It’s Friday night and you can’t decide where to go out for dinner, a first-world problem if there ever was one.
A couple of decades ago in the District, this was really not an issue because there weren’t nearly as many choices, but nowadays the selection can require serious contemplation. However, if you’ve got a yen for gambling, a smartphone app called Spotluck is here to make your dining-out adventures more interesting.
The brainchild of two D.C.-area entrepreneurs, Cherian Thomas and Brad Sayler, Spotluck offers randomly discounted restaurant meals, all with the spin of a virtual wheel. With participating restaurants organized into “hubs” by neighborhood, including Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill and the U Street Corridor, the Spotluck app’s discounts are dependent on the day of the week, time of day and even the weather, with a premise that meals should be less expensive during slow times, such as a frigid Tuesday evening when diners are less likely to venture out.
“We spent a lot of time analyzing the downsides of existing discounting platforms,” Thomas, Spotluck CEO, says, “to create a merchant-centric product that protected the bottom line while still hooking consumers up with preferred pricing.”
Once users download the free app — ranked no. 1 in the iTunes app store in the dining category, ahead of GrubHub and OpenTable — they get a chance to try out a little restaurant roulette, in the form of one spin a day to receive a random bonus discount from one of the participating restaurants in each neighborhood.
“We saw the frustration restaurants had when it was a Monday at 2 p.m. or if a thunderstorm was on the radar, so Spotluck discounts surge during periods of less demand,” says Thomas. It’s basically the opposite effect of other demand-driven services like Uber, because the focus is to bring customers into the restaurants that have seats to fill at that moment.
Some of the D.C. restaurants that you might land on during a spin include Perry’s, Smoke & Barrel, Big Stick, Indique and Duke’s Grocery — or even a hidden gem you’ve never heard of. The app has become so popular among locals that people lined up throughout the day to find out more about it when Spotluck visited last weekend’s Cherry Blossom Beer & Wine Festival.
“People like telling friends that they knew about us when we only had 30 restaurants,” Thomas says.
Eight of those first 30 restaurants were in the Rockville neighborhood where the app got its start back in 2014. For Spotluck founders Thomas and Sayler, the app was both a leap of faith and a labor of love, taking 18 months to develop, during which they focused first on finding out from restaurant owners what kept them up at night — from rained-out weekends to negative online reviews — and worked to build a concept that would be useful for both the merchants and the consumers, looking to help restaurants build a consistent customer base while diners could enjoy up to 30 percent discounts on food and drink, available only for that day and maybe even only for an hour or two.
With more than 300 restaurants now participating in Spotluck and more than 50,000 downloads, the dining discounts can be found all across the region, from Annapolis to Leesburg to Tenleytown. A new hub is being launched in Falls Church this week, featuring local hot spots like Lebanese Taverna, Mad Fox Brewing Company, Caribbean Plate, Panjshir, Tara Thai and Yayla Bistro. Once Spotluck has finished mapping out deals in the D.C. area, they’ll start expanding to other East Coast cities, with an eye on Philadelphia next.
“Some of our predecessors expanded way too quickly in terms of adding restaurants, but neglected the fact that a strong user base is necessary to support the other side of the platform,” Thomas says. “We won’t expand until we’ve done our work.”
Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food and beverage writer. Follow her kitchen adventures at @kristenhartke.
Bistro du Jour transports you from Wharf to Seine
New casually sophisticated restaurant a welcoming, inclusive space
Delights run morning to night at The Wharf’s new Bistro du Jour, a casually sophisticated French outpost sliding into a prime waterfront space.
Courtesy of gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design, this new restaurant flaunts a menu born from a Seine-side bistro, serving coffee in the morning hours to Champagne in the evening. Its all-day culinary oeuvre begins with coffee (from La Colombe) and omelettes, and ends with items like a towering and meaty bi-patty cheeseburger L’Americain.
Taking over the sweet spot vacated by Dolcezza, Bistro du Jour is a sister to Mi Vida and The Grill, KNEAD group’s two other Southwest waterfront locales. The group also runs several other formal and large-format restaurants they have populated across the city.
Why bring French to the Wharf?
