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Bertrand Chemel on 2941's First Year Going Casual

Missy Frederick is the Cities Director for Eater.

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. This time, Eater's trying something a little different, checking in with 2941 Restaurant one year after the destination made the switch from fine dining establishment to upscale casual restaurant.

Bertrand Chemel [Photos: Gerry Suchy/]

An expensive, destination, tasting menu-centric restaurant in the suburbs that's hard to find can be a hard sell for the average guest. Throw in the declining economy and the traffic woes that come with Tysons Corner construction, and Falls Church's 2941 Restaurant found itself in an even tougher position. "We were dying slowly," said chef Bertrand Chemel, who has been with the restaurant for five years now. "It's hard to be happy and enjoy things when you have 20 guests eating in a 140 seat restaurant."

So, inspired by the MIchelin rated chefs in Europe that Chemel saw opening bistros in Europe, he decided to remake 2941 into an upscale casual destination. The restaurant was renovated with a new look, separate bar area and a more approachable and affordable menu. But what did 2941's regulars think of the change? Chemel walks through 2941's transition year, with its highlights and challenges, for this special edition of One Year In.

So what instigated the change, initially?
The economy changed on us. People were watching how much money they spend. They don't come in and order $3,000 worth of wine with a Cobb salad anymore. But they still want to go out, and they still want to enjoy themselves.
For us — we always call the place the Taj Mahal. We have a big restaurant and we can't shrink it. So given the space, I had to figure out how can we offer the old 2941, with the lake, the views, and still find a way to change it a little bit, lower the check average.

What were your biggest priorities for the renovations?
For me, the biggest thing five years ago when i came here, was that I wanted to separate the restaurant from the bar. The bar, as it was before, you really felt uncomfortable. Each time I sat at the bar, I felt shy, like I didn't want to be there, with everyone looking at you. And if you're one of the first tables to sit down for dinner at the restaurant and you're there for a date or an anniversary, and there's a big crowd at the bar, that's uncomfortable, too. So by adding the window —that changed everything.
When people first came in last January to check it out, the first critique was that they couldn't see the restaurant from the bar. They also criticized the T.V. But they didn't realize the change provides other options. We're not a 40 seat restaurant, so if you work upstairs, now you can come to the bar after business hours and have a drink and a snack. Some people have a beer and wait out traffic. Now customers are starting to come back and realize that. A single person can come to the bar, eat and watch the news or their sport and not feel uncomfortable sitting down in the restaurant.

What kind of business impact has that translated to for the bar?
The bar has been a real success. Before we didn't have a beer tap — now we have a selection of seasonal beers. Before the bar business barely amounted to anything. I don't like to talk money, but before, we might make $300 a day in bar business. You could barely justify a bartender coming into work. Now it might be a $2000 a day.
It's a nice increase, and we're enjoying it.
The bar really helped out our Saturday night and weekend business. Before it was hard to convince someone to stay and wait for a table. But now if we're running behind, we can offer a cocktail and have them sit by the bar. They may order a few bites. And some people even stay there, as you can get the full menu or the tasting menu there, because that's where they feel comfortable.

What was business like before the change?
Before the economy went down, 50 percent of our sales were from the Tasting Menu. We were a celebration place. As things started to slow down, we tried so many different things. We added a three course menu for $70. When people complained there weren't enough choices for the a la carte menu, we added more to a la carte. For lunch, even before we made the change, people were already leaning away from the gastronomique experience. All business people wanted was a steak salad, and no one wants to be there for three hours.
Now at dinner there are no restrictions. You can have a nosh which is bigger than a canape, or a salad, or multiple courses. The change is that before — I don't want to say it was stuffy, but there were more obligations, more rules. Now there are no more rules.

Did you feel that you had to make the change?
For me it's about numbers. I'm running a business. The owner of the building may have billions of dollars but we don't have his billions...We're known as difficult to find. I call it, "in the middle of the woods." Though really we're close to D.C. with 66, 495 and Route 50 all nearby. But because of the construction out at Tysons Corner, we lost a ton of business. Unless people wanted to spend an hour and a half sitting in the traffic, they weren't coming. This past month, we're starting to see some of those people come back.
You can't please everyone. For many years people came for the koi, the lake and the jellyfish. So we didn't want to take out all of those. The jellyfish and tablecloths were gone, but we were able to showcase the work of an up and coming artist.

