Don’t ask Gus DiMillo which of his seven restaurants is his favorite.
“It’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite child,” he says. “If I pick one, then the others will feel left out.”
DiMillo finds something special in each restaurant in the D.C.-based Passion Food restaurant group, which started with the opening of D.C. Coast in 1998 and has gone on to now include Acadiana, Burger Tap & Shake, District Commons, Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, PassionFish and Penn Commons. Working with partners Chef Jeff Tunks and David Wizenberg, DiMillo’s focus is on making the restaurant experience welcoming for every diner.
“People want creative good food and they are also looking for hospitality. That is what our industry is all about.”
For DiMillo, that focus on hospitality started some 40 years ago when he landed his first job upon arriving in D.C. to do graduate work in anthropology; the job was at Mr. Henry’s in Georgetown, one of several Mr. Henry’s restaurants that could be found across D.C. at the time (the last survivor of the chain is still going strong on Capitol Hill).
Known to be gay friendly, an important factor for a young gay graduate student new to the city, DiMillo says Mr. Henry’s was much more than that.
“It was so mixed, the clientele, the staff and the customers. It taught me that a restaurant should be a place where everyone could feel comfortable from the moment they walked in the door.”
The D.C. restaurant scene in the 1970s was still focused on the French influence of the Kennedy administration before segueing into the steakhouse craze of the 1980s, yet DiMillo could see the fine dining germ that had been planted by James Beard Award-winning chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who opened his eponymous restaurant at the Watergate in 1979.
“We were a backwater until then,” says DiMillo, “but having a chef of the caliber of Jean-Louis here began to open up the possibilities.”
DiMillo and his friends regularly visited New York and Philadelphia to check out those restaurant scenes and eventually decided that they wanted to create one here that would attract visitors.
And thus D.C. Coast was born in a most unlikely place: 14th and K streets, N.W., a staid collection of office buildings by day that boasted a thriving red light district after dark.
“The Downtown BID was just starting up then,” DiMillo says, “and we could see the possibilities.” The gamble paid off as the restaurant was acclaimed by Esquire, Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines, giving DiMillo and his partners more opportunities to expand across the city as developers revitalized areas such as worker-friendly Penn Quarter and Foggy Bottom into dining destinations.
As the D.C. restaurant scene has grown to be nationally recognized, DiMillo has worked to bring his keen sense of hospitality to the entire city, even previously being named Industry Ambassador of the Year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
“People are much more knowledgeable,” he says of today’s clientele. “They’ve eaten good food and bad food, they have allergies and dietary restrictions and they’ve developed a real flavor for variety.”
Having educated diners in a restaurant boom means restaurants find it even more important to create an experience that will bring people back.
“You can have the best chefs in the world but you also have to have a great staff or you’ll fall flat,” DiMillo says. “As the labor pool changes, training has to change. We are constantly adapting so that we can bring the best experience to the customer.”
Today DiMillo is marveling at the continuing revitalization across the city, saying he is particularly “blown away” by the stunning development of the Navy Yard neighborhood in Southeast D.C.
“The place to be is Navy Yard,” he says. “Everyone should go there.”
His enthusiasm is inexhaustible, as he waxes poetic on some of his favorite places to eat in D.C. — that he doesn’t own — including Boss Shepherd’s, which he claims has “the best fried chicken in the city”; Doi Moi, of which he says, “I love that you can order a lot of things to share with a big group of people”; and Marcel’s for a special dinner “where you can still feel relaxed.”
Most often, whether he’s hanging out at Rasika or Nellie’s, you’ll find DiMillo sitting at the bar, chatting with the chef and staff and making new friends.
“I hate labels,” he says, “like ‘this is the gay restaurant, this is the straight restaurant.’ Every restaurant should welcome all its customers with open arms. That’s what hospitality is all about.”
Kristen Hartke is managing editor of Edible DC and writes about cocktails at goodbooze.wordpress.com.