Welcome back to Front & Center, a series highlighting front of the house professionals in Washington, DC restaurants. Right now, Nycci Nellis of The List Are You on It and Foodie & The Beast Radio shares five of her favorite restaurant GMs:
Many want it. Many try to fake it. But only a select few are born with it: the hospitality chip. These are the naturals; people who shepherd every aspect of operations. For these passionate foodies, providing great food, drink, ambiance and service that leaves the patron with a lasting, good impression aren't line items in a job description — they are essential elements of career passion. They are the restaurant GMs who personify the creed of "service with a style."
While DC certainly boasts a superb crop of skilled restaurant GMs, five that immediately come to mind (mine, at least!) are Birch & Barley's Erik Bergman, Proof's Michael James, The Source's Rikka Johnson, Rasika Penn Quarter's Atul Narain and Bourbon Steak's Mark Politzer. All seem to have been birthed with (or suckled on) that elusive hospitality chip and lucky are we, the DC diners, who are the recipients of their knowledge, efficiency and get it done (and well!) mentality.
Erik Bergman: The general vibe at the beer-centric Birch & Barley is definitely laid back and relaxed. Waiters wax poetic about the 500+ beers available that pair perfectly with any one of chef Kyle Bailey's dishes. Laid back, relaxed but VERY patron responsive service doesn't just happen, and no one knows that better than eagle-eyed general manager Erik Bergman. The tone for a total team effort and overall commitment to the restaurant's mission is set by Erik and exuded by each of the restaurant's staff. That enthusiasm is a direct result of Erik's tenacity to enrich the staff with a keen knowledge of service.
[Photo: Birch & Barley]
Michael James: Proof is just a cool place. The embossed leather banquettes, the discreet lighting and that wine list — all those components — lend themselves to the overall, sophisticated feel of the Penn Quarter destination. "Cool" also aptly describes GM Michael James, a sharp dresser with a raspy-sexy voice who is absolutely low-key, but definitely on top of everything manager. The place runs like a well oiled clock, and Michael runs the always hopping Proof with seemingly effortless ease.
Rikka Johnson: (Full disclosure: I have a major girl-crush on this chick.) It doesn't matter if the Wolfs are at the door (that is, if Wolf Blitzer and Wolfgang Puck are both in The Source's dining room at the same time), because general manager Rikka Johnson is the placid, blonde calm at the center of the storm. As celebs, pols and DC-insiders hustle and bustle in and around the upstairs/downstairs dining room and lounge (and eat! Chef Scott Drewno's creations), Rikka runs the show with easy elegance and utterly cool sophistication that ensures everything will run smoothly under her watchful eye.
[Photo: R. Lopez]
Atul Narain: Turning people away is never easy to do, but when you're at Rasika Penn Quarter, one of DC's busiest restaurants, it becomes a part of your daily routine. Atul Narain shoulders the tremendous task of accommodating all those who do — and wish to — dine at the usually "fully committed" restaurant with the aplomb of a diplomat and the firmness of a traffic cop. Whether settling people at the bar with cocktails or ushering others to their table for dinner, it's Atul's gentle mannerisms and generous spirit (along with a yummy plate of Palat Chaat) that keeps everyone well-fed and coming back for more.
[Photo: R. Lopez]
Mark Politzer: As Bourbon Steak's master choreographer of service, dapper GM Mark Politzer leads his staff by example. Stroll into the lounge of Bourbon Steak restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel and you'll see a Who's Who of DC (and LA and NY and ...) sipping cocktails or swirling snifters of cognac. Step into the dining room and you'll witness what looks like a perfectly choreographed ballet of serving and bussing staff waltzing inconspicuously in and around of tables of diners who hardly notice the incredible amounts of attention they receive. I truly enjoy watching Mark at work and working the room.
[Photo: R. Lopez]
So .. if you haven't had the pleasure of watching these folks work – or of enjoying the truly wonderful dishes that each of their respective restaurants serves – I suggest you give one, some or all a visit. I can't imagine that you'll be anything but impressed.
—Nycci Nellis, Publisher of TheListAreYouOnIt.com (New Site Coming in September) & Co-Host of Foodie & The Beast Radio (Sundays @ 11AM on 1500AM)
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