Philadelphia mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr, the man behind such concepts as El Vez, Alma de Cuba, and about two dozen others, is finally making his mark in D.C. with Le Diplomate, slated to open at the end of March at 1601 14th St. NW. The brasserie, which will share some similarities to Starr's Parc Restaurant in Philadelphia, will feature French-inspired dishes, housemade baguettes and brioche, an expansive outdoor patio, a bar and other furniture brought straight from France, a huge raw bar, breakfast service and an extensive coffee program overseen by Philadelphia's La Colombe. Starr sat down with Eater to share more details about his debut concept and his plans for more.
What was the thought process when it came to coming to DC? Had plans been in the works for a long time?
I've always wanted to open something here, ever since I opened my first restaurant, The Continental, in Philadelphia. I'd been going up here since I was young - I have a lot of relatives in the area. When I originally opened Continental, I wanted to open one in D.C. I looked around but I never found the right space. Then I got busier with my other restaurants, but I would periodically look around for the right space.
For me, it's really about the space. I was in Washington looking for a space to open a Buddakan, and I was driving by this building, which was boarded up. I told my real estate guy, "That's the builiding." I loved it. I loved that it was only one story. In D.C., everything's an office building. I saw it, and I was blown away. I knew it had to be something casual, somewhere you could go all the time, so I thought of doing a brasserie or bistro.
What was it about the space that screamed for that concept?
The outside setting is so beautiful.On the outside, we'll have an enclosed, landscaped terrace, where we can seat about 60, with another 30 seats in the front.
Was the building available for lease when you first saw it?
Actually it wasn't up for lease. We approached the landlord, who was hesitant to lease it. I don't know why; I think he wanted to hang onto it for awhile. But he came around.
How similar will Le Diplomate be to Parc?
They're spiritually similar. The point is to feel like you're somewhere else, that you're in Paris. The scale here is smaller, more intimate. The space doesn't feel huge. It will be very homey. The outside area is bigger, and the "garden," as we're calling the terrace, will be very unique to Washington. There will be shrubs all the way around it. We've gotten beautiful furniture, some of it right from Paris. The attention to detail is going to be startling here. Everything is very authentic, either literally from Paris or making sure that it feels that way.
What are some of the major design details? The color scheme, etc.
Golds and ambers, very warm. It will still feel like a neighborhood restaurant, something that won't feel out of place in 75 years.
How did you approach your search for a chef?
We put out a wide call. The chef we finally decided on, Adam [Schop], understood the vision, understood the food, and was wide open to ideas.
How involved are you in the menu design, and how much comes from the chef?
I'm very involved. I'm the broad strokes guy; I set the template. Adam, along with our culinary director, develop the menu together.
What are some of the menu decisions that have been made?
The menu isn't set in stone yet. But the raw bar will be a big component; it will be fantastic and bountiful, with oysters and other seafood. The bread will be baked here; the baguette is the best I've ever had. There will be dishes like steak frites, calf's liver, pork milanese, lamb's neck with gnocchi.
Do you tend to go with a proven concept first when you enter a new city?
Well, I'm not really in a lot of other [markets]. There's New York, Philadelphia, D.C. and Florida. In Florida, we opened two totally new concepts. So I don't go into a market with a concept in my pocket. This one just felt so right. There are other French restaurants in Washington, of course, but this will be something different.
Are you still actively planning to expand in Washington?
We've looked at several more locations. We're here now, and I feel that we've made a commitment to the market, assuming we do well with this place, which I believe we will.
Do you think any of your existing concepts would be a fit here?
I think I'd like to do something new. And I'd still like to not be in an office building.
Through your research, have you found any major contrasts between the DC and the Philadelphia customer?
The customer isn't that different here from Philadelphia or New York. It's a sophisticated, educated, and well-traveled population. Maybe a higher per capita income. But we know Washingtonians are yearning for great foods, and great concepts.
Where do you like to eat when you're here?
I like — my former chef, Mike Isabella, I like his place. Zaytinya is my favorite. I like Birch and Barley and across the street...what's the name of it. Pearl Dive.
Do you think we're going to see more crossover with Philadelphia and DC, with Philly chefs and restaurateurs opening here and vice versa?
You're already seeing it. It's like Canada and the U.S.
Any other details about the restaurant that you think are important to mention?
I guess the name of the restaurant. Obviously, there's the connection to Washington. But really, I was in France four years ago and ate at a place that had "Bistro Le Diplomate" written on the chairs. I loved that, and I saw the chairs and thought, "When I open in Washington, I'm going to call it this."