On a Zoom call, Mike Friedman looks every bit a chef with his short-sleeved whites, black beanie, and a neatly trimmed beard that frames a frequent smile. But nearly a year into the novel coronavirus crisis, the driving force behind the Red Hen sounds more like the creative director at an ad firm when he explains how the Bloomingdale neighborhood fixture known for its warm service, wood-burning grill, and rich Italian small plates has managed to chug along despite keeping its dining room closed for the past 10 months.
“My job kind of morphed into more of this: culture, content, and creative,” Friedman says. “I call it the three Cs.”
Although D.C. allowed indoor dining at a limited capacity from late June until a late December pause — a ban that will remain through at least January 21 — Friedman says he and his partners at the Red Hen and two All-Purpose pizzerias never felt comfortable bringing guests back inside. Aside from AP’s riverfront location in Navy Yard, none of his restaurants could accommodate outdoor dining. By the time Red Hen had an opportunity to add a streetside patio, the restaurant had established enough of a takeout and delivery business that Friedman says it made better financial sense to follow the new business model than invest in amenities like heaters, tents, and wind barriers.
Although the Red Hen exerted little effort on takeout before the pandemic, Friedman says he’s kept his neighborhood regulars coming back by running through a series of pop-ups themed around different regions of Italy. Each time there’s a new menu, the Red Hen has new dishes to splash across its social media pages and flag to customers on its email distribution list.
An “Island Summer” featuring fregola pasta, anchovies, and lots of citrus to represent Sicily and Sardinia led to a “Friuli Regatta” in the fall, when focusing on the northeastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region that borders Slovenia pushed the restaurant to bring on more skin-contact wines. A winter Après ski menu built around northern alpine regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Alto Adige and the Valle d’Aosta has come and gone. Starting Thursday, January 14, the Red Hen will start selling food and wine with an “Under the Tuscan Sun” theme.
“Let’s keep giving them new and exciting things,” Friedman says, pointing to the success of a recent chicken Parm rollout at All-Purpose.
During each pop-up, the restaurant maintains a menu of “Red Hen” classics like whipped ricotta crostini, rigatoni with fennel sausage ragu, and a cacio e pepe bucatini that used to be an off-menu special.
For each new slate of pop-up dishes, Friedman acknowledges he has to make some concessions for takeout and delivery. For instance, he would have loved to sell Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a hulking Tuscan T-bone, but he was concerned about how it would travel and how much he would have to charge. Instead, Red Hen is selling a braised and grilled short rib ($28) that delivers the same flavors with a garlic-rosemary butter and fried fingerling potatoes tossed in lemon and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Other highlights of the Tuscan menu include a cylindrical garganelli pasta in a duck ragu full of red wine, prosciutto, rosemary, and bread crumbs. Tuscan chicken liver mousse with fig conserva is a riff on a Red Hen staple. By adding a caramelized scallop dish with polenta, toasted pine nuts, and salsa verde, Friedman is supporting one of his favorite purveyors, Nancy Wynne of Morningstar Seafood off the islands of Maine. For dessert, Red Hen has continued to play with different flavors of gelato, most recently adding a mint chip to the mix.
Friedman, who previously concentrated on Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisines for José Andrés at Zaytinya, says he’s also toying with a departure from Italian pop-ups altogether. A “Red Hen Bon Voyage” series could offer a takeout trip through France, Lebanon, Greece, or Spain. Although his cooking is full of soul, blending his Jewish upbringing with the Southern Italian food he enjoyed as a kid in New York and New Jersey, he’s always tinkering with new ideas driven by the potential to draw digital “likes.”
“I don’t have restaurants anymore; I have websites,” he says. “I need to create traction on those websites, so I create content.”