From the zinc bar top to the mosaic tiled floor, Le Diplomate is going for a distinct look and feel that can be captured in two words: idealized brasserie.
General Manager William Washington explains that this means taking the best elements out of French bistros from the 1950s up until today and combining them under one stylized roof. And no self-respecting idealized brasserie would be complete without serving dover sole, Washington says. That's why, even though the costs are "staggering," it's a must-have menu item for Le Diplomate.
"We're almost paying people to eat the dish, it's so horrifyingly expensive," Washington says. "But what it does is build the whole experience. It's a treat. Customers remember dover sole."
The hard-to-get dover sole falls into a category known in the restaurant industry as a loss leader. Not only is the dish not a moneymaker; it can even be a money loser. Yet the prized item is kept around for some higher purpose — like appeasing regular diners.
In the case of Le Diplomate, that higher purpose is transporting diners to another world and then convincing them to continually return, as Washington tells it.
"Maybe other fish would fit the bill," the general manager says, "but in terms of being recognizable to guests instantly, being unique and being authentic to the atmosphere, (dover sole) really hits that for us."
The dover sole is flown in fresh from the North Sea each week. It's prepared in the style of meuniere, or sauteed in brown butter, and then sold for $48, making it the highest ticket item that Le Diplomate sells. Thursday is the only day of the week when the sole is available, since that's when it arrives from overseas. Making it a regular menu item is simply not sustainable. For the other special entrees offered just once a week (for example, Wednesday's pork milanese) Le Diplomate sells anywhere between 60 and 100 portions at a time. For dover sole it's between 35 and 50 portions, and it always sells out.
"I think the fastest was once when we were out by 6:30," he says. Other days, it's more like 9 p.m. because Washington has taken to putting a handful of dover soles away and saving them for customers who come in for a special occasion like a major anniversary. In that case they'll, in a manner of speaking, sing for their sole, making their case to a manager that they merit one of the treasured fish plates.
Further down 14th Street, the most popular dish at dessert and cocktail bar Red Light is by no means its most profitable. The chocolate crunch cake breaks even or, at times, sacrifices dollars, even at its $11 price tag.
Red Light owner Aaron Gordon says the high expense of the cake comes from the decadent, high-quality ingredients that it requires, including gourmet Valhrona chocolate. The dessert also is labor-intensive to create.
"We make the cake and ice cream fresh daily and brulee the bananas to order. Also, we top the cake with feuilletine, which is a Belgian wheat flake, which is also expensive, but necessary because it gives the cake topping its distinctive crunch," Gordon says.
In spite of its lack of financial desirability, there are no plans to scrap the cake any time soon. Again, Gordon cites how much it means to customers.
The same mentality is in play at Menu MBK in Penn Quarter. There, the restaurant's undisputed loss leader is the porterhouse, which is aged for 45 days, grilled and served with watercress. The price tag is $54.
Unlike Le Diplomate, at Menu MBK the ample entree is available at all times lunch and dinner, so the kitchen sells the high-end steak constantly, even during the summer months. Many diners opt to make it a meal for two given the high price point and ample helping.
Chef and owner Frederik de Pue says, for the rest of his food offerings, he tries to keep food costs at or below 25 percent in order to remain profitable, especially as a newer business. For the porterhouse, though, his food costs balloon between 45 and 60 percent, given the cut of meat involved.
The key to not letting one item — even a high-quality, talked-about one like a porterhouse — sink a restaurant's earnings is to examine the menu as a whole and balance it out with dishes that do make money while also satisfying diners culinarily. In that way, the process of keeping and replacing individual items is a puzzle in constant need of reassessment.
At this point in his restaurant's tenure, enough customers come in asking for the porterhouse to justify the high expense, de Pue says. Even during Restaurant Week de Pue says he had regulars stop in specifically asking to order porterhouses even though the steak wasn't on the Restaurant Week menu. He was able to accommodate them and let them order as they pleased.
"It's fun to have people get used to certain dishes and really expect to see them," he says. "The porterhouse has definitely been like that."
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Dover Sole at Le Diplomate [Photo: Official]