A chef used to running kitchens inside giant casinos has left his corporate gig with MGM to open the type of small bar selling New York-style pizza he’s envisioned for years.
Ballston Local co-owner Jason Johnston arrived in the D.C. area in 2016 to open MGM National Harbor as the Oxon Hill, Maryland, property’s executive chef in charge of keeping high-profile restaurants and glitzy galas running smoothly. Before that, he spent five years in an executive sous chef role at the Las Vegas Bellagio.
Johnston and business partner Jonah Troth plan to open Ballston Local (99 N. Glebe) on Saturday, May 1, with dinner and weekend lunch to start. The counter service-style restaurant will serve what Johnston describes as “Brooklyn-style” pies. He uses Caputo flour, Grande Italian cheese, and a deck oven heated to 600 degrees to produce a sturdy crust. After growing up in the New York suburbs, Johnston went on to work at an elite set of Manhattan hotels and always had pizza on the brain.
“It wasn’t until I moved to Vegas and bought a wood-burning pizza oven in my backyard, when the perfect fixation became more of a sickness,” he says with a laugh.
Johnston took some cues from L.A. service industry favorite Father’s Office, an after-work haunt he used to frequent during his days at Hollywood’s Roosevelt hotel. He says the casual place is “where everyone went to get a burger” or grab beers from a walk-up counter under a big menu board. Like Father’s Office, Ballston Local will serve a burger built with caramelized onions, blue cheese, bacon, and arugula. Johnston’s version uses Maryland-raised beef from Roseda Farms and a brioche bun. He’s coined it the “Bluemont” as a tribute to the nearby Arlington neighborhood.
“We have a couple good burger builds,” Johnston says. “We’re sneaking in gourmet-style fast food and Shake Shack [type] goodness.”
The menu also includes Italian sandwiches; appetizers like meatballs, burrata, and prosciutto crostini; and entrees like a ribeye steak frites and a “big, Vegas-style” chicken Parm, he says.
A creative dish that plays up the “local” part of the bar’s name is a Chesapeake spin on poutine with lump crab, Old Bay, and bechamel sauce on a bed of skinny fries. Expect lots of local beers on draft, as well as a classic cocktail menu.
A huge “Ballston Local” marquee hanging over a giant back bar is a nod to Vegas. The 3,900-square-foot space sports a 32-seat patio and about 140 seats inside, with a mix of banquette, high-top and lounge seating. An intimate back room can be sectioned off for private events, wine dinners, and whiskey pairings. The candle-lit space, partitioned with crimson curtains, sports its own entrance. Johnston says he’s building on his longtime relationships with MGM Chance for Life gala co-runners like Casey Patten, Scott Drewno, and Danny Lee to potentially host rotating pop-ups in the back.
Johnston and Troth, a brewer-turned-biochemist from Silicon Valley, started looking for a space in Northern Virginia before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the area. Full of young professionals and families, Ballston turned out to be the ideal neighborhood for their vision.
“A couple months into [the pandemic] we said, ‘Do you believe this is end of the world?’ We both said ‘No.’ Let’s use this opportunity to get in on a space.”
Johnston officially left MGM on April 1. The casino conglomerate has not yet announced a replacement.
“MGM was super good to me, but I got to point in my career of, what was I going to do next?” Johnston says. “For years and years I’ve been working in big box, high-volume outlets — I’m looking forward to focusing on what I love bringing to people.”