“We have been here for almost four years and we knew what the area was missing and acted on it,” says one of the co-owners, Jason Berry. “We wanted something where people could come in at all hours of the day and find something they wanted, from coffee and pastry to a full-on sit down at night.”
The Bistro opens at 7:30 a.m. serving that local La Colombe coffee, plus flaky, buttery pastries from KNEAD’s partner Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery. Breakfast service starts at 8 a.m. with brioche doughnuts, quiches, a “massive” Belgian waffle, and French toast topped with a blueberry compote and sweetened whipped cream.
Executive Chef Treveen Dove – transferred after three years at another KNEAD spot, Succotash Prime) – oversees the offerings, a tour of the “greatest hits” of a typical Parisian bistro.
“Oeufs Sur Le Plat is to die for, with the griddled buttered bread topped with a sunny side up egg, sautéed mushrooms and a Mornay sauce… It’s so rich and delicious.”
By 11 a.m., the Bistro transitions to other traditional French fare, like French onion soup, tuna Niçoise salad, steak frites, mussels in a white wine and garlic butter, and a croque madame sandwich dripping with gruyere and creamy Bechamel. One unique offering is whipped brown butter with radishes and crostinis. There are also gougeres, warm cheese puffs shot through with gruyere.
Come 4 p.m., the dinner menu fills out even more, with additional dinner items confit de canard (duck leg with green lentils and red wine shallots); and a robust, earthy coq au vin (braised chicken with bacon, mushrooms and mashed potatoes); and a lamb shepherd’s pie with mashed potatoes that would be at home on a French Alps farm.
Due to space limitations, the Bistro lacks a sit-down bar. Yet beverage director Darlin Kulla, who has been a part of the KNEAD family for more than four years, has put together a focused menu of six craft cocktails. You’ll find not only a French 75 (gin, lemon verbena, lemon, bubbles), but also a Manhattan and a “Champs Elysees” with cognac, chartreuse, lemon, and bitters.
The bar itself carries only one brand of each liquor: one gin, rum, and vodka. “ If you want vodka, you’re having Grey Goose,” notes Reg with a smile.
Given the cuisine, there is a considerable French wine list topping 60 bottles, leaning heavily on Champagne and sparkling wine. There are almost 20 red, white, rose, and Champagne options by the glass and carafe, as well. The bar rounds out its stock with French aperitifs and bottled beer.
Notably, the majority of the restaurant’s seating is situated on the building’s exterior, in a newly constructed all-season patio enclosure with almost 70 seats. The owners designed the space to maximize waterfront views, capacity, and flexibility. During warmer days, the Potomac breeze is welcome to flutter around coffee-sippers; in the colder months, the windows roll down for a fully enclosed and conditioned space. The patio’s banquettes arrived directly from France, and twinkling strung lights sway from the ceiling.
The interior is done up in Mediterranean greens, pinks, and creams. Big windows welcome in daytime natural light, but allow for a dim, mood-lit atmosphere in the evening. Traditional bentwood bistro chairs dot the space and antique-style tin tiles reflect a classic Parisian flair. Over at the bar, the glassware display was created from a single panel of antiqued brass. At the rear, a daytime counter offers coffee, pastries, and drinks.
As Bistro du Jour’s owners are both gay men, they note that, “Our restaurants are intended to be welcoming to all guests of all backgrounds, beliefs and demographics. We cater to everyone, which is the only way to lead a hospitality organization.”
“When you’re part of a minority group in society,” they say, “the only way to lead your restaurants is as inclusive, welcoming, and hospitable leaders.”
Though smaller than their other ventures, a French bistro right on the teeming, pedestrian-heavy Wharf “was the perfect fit,” they say.
Jane Jane brings throwback joy to busy 14th Street
Cocktail bar characterized by warm Southern hospitality
There is no standing at Jane Jane, the new classic cocktail bar in the heart of 14th Street. Its 850 square feet is for sitting and savoring, drinking in the relaxed retro vibe and the thoughtful craft cocktails.
At the foot of the mixed-use Liz development where Whitman-Walker is the major tenant, Jane Jane’s creative use of a shoebox-sized space brings throwback joy to a busy thoroughfare.
