When Maydan owner Rose Previte and her lead architect reflect on their forward-thinking vision for a Middle Eastern hotspot in Shaw, they’re still in awe that everything got approved.
“The question I get is how the hell did you get away with this oven in the middle?” says architect Michelle Bove of D.C.’s designCASE. “Everything is completely legal, but we found every exception in the code.”
Eater DC’s pick for 2018 restaurant design of the year, centered around a roaring open fire pit, opened at the end of an alley on Florida Avenue NW in November 2017. Ever since, the transportive two-story hideaway has been consistently packed with diners — including the Obamas — eager to sample foods of Lebanon, Georgia, Syria, Iran, and Morocco. Those lucky enough to land a seat go for brightly colored spreads, decadent lamb shoulders, and ribeyes that head chefs Gerald Addison and Chris Morgan prepare over open flames.
Maydan lives inside the historic Manhattan Laundry Building, which formerly housed a commercial laundry operation in the early 20th century, and a printing plant before that.
Commissioning and erecting the towering hearth inside the 130-year-old building was a feat in of itself, from a safety, code, and feasibility perspective. Previte could not get the city to OK a fiery pit at her first restaurant, Compass Rose, which turns five this spring.
“To Michelle’s credit, she didn’t run away when we asked if we could put the grill there in the middle of the room,” Previte says of her designer.
Bove drew the hearth’s design over 25 times, tweaking the layout even more once the stone arrived. The copper-domed grill utilizes existing hood space, and the grease exhaust stack grows past the restaurant’s ceiling and into the upstairs WeWork space through the roof.
“This is like the eighth wonder of the world — all equipment fits through the existing space. It was meant to be,” Previte says.
The name of her 3,000-square-foot restaurant, singled out by Eater as one of the 18 best new restaurants in America last year, translates to “gathering place” and seats about 100 people, with 60 along the mezzanine overlooking its cooking nucleus.
“How all this came together was unorthodox. [Guests] appreciate it but they don’t know how much work and patience went into it,” Previte says.
Previte enlisted Brooklyn-based artist (and former roommate) Martina Crivella to add custom wood inlays, shaped in chevron and beehive patterns, fabric-adorned walls, and intricate tile-work. Los Angeles-based artist (and former Compass Rose employee) Janelle Whisenant painted a dreamy, pastel-hued mural upstairs and hand-etched the stair risers.
Morgan could give input on the hearth because he worked at The Dabney when its live-fire apparatus was built. He also played a big part in its steel fabrication process, and his uncle from Earlysville, Virginia drove up and laid the bricks.
Smaller details that fill the space also involved lots of thought and mileage. In 2016, when the design process was in full swing and Previte’s phone was filled with Pinterest images for inspiration, she and Crivella scoured Brooklyn’s cavernous salvage store The Big Reuse — a reclaimed graveyard packed with pieces from gutted Brownstones.
“Anything we could scrap together to make it something” made it to Maydan, she says. Trinkets, amber-stained glass doors, metals, and mirrors that made the cut were piled into a U-Haul and kept in six storage units across D.C.
Some finds were unintentional hits. The wooden double doors — 10 feet tall, blue, and round at the top — now star in countless Instagram pictures.
“The twist is that was never intended, never did we sit and say we need to make it look like a Moroccan door — it just happened,” Previte says.
Diners notice new eye candy every time they return, Previte says. Speed past the kitchen area and you might not spot the dueling swords the team sourced from Oman last summer.
A dimly-lit, tent-like area containing the host stand keeps guests guessing about what the main room looks like before they’re seated inside.
“You open the door to Narnia — this is like stage one of what the hell is going on,” says Bove, standing in the tapestry-covered front room.
Alice in Wonderland vibes also live upstairs, via wooden flooring on the ceiling that’s mirrored below.
The bar was inspired by an offbeat drinking hole Previte visited in Beirut, with light fixtures made to mimic the amber glow of the fire nearby. Bolted in the brick wall, the lights can’t be replaced unless the shelves are taken apart. The bulbs have a 10-year life span.
“When the light bulbs go out I don’t know what the fuck I am going to do,” Previte says. “I’m not going to think about that.”
Much of the lighting across the cavernous space was hand-picked at unconventional places across the country. Previte found ornate dangling fixtures for upstairs from a “super stoned” guy at a Fairfax flea market in Los Angeles.
“He said I will give you them for $30,” says Previte. “I said, ‘I will take them for $30!’”
Original windows lining the bar were largely kept as is. That’s not an energy efficient move, Previte notes, but there’s “not too many of them so it’s not a big deal.”
Some elements left over from Compass Rose migrated to the space, like iron gates sourced from an antiques store in Frederick, Maryland.
Other design decisions had revenue in mind, like tucking a table under the stairs to take advantage of unused square feet (it’s also ADA compliant). The nook has become a favorite spot for regulars for its private low-seated setup peeking out into the bar.
“Even though it’s artsy there are economic reasons behind some things we did,” Previte says.
After realizing the project was way over budget, some ideas were tweaked to compensate. Instead of going with a real plant wall, which requires pricey water and lighting systems, she went with faux greenery. A live one may be planted there down the road, she adds.
The staircase was inspired by one at an LA hotel she stayed at, with pebbles built into the steps. That material also has functional properties, like added traction for guests trekking up in heels.
Matchy-matchy is the opposite of what Maydan was going for. Its mishmash of bar chairs are comprised of everything from brown leather to furry cowhide.
“With bar stools, my experience is they all break,” Previte says. She’s constantly expanding Maydan’s inventory with random finds on Amazon.
She finally decided on a leafy wallpaper design for upstairs after bringing back 12 samples from an L.A. store. The Christian la Croix print had to be sourced from England, so it took some time to arrive.
“Everything we did was harder than it had to be,” she says. “It was so much extra work for me to source all the stuff. Every little thing was thought out.”
Bove says one element where code compliance turned out to be an asset was having its second staircase, which had to be completely enclosed to provide a fire-safe hallway.
“We call it the presidential staircase — it’s allowed the Obamas to come,” she says, pointing to the upstairs area where they always sit.
They had fun with its code-compliant design, installing a clear glass fire-proof window rather than a cold and enclosed wall.
The window also peeks into a tiger drawing with its own backstory. When the team first got the keys to enter the dilapidated property, the only thing there was a random tiger poster reading “Excellence” — the kind of old school poster found in 1990s offices.
“I said, ‘No one touch that! It has to be here forever,’” Previte says.
The second set of stairs isn’t used to bring guests into the main dining room, but bar backs give it plenty of use by transporting dishes to and from the kitchen. Some customers — especially older ones — find it easier to use to stairwell to access the bathroom instead of weaving through the crowded bar area.
The bathrooms also have a literal story to tell, with diary scribbles from the world travels from its hospitality team blown up on its bathroom walls. Previte is a little annoyed some drunk customers have added their own words on the walls too.
“I was always prepared for it, but some people are just heathens,” she says.
Now that Maydan is nearing its second year of business, Previte has some minor ideas in mind to keep the space fresh. Thanks to foot traffic, Previte says the stairs are just about due for a spring cleaning. The risers feature drawings that were digitized by Bove, then laser-cut into the wood by a Rockville firm and hand-painted by Whisenant.
“That is the success of the design. There isn’t one thing that was touched by one person,” Bove says. “For every single piece, I think at least two people had a hand in it — if not 50. It truly shows how the team collaborated so, so well.”