The opening of a new restaurant is like the opening of a Broadway show. There’s the theater, which is the kitchen and dining room; the production design, also known as the decor; there’s the cast, who are the servers and customers; there’s the script, which is the menu, and there’s the director and star, which in a chef-owned restaurant is embodied in one person, the chef. There are other similarities, too: the preview, which in a restaurant is called a “soft opening,” and a night when the show is put on just for other actors, called an “industry night.” All those components came together Sunday night at Bryan Voltaggio’s first DC restaurant, Range.
Voltaggio, who also owns the acclaimed Volt in Frederick, Maryland, will have to wait several weeks before he knows whether he has another hit with the critics, because reviews are something else a restaurant shares with a Broadway production. For now, he’s focused on a few finishing touches before the spot opens to the public on December 18, the promising fact of a lot of advance reservations on the books and a nearly sold out New Year’s Eve (as with a show, public acclaim can override the critics), and maybe getting some rest—although that’s not likely. Chefs who want rest don’t open a 14,000-square-foot restaurant that seats 300 and employs 46 servers, an eventual 28 cooks and 5 chefs, and several bartenders. Not to mention that he commutes between Frederick and his home in Urbana, Maryland, and the Chevy Chase Pavilion location of Range. Nonetheless, it seems, with a smile on his face.
The party Sunday evening started late for DC—9 PM—because late is when restaurant people get off the clock and have time to kick back. More than 250 “industry” people and friends were invited, and those who turned up included an impressive number of other restaurant stars: Mike Isabella, Jeff Black, Ris Lacoste, Derek Brown, Ed Witt, Victor Albisu, Johnny Spero, Kyle Bailey, R.J. Cooper, Kaz Okochi, Tiffany MacIsaac, and Travis Croxton. Also there were Range’s co-owner, Hilda Staples, its beverage director, Owen Thomson (“call me a ‘shaker monkey’”), and representatives from the restaurant’s major funder, Clarion Partners; the firm that did the interior design, Collective Architecture; and the progressive retail development company, Streetsense, which brought Voltaggio into Chevy Chase Pavilion.
As much as everybody wanted to see one another and congratulate Voltaggio, what they really wanted was to try the drinks and food, and there was plenty to choose from. All kinds of offerings from the menu were passed at the tables and the bar, including pizzas, shellfish, meats and pâtés, cheeses, and roasted vegetables and crudos. Range is an all-purpose restaurant. To extend the Broadway comparison one step further, rather than one big show, Range is a lot of little shows all strung together in a vast and modern room that curves around an atrium shared with the Embassy Suites hotel. Thankfully, it doesn’t feel like eating in a hotel atrium, and, also thankfully, there’s no sushi bar. While the menu is broad, it has a focus: the Mid-Atlantic region. All the little shows are stations, celebrating the region that once was known as “America’s breadbasket,” says Voltaggio. There is a bakery, a raw bar, a charcuterie, a pasta bar, a wood oven and grill, and a sweets counter with handmade chocolates, chocolate bark, and chocolate cookies. Patrons can sit at the counters or at tables or banquettes and order from the full menu.
Another option is the long, marble-topped bar—a mixologist’s fantasy come to life, with displays of potions, fruits and even raw eggs for drinks, which is potentially the hub of the restaurant. The drink menu, designed by Thomson (who came to Voltaggio from a similar job with José Andrés), has a lot of perky and tempting interpretations, and the drinks are served in beautiful glassware. There’s an East Sea, with gin, St. Germain, kombu broth, and Hellfire bitters; the Urban Conformist, with vodka, tea, lemon, and oak; and the Vegan Sacrifice, a combination of Scotch, ginger, cayenne, and “beef ice.” I tried the Antique Dose, a variation on the classic Manhattan, using rye, Strega, and Barolo Chinato. The bar has big TVs and a good view of the whole restaurant.
In January there will also be an adjacent 93-seat cigar bar, Civil, a concept put together by the same people who own W. Curtis Draper, the DC tobacconist that opened downtown in 1887. This iteration of the company will zoom into the future, however. The state-of-the-art ventilation system is so advanced it will change the air in the room every two minutes, by sucking the smoke into ductwork under the floor, meaning smokers and nonsmokers can comfortably coexist. There will be a bar, and a small plates menu provided by Range. One of the owners, Matt Krimm, said their tagline is “drink, smoke, eat.”
Before the party began, Voltaggio took a moment to reflect on what he’s created. “We found a lot of great people,” he said. “I’m working with five partners who have been with me all along the way.” Looking at his kitchen, that goes as far as the eye can see, he said, “There’s so much that we have to play with. Over the next weeks the menu is more likely to grow rather than shrink.” Notably, on New Year’s Eve, he will do an à-la-carte menu rather than an expensive prix-fixe. “I don’t like to gouge on holidays,” he said. The restaurant has the location advantage of being in one mall, across from another mall, adjacent to yet another mall, a block from Metro, and with a large parking garage in the building’s basement.
Voltaggio was a finalist on Bravo’s Top Chef, season 6, and we wondered what he would do if the producers called up now and asked him to do another season. “I would stay right here,” he said. “I have no immediate plans to do more TV.” So rather than go for cheftestant status, he plans to focus his energies on just the “chef” part.