In the pre-COVID days of 2019, Whitman-Walker approached the Jane Jane owners, hospitality veterans Jean Paul (JP) Sabatier, Ralph Brabham and Drew Porterfield, all gay men, to make good use of the vacant parcel, and ensure it would be run by LGBTQ entrepreneurs. “It required some gymnastics because of the layout,” says Brabham, “but we came up with this cozy classic cocktail concept.”
The hangout spot is an effort by the trio to “celebrate hospitality. We want everyone who walks into the space to feel like friends of ours we are having over for drinks or a bite. Its a cocktail party in our home,” he says. They felt connected to the idea of a tiny bar—a space where they would want to have a drink.
Named for Brabham’s mother, Jane Jane is as alluring and lively as it is intimate, each detail in the experience characterized by warm Southern hospitality—right from the bowl of spiced nuts that swiftly appear at each table at the beginning of service.
Sabatier, who has held stints at D.C. institutions like Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Maydan, and Compass Rose, oversees the bar and cocktail program, organized by spirit. (For their part, Brabham and Porterfield, romantic partners, also act as co-owners of Beau Thai and BKK Cookshop; Porterfield is also the current Curator and Director of Long View Gallery in Shaw.)
Sabatier has presented classic cocktails with a few noteworthy nods to current zeitgeist, as imagined by his lengthy experience behind the bar. The booklet-like menu includes a broad selection of familiar favorites like a Negroni, Manhattan, martini, but also features Sabatier’s handpicked favorite classics like the Boulevardier (a whiskey Negroni), Last Word (gin married to herbaceous green chartreuse) and Air Mail (rum, honey and cava). Drinks fall in the $13-$16 range; a “Golden Hour” runs daily until 7 p.m. featuring beer and wine specials and a punch of the day.
Sabatier’s creative juices flow on the first page through cocktails like the vividly named Tears at an Orgy, with brandy, orange and maraschino, as well as the best-selling, highly Instagrammable Crop Top, a gin cocktail with a red-wine floater—and a name that matches the look of the bi-color drink. “It’s fun, delicious, and speaks to the space,” says Sabatier. He notes that their vodka of choice comes from Civic, a local, women- and LGBTQ-owned distillery.
Sabatier, a classically trained chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate, also oversees the small selection of bar bites (the space has no kitchen, part of the required “gymnastics” to make it functional.)
Beyond the complimentary vessel of rosemary-flecked mixed nuts, other bar snacks run from pickled vegetables to a Southern-style Pimento cheese dip and an onion dip creamy enough to make your grandmother blush. The “Jane’s Caviar” dish is a spread of trout roe and crème fraiche and comes with a towering mound of shatteringly crisp chips. A weekend brunch is in the works, which will serve goodies from local bakeries.
The retro-style interior recalls both California and the South, with only 32 seats inside and a 14-seat patio. Cozy booths done up in a hunter green as warm and inviting as a cool aunt are slung below walnut-wood walls and bar. Bright patterned tiles run the length of the floor; the back wall has playful cocktail wallpaper. A charming needlepoint by the restrooms kindly requests of guests, “please don’t do coke in the bathroom.”
The owners note that while Jane Jane is not explicitly a gay bar, its location in a traditionally gay-welcoming institution means that it has LGBTQ in its bones.
“Supporting LGBTQ people, businesses, and causes has been in Jane Jane’s ownership’s DNA at every establishment at which they have been involved,” they say, having supported local LGBTQ+ organizations like Casa Ruby, Victory Fund, SMYAL and the Human Rights Campaign, among others.
Porterfield says that they were surprised that, given the locale, people assumed Jane Jane was a gay bar. “It’s not a gay or straight bar, just a fantastic cocktail bar that welcomes anyone to hang out with us,” he says.
Nevertheless, the owners have taken into consideration the significance of being in the Liz development, as both gay men and as part of the hospitality industry. “It highlights the lack of representation as gay owners in this bar and restaurant world,” says Porterfield. They note the lack of women, LGBTQ and BIPOC representation.
