Mother’s Day last year brought more than just flowers, gifts and family celebrations to Chevy Chase. Its newest restaurant, Macon Bistro & Larder opened, combining two unexpected culinary forces— Southern staples and French bistro offerings. The restaurant’s first official service was the day before Mother’s Day, which meant solid bookings off the bat. And in the 12 months since, its popularity hasn’t dissipated at all.
February brought a new executive chef, Dan Singhofen, formerly of Eola Restaurant in Dupont Circle. He has taken chances with the menu since his arrival and has built on the original concept. Owner Tony Brown's idea was to represent two cultures and give guests two options— dining in or taking food items to go via the larder. Brown, Singhofen and two other Macon Bistro managers— general manager and sommelier Gene Alexeyev and assistant general manager and beer director Andra (AJ) Johnson— spoke to Eater D.C. about playful vegetarian dishes, managing three different beverage programs and being the first "adult restaurant" in the neighborhood.
You’ve just hit the one-year mark, but this has been in the making for closer to 10 years, right?
BROWN: From my standpoint, yes. I’ve wanted to get back into the business for a long time and was waiting for lightning to strike. And it finally did. It was really driven by the space which opened up and the concept started to fall into place after that.
So explain more about the concept. For those who have never been to Macon, Georgia, why was that city part of the inspiration?
BROWN: Initially the drive was really to do a neighborhood place and that was the focus. The bistro concept came very quickly from that. And then we knew we wanted to do something classic. Macon was part of it just because it was my hometown. From that came the sister city of Mâcon, France. But it really was driven by the idea of a friendly place where we could meet the neighborhood, and it’s a really broad palate that we can do a lot with.
Being in this area, who are the guests that you see?
ALEXEYEV: From the very beginning— and this has been a very lucky opening in this respect — the neighborhood’s been extraordinarily supportive. We didn’t have to put up with people putting their faces against the window as they waited for us to open. I’ve never opened a restaurant where from the very first day we were welcomed. Generally when you open a restaurant, people know that you open, they give you six months to get your stuff together and then they come in. But from the very first moment we opened the doors we were packed. We didn’t really understand it at first. And then during the first week I went around and talked to a table that was probably twice my age. They looked at me funny and said, "We’ve lived in this neighborhood for 35 years and we’re just happy to have our first adult restaurant."
What has been the most difficult aspect of opening the restaurant so far?
ALEXEYEV: Honestly, from my perspective, as someone who manages the reservation book, it’s turning people away, especially once we hit the wintertime and it becomes a 48-seater. When we have the patio and the arcade, it’s beautiful because it really opens up the space. But (when you don’t) it’s managing the frustration of people that want to dine and also have dined with you before and not being in the position to offer them a seat. It’s (telling them),"We appreciate you coming in again but unfortunately for Fridays and Saturdays we book three weeks in advance, but please try us on a weekday."
Talk to me about the food. What have emerged as especially popular dishes and items for guests to order?
SINGHOFEN: Steaks and fries always sell, but the response to some of our more challenging dishes has been great. And the first challenging dish was veal and octopus. We got a really good response to that. Of course, not everyone loves it, but to me it was a win because so many of our clients did embrace it. And now we have a savory nettle panna cotta that we’re getting great feedback on. So, it’s about us having the ability to play and have our guests enjoy us play, yet knowing they can get tried and true dishes. There’s a wonderful chicken dish and a wonderful steak dish and there will always be a great fish dish. But if they want to play, we’re gonna do that for them.
ALEXEYEV: The perfect example of that for me from Dan’s menu is his vegetarian dish, which is mock scallops. The very first day we put it on the menu— and we’re not in the business of converting people to vegetarianism— it was the No. 1 seller, partially because people were curious. It also read well on the menu and looked beautiful on the plate. People said, "I don’t want to eat this because it will destroy what’s on the plate," which is amazing.
SINGHOFEN: It’s fun because it’s interactive too. The guests will say, "What do you mean ‘mock scallops?’" "Well the turnips are actually making fun of scallops; they’re mocking them." They look exactly like scallops on the plate. It’s like, well if we’re going to have vegetarians let’s make them think they’re eating something meat-based. It’s labor-intensive but it sells, in my restaurant experience, better than any vegetarian dish I’ve ever put out there. That’s indicative of the clientele.
What do the rest of you think Dan has brought to the table as chef in the past few months? And what are the challenges of changing chefs so early on in a restaurant's tenure?
BROWN: I think Dan has brought a level of focus and quality and genuineness that the staff has really risen to. And Gene and AJ starting from the front of the house have built an incredible team. And now Dan and the folks that he’s brought in— our chef de cuisine Jenna (Pool) and now our pastry chef Jameela (Hassan)— the whole team has bumped up a notch. And from that standpoint it’s been impressive and a fun process to see everybody step up their game and come together into a team.
JOHNSON: In a word, I’d say it’s excitement that he’s brought in. Back there (in the kitchen) there are guys really learning how to express themselves with the dishes. We have our nice, tight core of our front-of-the-house team. They’re at 100 percent attentiveness and we’re pulling out dishes that I haven’t seen in this neighborhood. We have head cheese on the menu. As soon as that happened, it was everything. We’ve got johnny cakes, which is a top seller. The dishes give the servers fodder at the table to talk about with the guests. I’ve worked with Dan before.
SINGHOFEN: That’s our big cheat -- Jenna was my sous chef and Jameela and AJ worked with me (at Eola) and Gene would come in on his days off. That made it really easy to come together as a cohesive unit. We did have some history there. It’s just nice that the staff functions the same way our clientele does. We’re all friends and care about each other and want to see everyone thrive.
We’ve talked about the bistro side, but what’s been the response to the larder side?
BROWN: The larder is an area that still has ample room for us to grow. We’re interested in engaging the neighborhood in a way that we haven’t to this point. The larder is a place that we want to highlight elements from the restaurant but in a way that people can take them home and enjoy them. We’ve had a great success doing sweet and savory snacks and now Dan and Jameela are working on growing that.
SINGHOFEN: I love the concept of the larder and I want to see it be extremely successful. We’re trying to come up with a version of a rabbit pot pie. We want to offer duck confit and things that we’re curing and doing in house so people can take it home and do their own spin with it. Jameela is working hard to produce mini pies and cakes that people can take home. It goes back to that sense of community. That larder is there for our guests and friends to come in and, if they’re having a rough day, it makes dinner easy.
ALEXEYEV: We’re also on the verge of opening for lunch which will be be a big component of the larder as well -- sandwiches that are ready to go and light-hearted versions of what Dan does. That’s a wonderful option that’s coming.
What else is coming up in year two?
JOHNSON: Going into the next year and really for the past couple of months we’ve been elevating everything we do (with the beverage programs). If we’re doing cocktails, we’re changing them often because we’re using fresh ingredients and getting with Dan and Jenna so we’re using products that are in season. We’re doing a ramp cocktail. We’ve got some apricot cocktails. The wine list is also going to be changing, bringing in summery, light wines and fleshing out the list to give people something to be excited about. With beer, when I first came in, we had eight beers. Now we’re up to 24. We still have the four taps, so they switch out always, always. I don’t know of a program that is doing what we’re doing in terms of doing all three beverage programs (wine, beer, cocktails) just as good as the other. I think the fact that there are three people focused on each category helps. We want to give people options so they know that they’re getting the best of the best of what’s out there. This is definitely a drinking crowd. Chevy Chase Lounge has been the drinking sanctuary for a long time, and I think we have something different to offer.
SINGHOFEN: It’s not every restaurant that you can say that the beverage and the food programs are operating in sync, but it’s true. And it’s absolutely incredible.