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Goodbye, Butterfield 9
This marks the second shuttering of a big-name restaurant in a week; Colorado Kitchen served its last brunch this weekend. Both made The Washingtonian's 100 Best Restaurants list this past January.
Asked whether chef Michael Harr, who attempted to buy out the restaurant's ownership group a couple of years ago, would assume control of the restaurant as chef-owner, the source replies: "It's not a possibility."
Another source cites "financial hardships" as the prime motivation of ownership to pull the plug. Restaurants throughout the area are feeling the effects of a flagging economy, from soaring gas prices to food costs that have risen by as much as 30 percent over last year to less-than-capacity dining rooms. Meanwhile, there is a growing fear that raising the prices of appetizers and entrées would bring swift reprisals from diners.
Harr and the owners clashed at times in his three years, and Harr complained to me in a phone interview several weeks ago that the restaurant's organizational structure was difficult for him. The restaurant is managed by a group of lawyers who work in DC; the owners live in another state.
News of any veteran restaurant's demise is unfortunate, but the closing of Butterfield 9 comes at an odd time because the food had never been better or more consistent. Or cheaper. Harr had recently slashed menu prices, bringing entrée costs below the $30 barrier and, in the process, reengineering the perception of the restaurant.
An attraction for theatergoers and expense-account diners, it had of late become a dining destination. Harr had emerged as one of the city's top chefs, sending out sophisticated, imaginative plates that, for all their technical daring, were rarely self-aggrandizing. Nearly 80 percent of his raw materials came from nearby farms, but you didn't read about that on his sparely descriptive menus; shopping counts, he seemed to say, but cooking counts more.
Some dishes were dazzling. A recent main course called "chocolate steak," a seared loin of elk with a painterly swipe of dark-chocolate sauce, was like eating a glass of great Bordeaux; the flavors were complex, resonant, and slightly mysterious. But Harr could also bring a table of adults to moaning with simpler preparations—a marvelous bowl of green-chili grits, for instance, or a fresh-cased rabbit sausage.
The chef, who grew up in Gaithersburg and got his start in the kitchen as a teenager at Jean-Louis at the Watergate (his brother would load him onto his motorcycle and take him to work), won't say what his plans are and is still struggling to come to grips with what he describes as a "very overwhelming stressful event in my life."
"I would love to stay in the area," he says. "This is my hometown. And if something of magnitude opens up, you'll hear from me."