept of the client and what that concept means to them and let that drive what the space looks like. We’ll all call each other to the table if we’re trying to repeat a material or a detail or do something again. We force ourselves to stay fresh that way. I think those two things combined have [led to a] portfolio where none of the work looks the same. I’ve even had potential clients come in and ask, “The same people did all of that?” We’re proud of that. It should be different.

OT: You’ve achieved a lot as a design firm in a five-year span. How have your goals changed since 2013?
MO: Our first goal was to figure out how to manage the messaging to people we were already providing our services to. We grew by three or four more people that year, so the skill sets and talents those people brought in was part of our other goal: to actually bring in people that had different expertise [than us]. That way, the conversations and creative problem-solving are better.
WW: It was bootstrapped and organic, and we also made a pact that we’re not going to change for change’s sake, but we’re open to change. In these chapters of your business life, and as trends change, you have to change to stay current and to stay ahead. If we just jam the same process, we may not get the same results. [With] each chapter, we’re like, “Okay, let’s keep growing. Let’s keep changing for the better and keep organizing in different ways.” Luckily, our team is awesome in that they’re open to change, too.

Follow Swatchroom on Instagram at @swatchroom, O’Neill at @maggieoneilldc and Weixler at @warrenweixler. For more on Swatchroom, visit www.swatchroom.com.

Swatchroom: 1301 9th St. NW, DC; 202-808-3343; www.swatchroom.com