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The Pandemic Pushed D.C.’s King of Power Dining to Get Into the Fast-Casual Game

Ashok Bajaj plans to open an offshoot of Indian street food spot Bindaas that will sell bowls and rolls to go

A chicken kathi roll with mint cilantro chutney will be at the new Bindaas location
A chicken kathi roll with mint cilantro chutney will be at the new Bindaas location
Joy Asico / Asico Photo

Over the past 30 years, Ashok Bajaj’s D.C. restaurants have been high on diners’ lists for celebrating special occasions. Knightsbridge Restaurant Group properties like Rasika and Annabelle cater to D.C. power players with impeccable plating and service informed by Bajaj’s encyclopedic knowledge of high-profile regulars. So the recent announcement that his company is entering the fast-casual market with an offshoot of Indian street food brand Bindaas says a lot about the state of the restaurant industry after more than year of the COVID-19 crisis.

This fall, Knightsbridge will open Bindaas Bowls & Rolls at 415 Seventh Street NW in Penn Quarter. The takeout-focused restaurant builds on two other Bindaas locations. The original opened in Cleveland Park in 2016 and launched an outpost in Foggy Bottom a year later. Customer favorites like chicken kathi rolls, masala popcorn, and gunpowder fries from James Beard award-winning chef Vikram Sunderam will be on the menu at the casual branch. But customers will also be able to mix and match and create their own meals.

“I think it will be fun. I’ve never done anything like this,” Bajaj says, noting that he’d been toying with the idea of a fast-casual version of Bindaas with more personalized options for the past four or five years. “When Covid happened and this location became available close to Rasika, I said, you know, this is the perfect time to do this.”

Diners will be able to hop in line and choose between set bowls or create their own by picking between different grain options, proteins like lamb, fish, chicken, shrimp, or veggie options. Sauces will range from classics like makhani sauce — the base of butter chicken — to a new spinach-based sauce. Bowls and rolls are priced at $12 to $14, and the menu will change seasonally. “We’re not going to tell you how to eat. We’re going to give you classic bowls but you can also make your own,” Bajaj says.

chicken makhani with saffron rice from Bindaas
Diners will be able to make custom bowls with proteins, grains, and sauces like chicken makhani with saffron rice
Joy Asico / Asico Photo

For an even faster meal, Bindaas Bowls & Rolls will also offer hot, ready-made bowls, kathi rolls, sandwiches, and other snacks that diners can grab and pay for via an express checkout line.

Bajaj is bullish on downtown dining, despite the drop in foot traffic during the pandemic. He’s already seen business pick up for lunch and dinner at other downtown restaurants like Modena and Bombay Club.

“I think we’re beginning to see more and more people coming back for lunches,” he says. The fall opening is timed accordingly for office workers to presumably return, and it will also give the company enough time for design and acquiring permits. Bajaj says the look of the 25-seat restaurant will be modern and “very smart,” with design elements incorporated from the other Bindaas locations.

The man with the mustache will make it into the new Bindaas’ design
R. Lopez

Meanwhile, the second Bindaas location at the Shops at 2000 PENN, the Foggy Bottom development that’s welcoming the Western Market food hall, will be back in business Friday, April 16, after going on a winter hiatus during the pandemic.

“I want to keep a lot of employees who’ve been with me for a long time employed,” Bajaj says about the reopening of the restaurant, which was a favorite for office workers at the nearby World Bank and IMF. “I know going in it may be not as busy. We used to do 500 or 600 people a day there any given day.”

Bajaj is so excited about the Bindaas Bowls & Rolls that he’s scoping out future locations already.

“It keeps life interesting, right?” he says of his new foray into fast-casual dining. “Look at Annabelle, it’s awesome, I love it when I go there, but having fancy restaurants, it’s a lot of stress. Then having something casual and not so intense will be fun as well, balancing out my life.”