When Erik Bruner-Yang finally opened the doors to Maketto after years in the works, it was instantly busy. The former dollar store on H Street had been transformed into a swanky three-level space with a stylish retail store, coffee shop, and restaurant all under one roof.
It wasn't all style over substance, either. Maketto has emerged as a favorite among the restaurant critics, even though the restaurant hasn't materialized exactly how the chef originally envisioned. Eater restaurant editor Bill Addison even named it one of America's Essential Restaurants of 2016.
Bruner-Yang has also matured since his Toki Underground days. In fact, it was announced last month that he's leaving his first restaurant, though he remains mum on the reasons behind the decision. He has plenty of other things to talk about, though, and projects to look forward to, including more events at Maketto, two upcoming restaurants in the Line Hotel, and a Shake Shack collaboration.
The concept of Maketto, with the combined restaurant, retail, and coffee bar, has been something new for D.C.. How did people react to it at first?
People were confused when we talked about it before it opened. Now, for the most part, people are super receptive. I think some still find it super strange, and maybe a bit off-putting, but I think it's a great thing for H Street. We are really happy with the way it turned out.
What originally inspired the concept anyways?
I travel a lot for work. In bigger cities these are starting to pop up because real estate is so expensive. You do all these different things, because you need to fill up these big spaces.
Are you involved in what goes in the retail store section?
This was a good thing for me, learning a bit more about things that I really don't know about. With the retail business, it was definitely very complicated…The way you purchase is completely different than a restaurant. In a restaurant, you spend fifty dollars [on] the ingredients and make two hundred dollars off that, versus retail you buy it for fifty and sell it for a hundred.
What’s been the most popular item in the vending machine so far?
The Lucky Cats, for sure…also Sharpies probably because the cooks are always suppose to have sharpies. That's a good one to have in there. Also, Tylenol.
You have a sizable courtyard, and a substantial portion of your dining space is out there. How did that work during Maketto’s first winter?
We had never really intended on seating outside. I always had this goal that people could just come to Maketto, and not feel obligated to spend any money. We really wanted to create a sense of public space…There are not a lot of public spaces in D.C., where you can go and hang out with your friends and just do nothing…People are either going to a bar, or you're going to this place, and you're going to this place, and there's this expectation to spend money. We really wanted to not do that at Maketto.
You try to explain that to someone over and over again every night, what you’re trying to do with your courtyard public space, they just think you’re being an asshole…We ended up having to switch. In the end our business is to be hospitable, and to make people happy.
Let’s talk about how you managed to stay open during the blizzard. You consolidated your staff for Toki and Maketto, right?
We have a lot of employees that work at both restaurants. We also have a lot of employees that actually live within walking distance, including myself.
Toki we couldn't open because we had so much water damage from the roof...We wanted to open because we knew that people were going to want to do things and have food to eat.
People also wanted to work, and they didn't want to lose their hours…They were willing to make it work, and that is really how you learn who your core team is…They stayed at friends’ houses, and they stayed at my house. People wanted to be a part of that camaraderie, and I think for the most part, everyone enjoyed it.
It looks like Maketto’s current menu hasn’t changed much since opening. Is that true or have you phased out some dishes?
What we did is we wrote a very neutral menu...The salad has changed a million times. If you look at the soup, it's changed a couple of different times. Sausage has changed. We didn't want to write a menu with a ton of descriptions. Then we can plug and play different ingredients without having to reprint menus all the time.
I would say verbally the menu…hasn't really changed, but the dishes have evolved…Some things we cannot touch. The fish has been so popular, we cannot touch it…The bao platter is…a good dish for people that don't want to be too adventurous, so we kind of leave that one as is. Sometimes we do it with pork belly, or steak, or duck.
Also, because we are a new restaurant, all these people tell all their friends to come and try these dishes. We already have this weird disconnect— if they come to Maketto for lunch, it's a completely different menu...If that's already heartbreaking enough that someone has traveled from a different state, and they want to come to Maketto, and they actually come at lunch time and they cannot get the fried chicken…at least you can always get it at dinner.
Maketto received some great reviews from a slew of restaurant critics this year. Is that something that you pay attention to at all?
Of course. It's not just for me to feel validated, but we had such a huge team.
It's important to them, and we all work really, really hard day in, and day out. Those little things just give us the confidence that we're doing well, and we want to keep working to get better. It's nice not to get it all at once, and to get little things here, and there, because we want to show, and prove that we want to continue to improve, and everyday we still feel like there is so many things that we need to work on. It's nice to know that, that doesn't translate to the customer experience all the time.
Do you having any menu changes you’re working on or things that diners can look forward to?
During the winter, we kept it pretty Chinese, because we were just doing kind of fuller, kind of more heavier dishes.
In terms of flavor profiles, now that we are spring and summer, we are going to go back to some more of our version of Cambodian dishes, because they are a little bit lighter on the proteins with tons of vegetables.
