A lot has changed about the city since celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck opened his first D.C. restaurant in late 2007. But the innovative Source — which recently restored lunch service and spins out ever-popular dumplings during happy hour — has remained a prominent part of the dining scene through it all.
The now-award winning restaurant was almost a steakhouse. But with nationwide chain Capital Grille located right across the street, Puck opted instead to pursue an Asian fusion menu that was ahead of its time in Washington.
When assembling the opening team for the Source, Puck tapped Scott Drewno — who had cooked at other Puck-led restaurants including Chinois and Spago — as executive chef. “I liked him because he really was passionate about Asian, Chinese food,” Puck recalls.
Drewno, who was living in New York at the time, was a bit hesitant at first. “We were kind of nervous about fine dining Asian as a concept. I think I was personally,” he tells Eater. “D.C. always had the rap for being a steak and potato town, and so I was a little concerned about that coming in.” After visiting the restaurants of a few pioneering local chefs — including José Andrés and the late Michel Richard — Drewno was sold.
Contrasting white tablecloth dining with bold global flavors, the Source was a unique addition to the area that quickly drew curious visitors who turned into regulars. Over the years, it has racked up several accolades, including two Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington Chef of the Year Awards for Drewno, and, most recently, an award for exceptional service.
Part of the reason for the Source’s perennial success is that it didn’t stagnate. In 2009, Drewno revamped the menu in the downstairs lounge, swapping bar bites for an izakaya-style menu. He did so with the help of new sous chef, Russell Smith, who now serves as the restaurant’s executive chef.
In 2015, Puck, Drewno, and Smith renovated the entire restaurant, giving the space a facelift and freshening up the menu. They also added a hot pot table and a chef’s counter. Drewno and Smith were a well-matched team in the kitchen. “We’re really close friends, so it was great being able to help him collaborate on dishes and ideas,” Smith says.
When Drewno struck out on his own earlier this year to open Chiko, a new Chinese-Korean restaurant, he knew Smith was ready to pick up the baton. “I love working with Russell. He was part of the reason I left. I wanted him to have the opportunity,” Drewno says. “All the accolades and stuff we got at the Source was in large part due to him.”
Smith has been working within Puck’s restaurant group for eight years now, so he was a natural fit to take on the role of executive chef. Still, the pressure was on. “Chef Scott [Drewno] did such an amazing job and was so successful that I felt like if [the menu] stayed the same, it’d be viewed as worse because he was gone,” Smith says.
To help Smith put his own stamp on the cuisine, Puck sent him to Hong Kong to stage at Lung King Heen, a three-starred Michelin restaurant. “Traveling there was a big inspiration for those menu changes that we made,” Smith explains.
Ultimately, taking over the kitchen and developing a new menu was the easy part. “The stuff that was new to me was meeting, speaking with the guests, and kind of being the face of the restaurants. Those have been the biggest challenges for me,” Smith says.
The evolving responsibilities brought Smith into a whole new world. “We have great regulars that have been coming there for the last eight years or 10 years, and I’d never met them. I knew that they had scallop and coconut allergies, and I knew their names, and I knew how they liked their steak cooked, but I don’t know what their face looks like,” he says. “It was cool to put faces to the VIP slips.”
Looking back, Drewno credits iconic tastemakers for the Source’s continued success. “The snowball was created by Jean-Louis [Palladin] and Michel Richard and Robert Wiedmaier, and José [Andrés],” Drewno says. “I felt like D.C. opened its arms to us and we just started rolling and D.C. just turned into the best food city in the world.”
Smith adds that Puck’s arrival in D.C. also acted as a catalyst, bringing outside talent to the city. “Chef Wolfgang [Puck] was one of the first wave of celebrity chefs to come into town, so I think maybe once he did that, other people saw that there were great guests and great foodies here in D.C.,” he says.
Now, Puck and Smith are gearing up for another decade of new developments at the critically acclaimed restaurant. “If you don’t evolve, you go backward,” Puck says.