Situated on North Glebe Road in Ballston, where traffic is plentiful but pedestrians are scarce, SER's location leaves something to be desired. But with a little help from the Ballston Business Improvement District, Chef Josu Zubikarai's authentic Spanish cuisine and co-owner Javier Candon's knack for management have helped make the restaurant an Arlington dining destination, despite the tough location.
SER's first year in business was a consistent one. Not much has changed since they opened, beyond the addition of a new, cider-focused tasting menu. But in the following weeks, look for new additions like a "Pajama Brunch" (PJs and slippers encouraged) and a Spanish market where guests can purchase specialty ingredients from Spain. Eater chatted with the co-owners to find out how their partnership has developed over the first year.
SER opened after winning the Ballston Business Improvement District's Restaurant Challenge. How did that help boost the restaurant's first year?
Javier Candon: It was really helpful. Obviously, besides all the good stuff that we got through the competition, like an interest free loan from the landlord, we got an 11-year lease, which the first year we didn't [have to] pay. So besides all the financial stuff, even before we opened, people already were talking about us — in a good way, and in a bad way. So it was a lot of the comments about why to give so much free stuff to a restaurant...But good or bad publicity was publicity at the end of the day.
Given your experience together at Taberna del Alabardero, what was it like opening this new place?
Josu Zubikarai: We were more familiar with D.C. maybe than this part of Virginia, but then this place came and we're very happy, extremely happy with this location and kind of customer, the clientele that we have here.
Candon: It's easier now that we have more experience, and also that Josu's a little bit older and he calmed down a little bit. He used to have a higher temper. Now he's more relaxed.
Did the fact that you had already established a working relationship help you jump right in to this project like nothing had changed?
Zubikarai: The good thing about it is that he's good dealing with customers and I stay back... so I don't have to deal with the customers. I think we [have] a good team.
Candon: [When] you have a good working relationship opening a restaurant, you already know your partner, it's definitely easier. And as a manager you always need to work together, but as an owner even more. There's a lot of financial decisions that you need to work very close and discuss, and agree and disagree.
Zubikarai: It's basically like a marriage.
How has SER distinguished itself from other Spanish cuisine in the area?
Zubikarai: In my opinion, I mean, I don't want to put any flowers on us, but we're more authentic than anyone else... Then also we do more modern things, especially, I have a very good sous chef here, David Sierra, which is a very good guy and he's much younger and has much more new ideas, which is good, always. It gives you some freshness.
Candon: I think staying true to our values: simple, easy, and real [the restaurant's acronym]. We don't want to overcomplicate things. We just want to get the best ingredients possible in the market, some of them from Spain, some of them not from Spain, and do not manipulate them too much. So you have an amazing pig, we just roast it. We don't overcomplicate things, and being very casual at the same time, so the prices are affordable. We're trying to deliver fine cuisine and service, but in a casual atmosphere.
How has your family heritage influenced your culinary career and your work at SER?
Zubikarai: My grandmother was in the restaurant business, my mother also, and then me, and we're three generations already. They was always involved in restaurant business, I was raised in restaurant business. I never thought when I was growing, I want to become a chef... Now I love it. I wouldn't have liked to do any other job.
What about specific regional influences?
Zubikarai: [Javier] is from the south. I am from the north. So even within Spain, a small country, the cuisine is very different... When I was younger, Spain was always divide[d] in three ways of cooking or gastronomy. North was...about the stewing, middle of country was about roasting, and south was about deep frying.
Which regions of Spain are most prominently represented at SER?
Zubikarai: I would say [it's] pretty much equal... All the paella is from the Valencia area, all the jamón and cold cuts from the south, and we have seafood from Galicia, like octopus.
Your location in Ballston is challenging - there's not a lot of foot traffic, and parking is a bit confusing. How has that affected business?
Candon: We knew that was a challenging location. That's why the landlord put all this money up front, because it's not the most desirable location. But lunch is okay. Lunch we have a lot of offices in these big buildings, so it's decent foot traffic... And for dinner, we knew it was going to be completely a destination place, so that's why we need to focus on extremely good food and service, to have a reason for people to come, and for people to come back. Parking is excellent actually. We have validation. It is 2 dollars after validation, but it is true that to get to the garage is a little bit complicated.... We're trying to do as much emphasis as we can in terms of marketing and PR to let people know that we have parking, but we're also working with the landlord to working on the signage.
How has the neighborhood responded to the restaurant?
Candon: The support has been amazing. It is a complete mix — we don't have a specific majority of people, like business lunches or younger people or older people. It's completely a mix.
What has been the most difficult part about opening SER?
Candon: For me, the permits. Dealing with Arlington County, they're good, they're nice, but it takes a long time to get the liquor license, to get all the permits to open... Then, once we opened, for me, not only a challenge for SER, but a challenge for restaurants in Arlington, is that because we are so close to the city, a lot of people — ncluding a lot of people that live in Arlington — when they have a special occasion, when they want to celebrate something, they're always inclined to go to the city... And people from DC, they have a very, very hard time [crossing] the Potomac.
What have been the most loved dishes or events?
Candon: When we first started working in the menu, we wanted to put all this weird stuff, because they are very Spanish. But we thought, we're not gonna sell any suckling pig, we are not gonna sell any codfish, barnacles, baby eels. We're not gonna sell any of that. But if we really want to be Spanish, it has to be in the menu. But actually we were totally wrong. We are extremely surprised how much barnacles, baby eels, suckling pigs, codfish we are selling.
Zubikarai: In the neighborhood, people they have a lot of knowledge about food and they're willing to experience different things and new things.
How have things evolved here over the past 12 months? What specific changes have you made?
Candon: Not many actually. Since the day that we opened, we started getting very busy, and we continue to be very busy, so we don't want to make so many changes. We change the menus because with the season, we need to change the menu to have everything more appealing for that season and also to be fresher. We incorporated the Txotx dinners [a family-style Basque cider house tasting menu]. We [are incorporating] a little market, because a lot of people on the way out say, ‘Where we can buy this? I really like this paprika or I really like this pepper.'
What is next for SER in the coming year? Do you anticipate any new challenges?
Zubikarai: Eventually for [the lunch counter], it's gonna be a nice oyster bar over there... some nice charcuterie we're gonna have over there also, so people can see all the cheeses and all the cold cuts. And we're gonna be able to cut in front of them.
Candon: In the next two-to-three weeks, we're gonna start with some educational programs, in terms of wine tastings, because we're lucky to have a retail license for wine. So every weekend — Fridays and Saturdays — we're gonna have free wine tastings for our customers, where they can sample four or five different wines. They can learn more about Spanish wines, and because we have the retail license, if they like it, they can take it home. So it's gonna be a little bit educational, and also increase our sales obviously. And eventually we may combine that with some other educational food stuff, like teaching how to cut a ham, how to make a paella.