When chef Jeff Black and his wife, Barbara, debuted their first restaurant, Addie’s, in 1995, Washington had a very different dining culture. “Everything looked like a men’s club—very stiff,” says Jeff. “I hated that. The first thing we did when opening Addie’s was to paint it bright yellow.”
Eighteen years later, the Blacks are hardly seen as culinary rebels—you won’t find foams, “soils,” or other science-experiment tricks in their kitchens—but they have mastered the art of unpretentious yet thoughtful American restaurants, harboring a special love for seafood.
There’s BlackSalt, the buzzy dining room—and fabulous fish market—that draws the likes of Michelle Obama despite its out-of-the-way location in DC’s Palisades; Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda; Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park; and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in DC’s Logan Circle along with its upstairs bar, Black Jack, where hip crowds sip inventive cocktails and play bocce.
The journey wasn’t easy. After meeting at the Culinary Institute of America, the pair was lucky to work under some of Washington’s greats: Jeff with Jean-Louis Palladin and Bob Kinkead, Barbara alongside caterer Susan Gage. But they ran out of money opening Addie’s in Rockville, putting their employees on an interest-heavy payment plan, buying worn equipment, and taking side gigs. Their first paycheck arrived nine months after they opened.
Still, that one restaurant became a restaurant group and a handful of employees grew to some 350. Although they’re reluctant to take on potentially demanding investors and landlords—the Blacks borrow mostly from the bank and own three of the five buildings their eateries occupy—they’re willing to help finance fellow chefs’ efforts to strike out on their own. This year, they’re playing a part in a South American grill from former BLT Steak chef Victor Albisu as well as a project in Takoma Park by longtime Black Restaurant Group chef Danny Wells. Taking a similar approach to the community, in 2011 they founded the Black’s Family Foundation, which raises money for local charities.
When it comes to their own restaurants, they’re not done: Despite a recent stumble—plans for a massive oyster bar in Merrifield’s new Mosaic District fell through at the last minute—Jeff is scoping places for their next venture.
“I tell my team we’re climbing a mountain and there’s no peak,” he says. “As soon as you stop climbing the mountain, you fall off.”