Welcome back 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.
Spike Mendelsohn [Photo: R. Lopez]
When is a full plate truly "full"? Just ask Bearnaise's Spike Mendelsohn. After nearly a year since the opening of Capitol Hill's eatery, the man and former Top Chef-er has not slowed down. Mendelsohn will expand beyond the Beltway when he opens another Good Stuff Eatery outlet in Philadelphia later this month. He just finished wrapping a new cooking competition show on the FYI Network (with Eater's own Kat Odell). And the man is also launching a new speakeasy called The Sheppard somewhere "very close to" Dupont Circle. He's keeping both projects pretty close to the vest for now.
Even with all this going on, Spike Mendelsohn took some time to grab a cup of coffee — not black — and talk about the evolution of Bearnaise from a steak frites-only enterprise to a French-influenced restaurant that's about to launch its own happy hour.
What was the vision behind Bearnaise?
The initial vision was a steak frites restaurant, which we opened up where we had a limited menu with three steaks. It was very much inspired by l'Entrecote [Saint-Jean], which I love eating at in Paris and Montreal (where I'm from), and that was kind of the vision.
Why did you think Capitol Hill needed a steak frites restaurant?
There's no real steak-y place on Capitol Hill. You know, Medium Rare just opened up so there's another option now. But I felt like there needed a different style of bistro. I also cooked French food all my life, and went to France and trained with some of the best chefs, and it was one of the cuisines I loved growing up. And then burgers and pizza took over my life, so I wanted to get back to French cooking.
And then you changed up the menu?
We had a weird opening. Lots of other restaurants were opening up around the same time. And then we hit the furlough [for many federal employees] right in the middle of the season. And being in Capitol Hill, that killed us. We just had a weird opening.
And during late July through August, the city empties out for a bit.
Exactly. The stars just didn't align as it did with Good Stuff Eatery and We, The Pizza. I felt like we were out pricing ourselves for the people in this neighborhood. And maybe hadn't really captured what we wanted to do. So we decided to expand the menu and get back to French cooking. And the irony is we opened up a place that just served steaks. So we got very bored very quickly. So we started adding and adding, and we're still adding to the menu.
And you have a happy hour coming soon? What are some things people can be expecting with that?
Yeah, we have a happy hour that we'll be launching as well. So we've been enjoying the evolution of Bearnaise. We're doing good. Tom Sietsema came in and gave us a two stars review and we're happy to be recognized with all the changes and transitions we made. So now we're just moving along. We have Brad [Race] in the kitchen. And we keep pushing the menu in a better direction. We just launched brunch, which is awesome. That's been a huge success.
You have the pigs' feet hash on the menu. How have people been receiving that?
We have the pigs' feet hash. It's gotta be one of the greatest hangover dishes I've ever been involved with. You have the egg, bacon, Bearnaise sauce, dry vermouth, the grain mustard, it's a good one. It's a really good one.
You met Brad Race at Le Cirque. How has your relationship with Brad developed since opening Bearnaise?
Brad and I were friends even before Bearnaise. We love working together. And we have a bunch of ideas, and it's still the beginning of our relationship. Brad actually used to help us out with the fast casual restaurants. And then he wanted to buckle down and cook some more. He's the guy at the helm and manning the restaurant everyday. He's the one opening and closing the restaurant. It's nice to work with a guy who understands that a modern chef these days requires being involved in many different facets of the business.
And what's going to be happening for the one year anniversary?
With all that's happening, I don't think we have anything planned. I think we're going to do something for Bastille Day [July 14].
And what's on the docket for Bearnaise's second year?
We have a lot of fast casual openings happening. And we don't want to spread ourselves too thin. I feel like we want Bearnaise to come into its own and become a neighborhood restaurant. And then, we'll see what happens. We're not sure if we want to open another one or have this be a one-off sort of thing. We haven't completed the concept 100 percent yet. There's still a lot of evolution to happen, especially when you switch concepts mid-year. We'll concentrate on Bearnaise to make it as successful as it can be.
Last but not least: Charlotte the Bulldog.
Are you happy?
I'm very happy Charlotte the Bulldog is back. And you know those French bulldogs, she's been running around the city causing havoc. That's what happens when you don't put her on a leash. But she's on a leash now, and she's behaving.
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