For almost as long as he's known him, chef Danny Wells has tried to coax Jeff Black, who's behind Black Restaurant Group, to bring a restaurant to his hometown of Takoma Park. That finally happened a year ago with the opening of Republic. Wells' mom actually named the restaurant, and it's since become the epitome of what Wells and Black call "Takoma style" in its eclectic decor and culinary offerings. The two sat down with Eater and chatted about everything from Marion Barry's remarkable blues voice to their Fascist Killer cocktail. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Your website refers to Republic as a casual, yet refined neighborhood bistro. How do you like to explain the concept and what sets Republic apart?
DW: I think neighborhood is the most important thing. It's bistro in style of menu maybe and style of service. Casual but not too casual. We want it to be a small step above the mom and pop cafes that have been in Takoma Park for a long time, to offer something different to the community here. I think, first and foremost we are the restaurant of Takoma Park. I've known for a long time that the people of Takoma Park have been wanting a restaurant. We also like to include bar and music venue in our description now as well. We're a lot of things to a lot of different people, which is always challenging. But so far we think we're doing a pretty good job of it.
What's different about opening up a restaurant here in Takoma Park versus in the thick of the District or in Bethesda or Rockville? Were there special considerations to be able to vibe with the locals here?
DW: There are lots of things to consider. Opening something here in Takoma Park, in my mind, was a no-brainer. I've been trying to get Jeff to come out here for a long time, for almost as long as I've been working for him. And I think he always saw the potential and saw it was an underserved neighborhood for restaurants. But I think we were smart to take our time and wait for the right opportunity to come. This space was really ideal for what we wanted to be able to do here.
The biggest thing about Takoma Park is it's a really diverse community. Since we are trying to provide for the entire community and not be a niche for one demographic or another we have to be flexible and really listen to our guests and our clients and have them, without completely dictating, give their input on all the menus and the style of service. I think that's something the Black Restaurant Group does really well, adapt and listen to its customers. We're always trying to do everything we can to give people what they want. We found that's the best way to develop the loyal customer base -- to not be too stiff or rigid or stubborn in our ways.
JB: I'd even back up to the construction. And I get this question to this day: Wasn't Takoma Park terrible to deal with? And I say no. Takoma Park was great to deal with. They were absolutely aces all the way around. The problems we had were with the county and utilities but not with Takoma Park. Everybody has this stigma that Takoma Park's a bad place to do business. It's not...I would do business here over Silver Spring in a heartbeat. And the residents are great.
We rolled out the name and I thought there would be pushback. But no. One person said something derogatory and the barrage of people jumped on that person and said. "You need to get off your high horse." It's just fun. It's not serious. It's a tongue-in-cheek name.
Being in Takoma Park, then, who's emerged as your customer base and your regulars?
DW: I think it's 50 percent Takoma Park residents and then mostly in the surrounding neighborhoods. We know we get a lot of people from parts of NW and NE D.C. and people that are coming from upper Montgomery and PG county and making their way into the city; this is a nice midway point. For a lot of people we've become a good alternative to going fully into the city. It's been nice.
JB: We have people come from up-county, a lot of people from D.C. We have a lot from the Logan neighborhood, where I now live. It's not that far. Takoma Park is remarkably close to everything. Unfortunately, it is siphoning off some business from my Bethesda restaurant. People used to live here and go to Bethesda. I'm kind of siphoning business of my own restaurant but it's fine.
DW As Jeff said, the fact that we're getting people from neighborhoods nearby, it's been a really diverse clientele ever since we opened, which is something that makes me happy, especially being from here.
At this point, Jeff, you've opened tons of restaurants.
JB: (interrupts and laughs) Two-thousand restaurants.
Yes, 2000 restaurants. And Danny, you're an industry veteran too. No opening is perfect, though, is it? Things go wrong. What have been the hiccups at Republic?
JB: No, of course not. Everything's been perfect...Let's see. No gas, no electricity. We didn't have lights. What else didn't we have? Pretty much anything.
DW: You name it and there was a time during the first few months that we didn't have it.
JB: What's the most P.C. way to say this? Contractor challenges, engineer challenges. Utility challenges.
DW: Overall most things came out right and most of the challenges that we had to deal with, I don't think, the customers had to feel too much. It was stress and logistics on our end.
From these challenges, what did you learn?
DW: I learned a lot. I was part of the opening of BlackSalt and Black Market. I was a little more involved in the opening of Pearl Dive but this was, by far, the most involved I was with one of the openings. Luckily, Jeff let me learn a lot and do a lot and take the lead on a lot of things. It's really hard opening a restaurant. I'm a pretty realistic person and in my head I think I'd convinced myself, "This is going to be harder than you think." But it was 10 times harder than that, just figuring out the day-to-day and how the restaurant was going to flow. It takes time and you have to be patient and have confidence in the people that you're working with.
