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Jeff Black on Pearl Dive Oyster Palace's First Year

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
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[Photo: R.Lopez]

Buzz was running high this time last year in anticipation for the opening of Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and its sister bar Black Jack. While restaurateur Jeff Black had a number of well-regarded restaurants under his belt already, mostly based in Maryland, this was his foray into the booming Logan Circle neighborhood. And that buzz has carried through in the year that's followed: the reviews were great, the place is slamming and the Black Restaurant Group won big overall at this year's Rammy Awards. Now, Black reflects on what was actually several years of work to bring Pearl Dive and Black Jack to life on 14th Street.

How did the concept come about?
BlackSalt in its infancy was going to be sort of like what Pearl Dive is, but the affluence of the neighborhood dictated that it'd be a different restaurant. They were looking for something that was a little more high end. But I didn't take away from the fact that I always wanted to do a restaurant that featured foods that I'd grown up with and the part of the world that I came from. It would be fun and it's not like I have to learn a new cuisine or travel to Thailand to learn how to cook Thai food or anything like that. I know how to cook all this food. So the process started.

I had been watching that neighborhood for a very long time, but I'd passed on the Logan Tavern space when it was available. I passed on several spaces, actually. I'm real picky about spaces, I'm real picky about neighborhoods I want to be in. I knew I wanted to be in that neighborhood, but it had to be kind of on my terms. I didn't want to just have a space to say I have a space in Logan. I wanted it to have the right vibe and the right feel and be where I thought things were going.

Was it pretty much that location or bust?
I wanted to be in that block. I wanted to be on that side. I wouldn't have minded being a little bit in either direction of P or U, but my view of that neighborhood is you've got this red-hot neighborhood on P with high rents. It's very expensive to be on P Street. You've got U Street that's red-hot. It's not nearly as expensive, but it's still red-hot. I've viewed it since many years ago as the place you're really going to want to be if you're going to be on 14th Street. Between P and U. Because what's happening is that they're pushing toward each other. If you get in the middle, you kind of get the best of both worlds.

So I always wanted to be in that immediate section. And I didn't want to be on the other side of the street just because I like having outdoor space and the other side of the street gets afternoon sun. To me, it's less desirable. You talk to retail guys and they're like, oh no, you want to be on the outbound side. I said, well, it is if you can do something to cover the sun. Think of Posto. Posto's patio is not fun to sit on at 5:30.

Did the concept evolve as you found the space?
Of course. There's always things in my mind that I want to do in restaurants that I can't do because of the restaurant's size or shape. One thing I've always wanted is a glass vestibule that looked into the bar. It's just something that's always stuck in my head for longer than I can remember. So this space allowed that because it's a narrow building.

With this one particularly I wanted to do a lot of reclaimed stuff and that impacts how you design because a lot of vintage stuff wasn't designed for modern-day applications. So you don't have ADA compliance in the doors. It's actually more expensive to use reclaimed oftentimes than to use new. Our tables at Pearl Dive are the joist that used to run under the first floor, the floor that you stand on. The tables ended up costing me what a custom new table would have cost. But now that wood your plate is sitting on is the exact age of everything else in the building.

That's pretty cool.
Yeah. I love stuff like that. So it makes it kind of a no-brainer to do it. We try and reuse old building materials because they've got character. It creates kind of an authentic feel for the space too. I actually bought the doors before we had a concept. It was kind of odd for me to tell the architect, "Well, you'd got to start with this." But it evolved. We try and think of a restaurant as more of an organic thing. So the menu evolved into some dishes that we ran early on that we got rid of. There are some dishes that have stuck around. It's a process.

What are the changes you've made throughout the year?
We tried to have a menu that was fairly static, that people could go and say, 'You know what, I love the fried chicken here and I'm always going to be able to get it." So things like that we put on the menu and left them alone. But we've gone a little seasonal with our crabcake. The crabcake, coming up on our first winter, will probably go away. You can get sweet blue crab in the winter, but you have to be careful and it gets really expensive.

We had a rockfish dish and it was a wonderful dish. It was on the original menu at Addie's, actually. But the rockfish got into uneven supply so we switched it. It's one of those things where you say, well, the labor costs and food costs are high but it sells really well, we'll keep it around. When it was rockfish it was top three seller. So it's not touchable as long as it's that good. But then when it went to other fish, we realized that it wasn't the prep that was selling it, it was the fish itself.

And you added a chef's table, right?
We did. In an itty bitty restaurant, every square inch is valuable and we had this huge space. I went to Molly who made the tables and I said, "Can you make me a long, skinny table?" So she built the table and it arrived five or six weeks after we opened. Danny and I were working 100 hour weeks. It was just crazy. We were busy from the get-go. It's fun, but it's taxing. So I'd forgotten about the table.