We've been doing Cambodian tasting menus...The last couple of days. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, today, we've been doing Cambodian New Year tasting menus. We've been doing a lot more wine dinners, and stuff like that. Just keep up with us on social media, and we are going to continue to do these different side menus.
We are going to launch like a forty-eight hour in advance menu. You pre-order, whole lamb shoulders, or roasted ducks, or succulent pig, those are the things that you will be able to pre-order when you make your reservation.
It was recently announced you’re parting ways with Toki Underground. You're still going to be a partner in it though, correct?
I am going to stay off of this one, but I am pretty much done.
Then how do you feel about that? Is it exciting, or bittersweet?
It's both. I am really excited about the Line Hotel project…It's an amazing project to be a part of, but I don't think leaving one and doing that is hand in hand. This is the way it is.
It's the way it's been interpreted, but I am so excited about that project because it's something that's going to really be professionally stable, and personally stable for me. Like, any day Toki can catch on fire, or Maketto can catch on fire, and I could lose everything.
This hotel, this is an opportunity where it's something that can really benefit. It's a good thing for my family for us to do a project like this.
It’s stable because it’s aligned with such a big brand?
Yeah. It's a no brainer. You do it. Someone asks you to do something like this, you do it.
Toki was my first restaurant. I opened it when I was really young, and it means so much to me, of who I was at that time period. It represents, the catalyst of that restaurant was that was what my grandfather — and I really wanted to represent what being Taiwanese- American — meant to me. That's what that restaurant is to me, it's my first restaurant, but there is going to be many more restaurants. I am only thirty-one.
Ten, fifteen years from now, I'll be like when I was playing music, and be like, I haven't listened to my first album that I recorded forever, but I am always going to remember it. I am going to remember those good times, but how far back am I going to reflect on it, I don't know.
Then you would say that leaving Toki and joining this hotel project are unrelated?
I am not going to answer that…If that's cool.
Then can you talk about how the Shake Shack collaboration came about?
That is so cool. Right? I don't even like hoisin sauce so much, because we've been eating the hoisin sauce, for so long now. Because we make those pork steamed buns. We use it every night, but I think the sandwich is super delicious. It goes great, and Shake Shack, who doesn't like Shake Shack?
How did you get involved in it?
We know one of the district managers, Allan, really, really well, and he's just been an advocate for what we've been doing. Shake Shack, came and catered our holiday party… They come here to eat a lot, and we take really good care of them, and vice versa... I don't know why they chose me over anyone else, and I am super happy to be the first one in this area to do it.
The timing was good. Maketto is super famous for the fried chicken, and they were just launching the chicken sandwich when we started working on our collaboration…It totally makes sense to do a chicken sandwich instead of a burger. I think that’s what they were excited about, that I was less interested in working on doing a burger, but more interested on helping them promote their new chicken sandwich, which I think is fantastic.
What can diners expect from you at the Line Hotel? Do you plan to stick with Asian cuisine?
I am going to do two restaurants. One is going to be something very traditional, in Asian cooking. The other restaurant kind of also functions as their lobby space, like there is a designated restaurant space. We also cater to the whole lobby, kind of like the Ace Hotel…We haven't started on the menu yet.
But people can still expect Asian influences, from you?
There will definitely be a restaurant there that is specifically Asian. Yes…How many seats that is, or what's that going to be, or is it Japanese, or Cambodian, or Taiwanese, I really don't know, yet.
Maketto had so much buzz way before opening, and it can tough for new restaurants to actually live up to it. But Maketto has had plenty of success so far. What's the secret?
We're just really lucky. We were crazy when we opened Maketto. We did all three services, right off the bat, including breakfast. We opened every day at seven a.m. with completely fresh baked goods that we did in-house. I have never operated a restaurant this big...We cannot stage it, we just need to put our money where our mouth is and open and just work our asses off... We just really got lucky that people liked it. That enough people like it— there are some people that don't like it.
When you first opened, there were no reservations, correct?
We thought the restaurant was going to be a lot more casual…We opened, and we realized, people were dressing up. People were coming in suit and ties, and the ladies were wearing really nice dresses. People were making coming to Maketto a legitimate dinner experience…Then, we really started rethinking what we were doing, and changed the menu a little bit, integrated a really nice wine list, and started taking reservations for every dinner service.
It was seemed to make sense. What it looked like, what was coming through the door, was people wanted to come, and have an occasion. We need to adapt to that.
It sounds like you adapt to what the customer wants. Is that one of your strategies?
To some extent. When I first opened Toki, it was my way or the highway…Now, I am married, and I have a kid, and it's just a little different for me. You still have to have perimeters with people. You still have to have rules. I am not going to make a cheeseburger in the middle of the night for someone, because they don't eat anything on the menu, but we want to be as accommodating as possible— for the most part.