JB: Don't open another restaurant.
I mean it's always fun, it's always challenging. I personally thrive on it. The first time you see the house full of people and the buzz and the energy's there and the staff is all getting it and the cooks are all getting it right, it's very gratifying. Much more gratifying than some schmuck sitting on his sofa playing video games smoking dope, which, as Americans, we get programmed that when you have free time you're supposed to sit on your ass and do. That's supposed to be your restoring. It's not.
You get gratification from being challenged. And true enjoyment in life comes from being challenged, realizing that there's something you can't quite get to and getting beyond it. That's where happiness comes from. And that's the beauty of the restaurant business because it's always fucking hard but it's always gratifying. It's why we do it. It's a lifestyle. You choose to be in it. And if you choose to be in it, you better be good at it or you're gonna get killed. So you dive into it and it's great.
Talk to me about the menu. What are Danny's influences and what are yours, Jeff? There are staples from the Black Group thrown in. How does it all work together?
JB: Danny had free reign on the menu. What gave him free reign was he came to me early and said, "I'd like to have this and that." He's been with the company for a long time so his style is in the framework for Black Restaurant Group. People who have come through the ranks, I just turn ‘em loose because I know, from a technique and a culinary perspective, they're gonna do it through the lens of Black Restaurant Group. So Danny got to do whatever he wanted to do.
DW: What I really wanted to do was have some of my favorite dishes from some of the restaurants I've worked at. So we gave a shout-out to those restaurants.
JB: It's also nice, getting back to the whole community here, that you have people who can't trek all the way to BlackSalt or go to Pearl Dive, so it's nice to draw some of that influence out. And you keep the balance of all the stores getting to speak through the menu.
DW: One of the other challenges is we knew his neighborhood has long been very health conscious, vegetarian friendly by nature of the people who have lived here. We knew that would play a large part in the menu. What was interesting during those first few months was the amount of people that said we needed more vegetarian items. But also our best-selling menu items were the burger and the braised short rib. Those, we could not keep in house.
JB: It was straight-up shocking. Like every ticket. Oh my god. Oh my god. And the grill does both the short rib and the burger so every ticket was just killing the grill.
How have things shaken out? Is that still the case?
DW: Yeah. The fact that we don't advertise or pretend to be a vegetarian restaurant is huge but we have enough options that people know they can come here and — whether or not they're vegetarians — come and have a nice menu mix, get something a little lighter or something more soul-satisfying. Like the quinoa risotto, I know for a fact that lots of people come in to get that who are not vegetarians.
JB: A benchmark of [Black] restaurants has not been to come into a market and say this is the menu, period. We come into a market and we adapt. When Addie's first opened I had a very, very esoteric menu that no one bought so I changed it and I put on roast chicken and a ribeye. I simplified the menu. Then, once we were embraced by the community we brought out the bison and the ostrich. You have to get accepted by the community first. Then, once the community buys into what you're doing, you can tweak and bring in more exotic stuff. It's a faith thing. You get better, they get more comfortable, and you build. This restaurant is developing and it still will be developing years from now.
Besides the food, Republic has gotten attention for some of the more unique decor elements— not having a men's bathroom (one for women and one for anyone) and the reclaimed materials that cover the dining room. What were you going for?
JB: Well, I'm from Texas. I've spent a lot of time in Austin. I love Austin. My big thing is I wanted to have an Austin vibe. Austin's mantra is, "Keep Austin Weird," and I always wanted to keep Takoma Park weird. And I've spent time in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn also has that same urban, differen vibe, a little off-center. And I started trying to meld the two, and we realized you don't meld the two. They're very similar but very different place. So we said, "You know what? We'll just be Takoma style." That became the mantra. And we probably looked at -- I'm not kidding -- 200,000 different reclaimed items. We went everywhere, up and down the East Coast.
DB: That's not an exaggeration.
JB: We went to 7-story warehouses, row by row, line by line. We looked at so much stuff. It became numbing.
What are some of the highlights from what ended up here?
JB: Those glass panels— I had those made for Black's 15 years ago by a friend of mine. I had them made for my house five years before that, and she copied what I designed for the house and made bigger ones. They've been sitting in storage, and they just fit.
There's the sign out back (from the former video store). The last movie poster they had we framed -- it's Elvis Presley, and it's on the wall. It was like, "Do you like Elvis Presley? Not particularly," but it was just a reach back to the past.