So about 6 o'clock on a Thursday night they come walking in with this table and it's beautiful. it's exactly what I wanted. Manager says, "Can I seat it?" She's already on a two-hour wait. I said sure. Danny looks at me and he says, "Hey chef, who's going to wait on them?" So I'm laughing at him and I said "I guess it's you and me." So we waited on the first one. We got a lot of help from the waitstaff. Now it's actually assigned to a waiter.

It's the only table you can reserve. And the people who come, they tend to be kind of fun people to begin with because they're adventurous. So the cooks get a lot out of interacting with them. And they get to see the ordering system and hear all the fracas that goes back and forth in the back of the house between the chef and the cooks. We use it probably six times a week. Oddly enough sometimes we seat it two or three times in a day and sometimes we won't seat it at all. We did have one table walk back there, look at it, look around and say no way.

Was Black Jack always part of the concept, too?
Well, about nine years ago, I saw an advertisement for Black Jack chewing gum and thought that's a great name for a bar. I always wanted to do a bar. And I don't like big restaurants. So I wanted it to be two concepts. And I wanted two different menus that had a very different feel.

So I started talking to the designer and the architect. I had seen a picture in New York Magazine [of] a folk music venue and it had these big red felt drapes in the back. I said I want to emulate that. I think it creates a certain theater and theater is what bar has become now. So I said let's build this on the back bar and build this big grand station for the mixologists, put some lights on them and just really decorate the heck out of the bar. And we're going to go in these deep rich colors, almost a little risque. And then from that everything started to flow out. It's meant to have this sort of opulent but divey sort of neighborhood bar feel. I think we did a pretty good job achieving it.

But we're remodeling the seating in the bocce court. It looks great, but it's not very comfortable because the contractor put the seats too close together. So we're going to try and open that up and make it more friendly for mingling. We haven't quite decided how we're going to handle it. We might put a one-man bar back there. We might modify the seats. I like having some seats to watch the bocce, it's kind of a neat effect. I want to try and make the bocce court its own little entity and let Black Jack be Black Jack. Nothing is decided, but we'll probably do something in January or February.

Both Pearl Dive and Black Jack have been so well received and you won big at the Rammys across the board with your group. How has that been for you this year?
It's been great. We got nominated for five and we won three. It felt awesome. It was very gratifying because it's your peers. The people who sit on the board are mostly restaurateurs, so it felt good. It's been an interesting run. The odd thing is I haven't changed my cooking. The cooking at Pearl Dive is the cooking I was doing at Addie's when we first opened, but it's been kind of discovered by so many other people. It's gratifying. I'm not really a trend cooking kind of guy. I don't like foams. I like good straightforward stuff. It's just nice to see that kind of cooking's getting some recognition.

So does it feel like it's been a year?
It really doesn't. Actually, it's a year of business, but the restaurant itself took almost two years from start to finish, from acquiring the property to building it. So the process is actually we're going on three years of involvement in this deal. But it's been worth every minute of it because I've had so much fun with it. And it's a great neighborhood. I love being down there. I'd love to do something else in that neighborhood.

What would the next thing be?
I've got a bunch of concepts I'd like to do. I've always wanted to do a Mexican/Tex-Mex concept, although there's a rack of those coming to town so I'm probably going to look like a johnny-come-lately so I may not do that. My first job was in an Italian restaurant. I worked there for four years passing the tomato sauce and helping make the doughs. I'd love to do not what Italians call Italian food, but what Americans call Italian food with the checkered cloth tables and the candles and the hanging wine bottles and just something really fun. But the food still has to be authentic.

I've talked to some chefs about partnering on some different things. Doing a play on barbecue, doing a play on pizza. Before BlackSalt I was going to do Latin. I started researching it, I started doing some traveling and I said you can't do a Latin restaurant. Doing a Latin restaurant's like saying I'm going to do a food restaurant because the difference between Peruvian, Colombian, Argentine, Chile... each one of these regions could be its own restaurant.

So if I did a Latin concept it would probably be Mexican based. Most of the Mexican restaurants in the United States are Tex-Mex. They say that they're Mexican. But in Mexico when they fry a tortilla chip it's not for scooping salsa. They put it in the bottom of a soup or they put it at the bottom of a casserole. They don't eat chips like we eat chips. It's been so Americanized that a lot of American chefs can't see how much American influence they're putting on what they're calling Mexican food.

The other thing I thought maybe I'd just go hardcore Tex-Mex and make it really kitschy and fun but spicy and just do an Austin-style Tex-Mex restaurant. I think that'd be a big hit. Not a knockoff like Austin Grill, but true Austin Tex-Mex. I think it'd be a good time. And I think Logan would support something like that. Who knows what it's going to be? There's no telling. I've got my plate pretty full for the next 18 months. Once I start to slow down, I'll probably be dead.

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Black Jack

1612 14th Street Northwest, , DC 20009 (202) 319-1612 Visit Website

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

1612 14th Street Northwest, , DC 20009 (202) 319-1612 Visit Website

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