Ambar on Capitol Hill, the seven-year-old birthplace of a Balkan and Mexican restaurant empire now scattered across the DMV, was expected to reopen in March after an extensive two-month makeover. Then a pandemic turned that plan on its head.
“We were literally ready to open 10 or 12 days before coronavirus [hit]. We scheduled [staff], created the menu and everything,” general manager Uros Jojic tells Eater.
Street Guys Hospitality finally unveils the revamp of its mezze-focused flagship today (523 8th Street SE). The 3,000-square-foot Balkan oasis is now twice as large, topped off with a new pastel-hued patio. The timely addition meets D.C.’s current Phase 1 restrictions to outdoor dining only. The rooftop can welcome guests 365 days a year thanks to movable, teal slats that open up and close at the push of a button.
And its existing first-floor patio grew in size (a next-door neighbor lent Ambar its al fresco real estate). Ambar can fit dozens of diners across the two outdoor areas.
Ambar also plans to revive in-house dining as soon as the city gives the green light on Phase 2, which allows for indoor seating at 50-percent capacity. During a press conference on Wednesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser says D.C. is “trending in the right direction” to enact Phase 2 on Monday, June 22.
Upon entry, guests are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling stone walls reminiscent of “Balkan bars or basements,” says Jojic.
Four separate dining areas sport their own names and themes (Chef’s Room, Rakia Bar, The Wine Cellar and Garden Room).
“Making it more flexible for private events and large groups, but also keeping the same homey feeling,” he says.
To cater to COVID-19 times, the floor plan was adjusted to create six-foot-apart dining areas. There’s also special seating for seniors from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Accents include disinfectant wipes provided tableside, QR code-enabled menus, and plastic utensils upon request. An FDA-approved antimicrobial application completely cleans the restaurant every night. A newly installed sink behind the hostess stand welcomes guests to wash up without having to go to the bathroom.
“We focused on the details to make sure we were going in the right direction,” he says.
Balkan spirts and wine will play a big role across all four bars on-site. A second-floor wine cellar, lined with a 360-degree assortment of vintage bottles, plans to evolve into a bar that hosts educational tastings. Ambar ran a series of virtual wine classes during the pandemic to help maintain and build up a following for the relatively unknown wine region, he says.
“We imported all premium wines from the Balkan region,” he says, noting orders were luckily made pre-pandemic. “You’ll take a seat and you’re surrounded by amazing Balkan varietals.”
A newly added kitchen adjacent to the rooftop bar is designed to cater to private events. It’s outfitted with a shiny new toy: a Josper charcoal grill made in Barcelona.
Ambar’s main kitchen got a complete custom overhaul, growing four times in size to handle its expanded menu and capacity. Items from a new wood-burning grill include Atlantic salmon and grilled shrimp or chicken skewers. Ambar plans to capitalize on its spacious size by hosting pop-ups of its sister restaurants.
Street Guys CEO Ivan Iricanin, who built up his Mexican resume working across Richard Sandoval’s local portfolio, also runs Buena Vida and TTT locations in Clarendon and Silver Spring.
“We can use the kitchen for some other concept — we are ready to do it,” he says.
Silver Spring’s Buena Vida is the current site of a new “ghost” kitchen for Ambar Silver Spring.
The reopening marks a full-circle moment for Jojic, who started as a server upon its debut in 2013 and worked his way up to GM four years later. He says he took the first hammer to break down the kitchen and start from scratch.
Ambar’s return marks the comeback of its unlimited small plates menu — a wildly popular offering filled out by familiar spreads, salads, Serbian small plates, flatbreads, and lamb lasagna. The deal is $25 per person at lunch and $35 per person at dinner (and $19.99 more for unlimited drinks), with a two-hour time limit. A new takeout menu for two ($39) includes mains like wild mushroom risotto or beef short rib goulash.