Tico’s immense windows face the corner where the bustling thoroughfares of U Street and 14th Street converge. The restaurant opened just one year ago as the first D.C. venture by chef and restaurateur Michael Schlow, who previously launched six restaurants in New England (including the original Tico in Boston), and then one in Los Angeles. "As we grow, the big trick is how to keep what you already established, never rest on your laurels, and be better tomorrow than you were today," he explains.
Now Schlow is preparing for his second D.C. restaurant, opening in late July in Dupont Circle’s renovated Carlyle Suites Hotel. "D.C. is a place where we want to establish a real presence, with The Riggsby being next," he says. "And well, we can only hope, but if we have half the opening ... we did [at Tico], I’d be thrilled.
You obviously have a lot of experience after seven restaurants, but what was the biggest challenge to open Tico D.C. last year?
Every restaurant has its challenges, whether it be construction or staffing or what have you, but this was a fairly smooth opening as openings go. We are lucky with the team we put together with Steve Uhr as the acting General Manager and chef George Rodrigues coming from [Tico] Boston. We had a lot of time together prior to opening, so that sort of unspoken communication made things easy on the kitchen side. But it’s always a new staff. You don’t know how people are going to react and luckily it went very well. Right out of the gate on our first night, we did 200 to 250 dinners, on our first night! When I look back at those first couple of weeks, my favorite part was going to the customers at the table hearing ‘I can’t believe you’ve only been open for a few days or a few weeks. This restaurant feels like it’s already starting to settle in." That means the staff did a really good job concentrating and focusing on the training.
You have family roots in D.C. right?
My dad was from here, and my sister went to school here, I worked here for a little while. I had the pleasure of staging in the Jean-Louis Palladin kitchen at the Watergate hotel. I’m dating myself there, because that was a long time ago. It was such a special place and the chef would let me come in later, even if I were only visiting D.C. for a short time. We ended up [starting] a friendship that lasted a long time. It was very special, he’s one of my favorite chefs of all time.
So why open Tico only one year ago if you have a connection to D.C?
We had always been looking at D.C. for the past seven or eight years. I forged a beautiful friendship with a gentleman, [real estate broker] Eric Rubin, who picked out 14th Street for us as a location long before the incredible energy here. But unfortunately, he tragically died, unexpectedly at a very young age. I sort of just stopped looking. It was a little too hurtful to be honest. And we are going to do something at The Riggsby in his honor. We were going to do something here, but Eric Rubin seafood salad? I don’t know, the naming just didn’t work. He was a great guy and I miss him, but I stopped looking for about two and a half years. So that’s why we didn’t open sooner. If he didn’t die, we would have opened something here years ago. He picked out this area for us...And you had to have some imagination because there wasn’t a building here, there was nothing, except maybe a Domino’s Pizza.
Do you notice any difference between your customer base in Washington, D.C. versus New England and Los Angeles?
D.C. is different from any other place that I work or set-up shop. First off, it’s incredibly exciting, and I don’t want to sound like some sort of cliche or canned message because this is how I truly feel. Right now, there are few places in this entire country more exciting, where diners have a greater interest or understanding of food. It’s really this incredible hot-bed of activity, with all different kinds of cuisines. For example, in Boston, it’s French, Italian, Steakhouses, Spanish and seafood, but here you have everything. What’s happening, I think, as people become more interested in food, they challenge themselves more with what they will order off the menu. And I find the diversity of dishes I can offer here in D.C. is probably greater than in any other city that I work. So things that would sell here don’t necessarily sell in Boston.
What do regulars usually end up ordering here in D.C.?
We do a spicy braised duck with papaya and charred green onions and then put crunchy, crispy duck cracklings on top of them. It’s the number one taco here in D.C., and we have that taco in Boston, but it’s not even in the top three...Here we have a broad range of guests willing to try a lot of different things. And one of the things that makes us the most happy is when they put the menu in our hands, and say you guys choose for us. We have a category "Can’t Decide" with three prices and basically lets you decide how hungry are you and what do you want to spend, and we’ll feed you. That to me is the greatest way to eat here.
So you enjoyed the first year, but if you could change one thing about Tico D.C., what would it be?
There’s not a whole lot I would change here. We have a great staff, I think we hired beautifully. I would say I’m happy with the look of the restaurant. I’m pretty much happy with everything. Hmmm… I guess if there was one thing I would change, I would have taken those screens in the center of the restaurant all the way across to the other side to really make for a separate, private room on the other side. But the rest of it I’m happy with, I’m happy with the speed of the kitchen, the way we laid out the space...I certainly wouldn’t change the art, my wife is the artist. For me, there is an incredible source of pride.
Can we expect anything new for Tico's second year?
Well, I think we’ll continue to evolve, push our staff, to work on new things. Our brunch is very successful but we will push to make it better...If there is one thing we continue to explore on the culinary side is making the food texturally interesting. Seasoning is one thing, spice is one thing, or making things seasonally correct. But then how do we make dishes texturally interesting so when you get all these dishes on the table, they don’t get forgotten. We have a new technique for this crispy rice that we are doing, so when you take a bite, you get a soft, creamy component. We have a Catalan Stew on the menu that for me has this wow effect of the seafood elements, but at the end, an incredibly crunch of this hard crispy wild rice that we put on top. When you take a bite, you get an explosion of crunch at the end. We put that on our scallop ceviche also, so it’s about making things that will make you think a little bit. Maybe it will remind you of a dish you had already, but not executed in the same way.
More than anything I think we want to be part of the 14th Street phenomenon and to be a restaurant you can count on— not a place that was good at the beginning but now it’s getting diluted. I want this place to get better every year.
Next, The Riggsby is opening in July. What can we expect?
Yes, we’re building it to feel like that place that always felt part of the neighborhood, with a real attachment. So you can just pop in for a drink, or take your parents for dinner, or eat at that bar. It will feel very intimate. So I’m really excited for the restaurant and it’s something different for us.
I’m finding these dishes that I haven’t found in many years. And trying to figure out how I would make them today, using the same ingredient profile, but updating them with what I know today versus 20 or 30 years ago. There’s going to be a nostalgic component to this. For example, there’s this old beautiful dish, that has a funny name— schnitzel à la Holstein. Either veal or chicken, I learned how to make it better than I ever knew how to make it before, shaking the pan, then garnished with a fried egg, capers, anchovies, lemons and some parsley. It is delicious and like the best hangover cure of all time. That’s just one small example of using my experiences from all these years, and I don’t want to say ‘elevate’ or ‘improve’ but just to bring a modern approach.
My hope is to open around mid to late July. Definitely this summer— they’re close. It’s going to be a really fun restaurant that immediately feels like it has personality, not like some cookie cutter stamped-out restaurant. I was walking around the neighborhood last night, since I stayed in a hotel nearby, thinking I wish I lived here full-time, because the neighborhood is just so beautiful. And then I could make The Riggsby my neighborhood bar.