When first-time restaurateur Justin Logan opened Ruta del Vino last November, he joined what was a burst of restaurant activity on Petworth’s Upshur street. Along with the likes of Timber Pizza Company, Himitsu, and the rebranded Hank’s Cocktail Bar, the neighborhood had the makings of a dining destination in D.C.
Over the past year, Logan says he’s relished the opportunity to showcase Latin American wines to the local clientele, including some offbeat bottles and styles that other bars and restaurants might hesitate to sell. The hardest lessons have come from forming a reliable staff, as well as wrestling with consumer demand for cocktails.
Eater recently caught up with Logan to discuss the ups and downs of year one, including the joys of controlled chaos in the kitchen and the mystery of trying to predict dining patterns.
How has the first year in business measured up to your expectations?
Justin Logan: What I’ve told people is that the highs are really high and the lows are really low. Hopefully you sort of wash out all in the middle. It’s a constant learning thing. The sort of Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns” were significant, both with respect to building out the space and running the place.
Was there anything menu-wise you wish you had done differently?
JL: I’m a wine guy. I’m interested in wine and enjoy drinking wine. But as you know, cocktails are really the thing. People are just crazy about cocktails. So I increased the size of our cocktail list because there was this seemingly bottomless thirst for cocktails.
It expanded to the point where it made bar unwieldy. It made service slow. It made the service bar slow down. And it took me — and I’m embarrassed to admit it — probably a couple weeks to realize that was what was going on. So we really pared that back and reminded ourselves that we’re a wine bar first and foremost. We emphasized the wine list and cut the expanded cocktail list probably in half.
As a first-time owner, was there a particularly tough obstacle you had to work through?
JL: It’s not really exciting or new for your readers to hear, but the staffing issue is real. Cooks and waiters know that if they have a pulse and can intelligibly utter a sentence they can walk out of my restaurant today and get a job down the street tomorrow. That’s good for cooks and waiters but tough for owners.
When everybody knows that they can pick up where they left off tomorrow in a different place, it creates a lot of turnover. But we’ve really settled on a core group of employees — in the front of house and back of house — that I’d really walk across broken glass for. That little neurotic family that has emerged in the place has been something that’s really helped us and made us better.
Was there a moment during the year when you finally felt everything come together?
JL: To me, the really high high is when you have a service where you are operating right on the brink of calamity. Your wait times are just pushing up to what you promised and the kitchen is just getting dishes out at the time that you want. Service bar tickets are getting done. And then, when that last guest leaves, you look around and see your staff is happy because they made money. And you’re happy because you paid for the bad night you had on Tuesday that week with the business that you did that Saturday night. And you all kind of take that collective sigh together.
How has Ruta del Vino fit in with the other restaurants on the block?
JL: We have a huge number of local regulars, which you can’t buy and I wouldn’t trade anything for that. People whose names I know, people who know my name. I don’t have to compete with the Wharf for those people.
Certainly the Himitsu and Timber inclusion in the Bon Appetit 50 Best New Restaurants list we felt as sort of a ripple effect. As dense restaurant-wise as the 800 block of Upshur Street is, nobody’s really doing the same thing as anybody else. And so that is sort of complementary more than competitive.
What have been some of the menu standouts?
JL: By and large, the dishes that have been most popular have been the breaded fish tacos with mahi mahi or cod, and the mixed grill. It’s a sort of Argentinian and Uruguayan-style asado. Those have been our winning dishes. Not coincidentally we have a number of wines that pair really beautifully with those dishes.
Are you planning any tweaks to the food going forward?
JL: We do have a new chef. He has a lot of ideas of things he wants to do. He has a little bit more of a Peruvian influence, so we’ve started doing more tiradito-style ceviche instead of a Mexican-style ceviche. [Change] is always exciting.
What else are you hoping to push into in year two?
JL: I think better analytics. We’ve been so white-knuckle squeezing to keep the restaurant running that now we’re at a point where we can kind of crunch numbers a little bit better. I’m not very good at telling when we’re going to have a random Tuesday night where when we do double the business we normally do on a Tuesday night.
I joke about the “low lows,” and there’s nothing worse than staffing up for a Friday or Saturday night thinking it’s going to be like the last six Friday or Saturday nights and then doing two-thirds of the business. It’s one of those punches in the gut.
This interview has been edited and condensed.