Mike Isabella is in full expansion mode. His Greek restaurant Kapnos and sandwich shop G haven't even been open a year, and he has already rolled out another G at Nats Park and is working on Kapnos Taverna in Ballston and a Graffiato in Richmond. But it's not hard to see why. Isabella's fans include First Lady Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor both of whom have dined at Kapnos.
Other restaurateurs may balk at opening two different restaurants within weeks of each other, but Isabella relishes the challenge. Even with his packed summer, the former Top Chef contestant sat down to catch us up his multi-concept restaurant and what's in store for the second year.
How long did it take to develop the concepts behind G and Kapnos?
MI: Well, Kapnos was the first concept we created and G was put together after we found a location and a space. And we really wanted to figure out what we would do with all the extra animal meat from Kapnos, so that's how that happened. And I always wanted to do a Greek restaurant. And we were able to open up about two years after Graffiato opened up.
And why did you decide to open up a restaurant on 14th Street?
MI: I knew this area was coming up when I was interested in living here. That's how the whole ordeal started. But when I was looking, there was like one-third of the restaurants that are here now. I liked the location and this whole 14th Street location was really growing.
Were you concerned about opening up a restaurant north of U Street when all the action of 14th Street is south of U?
MI: I wasn't hesitant at all. We put out a great product. We have great food and service. We have a unique concept. And there's a great neighborhood around the area. Are we a little high up? Yes, we are, but I felt Columbia Heights is really growing and everything would come together into one huge neighborhood. Sort of what's happening now.
Kapnos hasn't been open for a year, and you're already planning to open up Kapnos Taverna in Ballston. Will it be a replica of Kapnos on 14th Street?
MI: Kapnos Taverna is a different concept. Kapnos is a little more upscale, more northern Greek with whole animals. Taverna is more southern Greek, more Aegean style. We'll have a raw bar. It'll be a bit more classic and a bit more casual.
Why did you decide to open up a Kapnos in Ballston?
MI: Clarendon is so packed with a ton of chains and a few restaurants. It's really crowded over there and the prices are a bit high. And Ballston is in the middle of the mix. A lot of those people don't want to come into the city to eat. So how often are the people in Arlington coming to Kapnos to eat? Once or twice a year? Now being in Arlington, we can get those diners weekly or biweekly.
How has G been with drawing the daytime crowds in the neighborhood, especially since there are many of people in the area who work from home?
MI: Originally, we were thinking let's take some leftover meat and make some sandwiches. But with all the great write-ups and press and the great sandwiches, we had people who kept coming back. So we have a great following and great product and something different from what everyone else offers. That's how we can draw people at both of our locations.
With G, you bring in chefs to make special sandwiches. Was that part of the original concept or something that just kind of happened?
MI: It developed as we were opening. At G, we didn't have it originally. But we were thinking it would be cool because all chefs, we love sandwiches. And making a good sandwich is an art. Sometimes people do the classic things without the right textures and flavors. But we put a lot of effort into it, so I thought it would be cool to have a guest chef every month to talk about and brag about. It's been really fun with these guest sandwiches. It's been like a challenge with who's number one, how many are we selling. It's been a great success, and we'll continue to do guest sandwiches.
So you've opened up restaurants in Chinatown, 14th Street and Nats Stadium. Now you're opening Kapnos Taverna in Ballston and Graffiato in Richmond. Do you think G and/or Kapnos would work in Richmond?
MI: I really want to see how the market goes. I'm really hoping Graffiato is an explosion. But our options are always open. We figured the capitol of Virginia was a great place to start. It's a city with great architecture and a lot of great chefs. There's a lot of room out there to put up other concepts. Will we? Maybe.
Kapnos is in a pretty big space. Do you think this size of the space fits the concept?
MI: I think the size fits the concept. I think if we had included G with Kapnos, the space would have been too big. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, it's very neighborhood-y. That's a big part of the clientele. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sunday brunches, those are monster days. We get people from Virginia, Maryland, and all over the city who want to go out. The numbers that we do are above what we had planned on so we're in a great situation.
If you could change one thing about Kapnos and one thing about G, what would it be?
MI: There's really not much I would change. I'm really happy with both concepts. But I guess that one thing would be that G is a sandwich shop but at night's it's a tasting menu. And we get so much hype for the sandwich shop, that people didn't realize it's a double concept. People thought the double concept was the sandwich shop and Greek restaurant but it's really a triple concept with the tasting menu. It's four courses for $40 on Wednesdays through Saturdays.
And then you change it up for Sundays?
MI: On Sundays, we do Sunday Gravy, which is kind of how I grew up eating. We have meatballs, sausage, red pasta, white pasta, garlic bread, calamari, mozzarella. So it's very classic. Very big portions. Lots of food. You're always going home with a takeaway bag.
For the one year anniversary of Kapnos on July 5th, are you doing anything special?
MI: There's going to be a complimentary glass of sparking wine for those who come to dinner that night. So that's a lot of champagne going out that night.
Any big plans for the next year at G or Kapnos?
MI: We just want to keep focusing on putting up good food and good service. And change the menus with the seasons to keep it fun and new but still keep it classic.
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