How did people respond to the menu?
When I described the cuisine as Mediterranean, people thought we were doing all Middle Eastern food. We're not Lebanese Taverna; that's not what I meant. I meant Southern Italy, Southern France, Northern Portugal, Southern Spain. Dishes like a paella soup, where the flavors are there but you don't expect to get a big bowl of rice.
We've never done just French food, though I'm French. There's always been an Asian influence. One of my chefs is Hawaiian Japanese, so we've always incorporated Asian flavors. We might do a fish dish with a curry sauce.
In January, when we reopened, it it was really hard. We didn't know what the reaction was going to be. People don't just walk in — they plan to drive to 2941. So during those first few months, people that previously came by three or four times a month might come by once a month.
We also had wanted to showcase a big difference in the menu and the prices, so I made dishes that were really simple. I think I made the mistake that they were too simple. For me, the tastes and flavors were there, but they were missing the excitement.
So in late spring, early summer, I refined the dishes. And when I did that, people started coming back for more.
Getting rid of the bakery, that was one of the hardest things to cut. But we were making the most expensive bread out there. The bread we serve now is served in other three or four star places. But I think we lost a whole star from critics because we no longer bake our bread.

How did the beverage program change?
We made a big effort with the wine list. Before there weren't even 10 bottles that were under 100 and the glasses were between $15 and the higher $20s. One thing I like about [sommelier Jonathan Schuyler] is that he really takes a hard look at small producers that aren't as expensive, but put out wines that are very creative. You're promoting them so you're not taking advantage of a guest by saying, "Here's a wine you'll really like for $22 a glas," but rather, "Here's something you haven't seen before that's $8."
Cocktails were also $15 to $18, and they were really hard for us to sell. I wanted to make more profits. I'd rather sell 100 cocktails for less money than two cocktails in a night. And that made the guests happy. I know that if I go out, I'd rather have three or four cocktails than be limited to one because I can't afford any more.

How have you worked to satisfy those who preferred the old 2941?
After a few months, we brought back the tasting menu as an option. In September, we started inviting in wine producers to do more wine dinners. I based one around a French cassoulet. We'll offer maybe three to six courses with wine pairings. Those have sold out. Now, if I get a rare product such as this farm-raised blue sashimi grade tuna I got recently, we can make that into specials.

Do you think the average D.C. resident is aware of the change, or do people still think of 2941 as high-end?
I live in a building with about 300 people and I'll mention the restaurant there, and people will say "Oh, that's a beautiful restaurant I hear good things. Are you the new chef?" And I've been here five years. People still think we're really high end.
But you also can't please everyone. I got a complaint recently from a person who spent $80 on dinner for two and they felt it was too much. I think you can go to a lot of places that are a lot more casual than this and still spend that. Our check average is $55, and it used to be $110. With wine it's about $68. I think that shows that people really do want to spend less and go out more often.

Did you expect more restaurants in D.C. to take a similar route, given the economy? I know some have.
I would say in D.C. it's a little harder when you're established with a reputation to change things. People like Robuchon, they waited unit they were ready to retire and had worked 30 years to open a bistro. There are places like the Inn at Little Washington — they're an icon, and they couldn't do it.

Did your wedding business remain strong after the change?
Yes. For the first three to four months, we were scared we were going to lose half our business. It's the same view, the same lake, but brides have very high expectations. So I decided to invite all the brides who had weddings in the first few months in for a tasting. And 99 percent signed up again. One person I think didn't like the blue wall. But I remember one bride was in tears before. We told her we'd refund her 100 percent and find her somewhere else that was free on her date if she didn't like it. I really care about our guests, whether they're brides or in the dining room.

What can we expect for 2941 in 2013?
This year going to do more wine dinners and classes. I'm going to put us on a schedule for the classes through June - right now it's a bit more spontaneous. And I'm researching what to plant in our gardens. We have three or four months where we grow fresh herbs to use in all our cocktails and our salads. And I plan to do more with cheese. Before, 15 years ago, Americans were scared of blue cheese. Now there are all these great producers...I think in five years it will be really hard to justify importing cheeses from places like France and Italy because of the quality here.

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2941 Restaurant

2941 Fairview Park Drive, , VA 22042 (703) 270-1500 Visit Website