“It’s very special to us that we opened in this space,” says Porterfield, “so we want to show that we have opened a place that is all about inclusivity.”
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The fall dining scene is as hot as ever. Here are some of the top tickets to look out for:
RAMMYs: Sept. 19 marks the annual D.C.-area restaurant industry awards, the RAMMYs. Many of the categories this year are unique to the challenges restaurants faced in 2020. Held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the awards “created timely categories that speak to all the ways the region’s uniquely met those challenges,” according to the RAMMYs. Such categories include “most innovative to-go packaging”, “outstanding COVID-safe redesign,” and “most impressive pivot to provision or market.”
Jane Jane (1705 14th St. NW):
Highly anticipated retro-chic cocktail bar Jane Jane quietly opened after more than two years in the making. Co-owned by gay men Drew Porterfield, his partner Ralph Brabham, and friend JP Sabatier, Jane Jane’s mid-century-style throwback offers classic cocktails and upgraded bar snacks. It’s located in the new Liz development on 14th Street.
Thirsty Crow (3400 11th St. NW):
Part sports bar, part cocktail bar, Thirsty Crow opened just last week in Columbia Heights. It sits in the subterranean level of Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning Makan, serving cocktails and bites inspired by Malaysian flavors, like its sister restaurant on the ground level. Chef James Wozniuk of Makan is overseeing the menu of snacks like shrimp chips and larger plates like spicy fried chicken with sambal.
No Goodbyes (1770 Euclid St. NW):
The Line Hotel previously played host to a suite of restaurants: A Rake’s Progress, Brothers and Sisters, and Spoke English. When these restaurants left this Adams Morgan hotel, the spaces sat mostly vacant until No Goodbyes slid into the ground floor. An all-day dining place that “taps the farmers, fishers, and small-time ranchers in DC’s own backyard,” according to its website, the menu sits squarely on a Chesapeake Bay foundation. Mid-Atlantic dishes, from fish to fowl, play large on the menu.
Bread Alley (1250 5th St NE):
The intoxicating tower of carbs that greets diners when they walk into buzzy Le Diplomate is getting its very own dedicated space, aptly named Bread Alley. A tiny location in the Union Market area, the shop just launched selling only the three types of bread that arrive complimentary at the start of any Le Dip meal: thick-crusted classic baguette, multigrain boules, and cranberry-walnut boules. It will eventually also sell pastries, jams, butter, honey, and other accouterments. Bakers begin their craft at 3:30 a.m. and offer their wares starting at 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. or sold out, whichever arrives earlier.
Bistro Du Jour (99 District Square SW)
Bistro Du Jour will be gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s third waterfront venue at the Wharf. A café in the Parisian style, it will lean heavily on croissants and cappuccinos during the day, moving to Champagne and larger savory dishes by night. The bistro will sell current partner Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery’s fresh baked goods and pastries, and will showcase traditional fare like coq au vin, French onion soup, steak frites, and foie gras for lunch and dinner. The bistro will display an extensive bubbly section, as well as a chic espresso bar and an outdoor patio. Brunch is in the works.
SUCCOTASH Prime (915 F St., NW)
After a yearlong hiatus, SUCCOTASH Prime recently reopened at the end of August. SUCCOTASH Prime, also run by gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design, is an updated version of the restaurant, still with Chef Edward Lee at the helm. The refreshed SUCCOTASH opened as a southern steakhouse with an Asian twist, featuring smoked steaks, fried oysters, collard greens, ham, and kimchi side dish. Live music is also planned.
Via Roma (4531 Telfair Blvd #110, Camp Springs, Md.)
Via Roma is a restaurant where you can enjoy the pies, you just can’t call it “pizza.” Just opened a few weeks ago, the restaurant serves pinsas, a pizza-like dish using dough made from a heady mixture of wheat, soy, and rice flours, and then proofed for more than a day. The spot calls itself the first Pinsa-certified restaurant in Maryland, and aims to reflect the laid-back, Mediterranean atmosphere of Naples (the owner also runs an Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified restaurant in Maryland). Beyond Pinsa, it also serves Maryland crab tater tots, panini, pasta, salad, and Aperol spritzes.
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