When patrons enter the new French brasserie opening this September in Georgetown, they’ll have a hard time remembering the space’s former life as the dimly lit Morton’s The Steakhouse.
Prolific D.C. restaurateur Hakan Ilhan is currently performing a multi-million dollar renovation on the 6,000-square-foot space that enjoyed a 37-year run as an old guard steakhouse at 3251 Prospect Street NW. The aging building was carefully and completely gutted, providing a blank canvas for the modern overhaul now underway.
Part of the job includes raising low 7-foot ceilings to more than 10 feet for a more welcoming layout. A high-tech programmable dimming system will create different moods throughout the lengthy 250-seat restaurant, depending on the time of day. There’s also now going to be two patio areas — one along Prospect Street and another on the side — adding 70 al fresco seats to the mix.
“We want this to be lighter and fun to be in. Georgetown is on a comeback,” Ilhan says. “We feel like it’s going to be a very cozy and unique place.”
The overall goal is to inject young, hip vibes into the historical dining neighborhood that counts decades-old mainstays Martin’s Tavern and Cafe Milano as neighbors.
Once patrons enter its French-style folding doors and pass under a series of curved archways, they’ll be greeted by a bright white bar sporting slick hunter green accents.
Its spacious private dining rooms in the back, covered with navy walls and light blue floor tiling, will set a different tone. Those areas feature their own entrance — perfect for under-the-radar dignitaries doing lunch, he notes — and can be blacked out with drapes for further privacy. Guests there will have a front-row seat of its dual glass wine cellars housing some 1,100 bottles.
The in-the-works wine list, expected to be filled out by a mix of French and American labels, will have some overlap with 2-year-old French sister spot Mirabelle.
The look, however, will be totally different than its downtown counterpart. Ilhan originally was going with Mirabelle’s architect, Norris Design Studio, but decided to hire Swatchroom instead. He says the D.C. designers behind Morris American Bar in Shaw and Wilson Hardware in Clarendon are in tune with Liberté’s younger target market.
“I think we needed to bring in someone totally new ... they’re really very millennial-minded and energetic,” he says. “We went back to the drawing board and everything was done from scratch.”
Liberté’s look is inspired by several modern brasseries he visited across London’s edgy Soho neighborhood (Team Swatchroom recently hopped on a plane to see firsthand what he was talking about).
“We didn’t want to look like any brasserie or bistro — we wanted to do something totally different but still be French,” he says.
Each section will sport a different color scheme, aiming to create various dining experiences under one roof.
“They challenge was it’s a big space but how do we make it so people can really enjoy every element instead of just one.”
Ilhan thinks Georgetown is due for a brasserie. He misses the days he used to frequent now-shuttered Bistro Francais for late-night drinks and bites.
“Prospect is really the gateway to Georgetown University,” he says, expecting to serve lots of visiting parents and students. To fill the need for more late-night dining options, a limited menu will be served until last call (look for half-priced oyster deals).
As a coined brasserie, he knows he needs to get the classics like French onion soup and eggs Benedict right.
Ilhan has been eating across D.C. and New York for research. His staff has tested a whopping 77 French fry recipes to date. “People think that’s the easiest part but it’s really the most challenging one,” he says.
He’s not ready to announce the executive chef yet, only revealing that he’s not from D.C. Richard Kaufman, the former general manager at 1789, will hold the same title at Liberté.
“We are leaning towards younger chefs with more creativity and are understanding the market more,” Ilhan says.
Last year he closed and re-opened Mirabelle with a completely revamped menu under new chef Keith Bombaugh, who was most recently chef de cuisine at Boston Harbor Hotel’s Meritage. He expects D.C.’s millennial dining segment to increase even more with the arrival of Amazon’s headquarters in Arlington.
Ilhan is gearing up for a busy year of openings across D.C. and into Northern Virginia. His American bistro nearby in the West End, Lazy Kate’s, will offer some of the best sellers from the hodgepodge of restaurants he’s planted across the city (Turkish-inspired Ottoman Taverna and Italian eatery Al Dente). That 4,400-square-foot eatery is projected to start construction in the fall after Liberté opens, shooting for a May or June 2020 opening (2300 N Street NW). His Alba Osteria just closed, unable to reach a renewal deal with the landlord to flip the Italian concept to Mexican, but he’s expected to announce another new restaurant deal soon.
Ilhan’s diverse restaurant portfolio also bleeds into the fast-casual segment. He just inked two franchise deals to bring Chik-Fil-A to Dulles Airport; one will arrive this year in Terminal D and the other will debut at Terminal B in August 2020.