DW: There were lots of things we tried to keep the same. The Video Americain neon sign. We knew we wanted a neon sign. Takoma Park has always had his art deco feel to it, and Barry, the owner of Video Americain, was nice enough and was thrilled to let us reclaim his sign. We kept the original awning from the video store and just extended it. We didn't want to change too much from the outside. Besides, growing up, going into people's houses in Takoma Park, they're eclectic. They have different things from different cultures, and it never looks like a store catalogue. There's a cheesy art sale culture here. People want to buy things from other people. We tried to keep that feel of walking into a Takoma Park house.
Jeff got it right away, and Molly [Allen from Atreus Works], after some time, got it. So many people we were working with didn't get it.
JB: They will go to their graves and never get it. But Molly did. She's a dear friend of mine and is very creative. She saw those lampshades. They were the nose off of a jet engine, and she was like "Aren't these cool?" I said "Molly, they look like a god damn lamp." She was like brilliant. I'll make lamps. To me, it's always important in a project to not have people who think in Xs and Os and you get that a lot in construction. I love having people around me that are creative and smart and fun.
DW: With the bathroom, it cracks me up that we still get comments.
Where did the bathroom idea come from?
JB: It came from Black Jack. The lines form up really long, and at Pearl Dive there's mens and womens rooms and the rotation's a bit different. My thought was men pee so much quicker. So I thought I'll give women the option of both, and men the option of one. In reality men can use either one. They're decorated sort of gender specific. There's pink in the women's and the mirror is supposed to look like a flower. And the men's room is just Johnny Cash. I always had a vision of a men's room that just played Johnny Cash all the time.
On the subject of music, live music has become a major deal at Republic. You hired a full-time music coordinator and have shows regularly.
DW: Yeah, Catherine [Rytkonen, the booking manager] was hired as a hostess and she had experience with music management. I think we progressed a lot faster than I was planning on. I really wanted to have an open mic night [which is on Sundays] and a blues night [on Monday nights]. And she kind of fell into our lap because she lives in Takoma Park and shares the vision.
JB: The goal was always to have some live music component...We were kind of getting it, fumbling through it and then Catherine walks through the door and she solidified it and it opened up. Now I'd say we're one of the best free live music venues on the East Coast. The calibre of bands that you see for free is staggering.
So what's been your favorite show so far?
DW: There's a band South Rail that plays here a lot. They're local. A band Love Inks from Austin's played here. I think that was one of the more fun shows. That was out on the patio.
JB: The chick from Brooklyn.
DW: Kalen & The Sky Thieves. She's played three times, and her band is amazing.
JB: She's hugely talented and happens to be attractive too.
DW: Warner Williams is another local blues legend. He's 80 something years old now. Marion Barry performed here twice on blues night. May he rest in peace. His whole entourage came here after his [funeral] service, sat right there in 51. He was really good, had that raspy blues voice.
JB: I was shocked.
I can't not ask about the drinks. You have crazy named ones like The Fascist Killer. Who's behind that?
DW: Brett [Robison, the bar manager] was working in Adams Morgan at Tryst on their beer program and just responded to a Craigslist ad. Admittedly, most of his knowledge is around beer. He's a certified cicerone. But he's a really good learner and has been teaching himself the cocktail game. I'm always amazed at how many cocktails we sell. I thought it would be beer and wine. We do sell a ton of beer but I think the cocktails are creative enough and good enough that it's caught on.
JB: When we first talked about it, we didn't want foams and 39 ingredients and all this crap and some guy telling you how great he is as a mixologist. It's about the drink, enjoying yourself and getting it in a timely fashion. Some of these places in D.C. make me sick. It's like 25 minutes to get a cocktail and some guy's juggling lemons and scraping a piece off to let essence into the air. Come on. Make me a good, solid cocktail.
(brings Brett over) BR: My philosophy is what they're saying. I think sometimes people get carried away and it becomes this pretentious thing. Going into it I understood there wasn't a mature cocktail scene around here so I wanted to remove some of the barriers. I just wanted it to be straightforward but also unique to Takoma Park. When I was in the process of getting the job I had to do a cocktail tasting in front of these guys and that's when I got on the computer. I actually live in Takoma now but then I tried to learn as much as I possibly could by doing research online, walking around Takoma. So everything's influenced me, especially with the specialty cocktails.
Is there a single bestseller?
BR: The number one seller is The Localist. The idea behind that is a play on nationalist and it's very much my style which is to make fun of everyone in the process. We're locally oriented and so are restaurants. [Looking at Jeff] You've been doing it forever but now it's a thing. So it's making fun of that hyperlocal mentality.
You had your one-year anniversary earlier this month. How did you celebrate? Did you bust out cocktails for yourselves or what?
DW: No, no. But we had two different celebrations. One was for our guests and we gave out cake. And then we had a very quaint evening with our staff. Low-key.