A lot has changed in the DC dining scene since Mike Isabella opened Graffiato five years ago—and the same can be said of Isabella’s career. When the Penn Quarter Jersey-Italian restaurant opened, Isabella was “Top Chef Mike,” known for his pepperoni sauce and loud-mouthed persona. Now he’s one of Washington’s most prolific homegrown restaurateurs, with eight local stand-alone restaurants, kiosks in airports and Nationals Park, and a ambitious Tysons Galleria dining hall, Isabella Eatery, on the way.
It all started with Graffiato. Here, Isabella spoke about empire building, expensive battles with neighbors, and what the future feels like.
Graffiato was the first in what’s become a restaurant empire. Did you have empire-building in mind?
That was the goal. I didn’t know it was going to happen this fast, and this much, and where it’s going with some of the big projects I have now. I always dreamed of having multiple restaurants. I just never pictured this, and this quick.
But I’m a risk taker. I have a lot of big dreams. And it all goes back to your team. I recruited a lot for José [Andrés], I’ve recruited my whole life when I worked for big companies. I do a good job of that. I have a lot of good guys, and a lot of people have not left me. It’s the only reason I could do it. Also things like brining Jen Carroll aboard [Requin] and Jonah Kim aboard [Yona] to make the empire stronger.
You’ve opened a second Graffiato in Richmond. Have you wanted to expand beyond that?
My original plan was to open a lot of them, but I decided I didn’t want to do that—even though I have a Graffiato coming to Tysons Galleria, but it’s part of the whole program.
When I thought about it more from a business side, the concept would have to evolve more—when it came to the design, feel, vibe. There are a lot of restaurants that have a similarity to what we do, whether it’s Italian or American, whether you go to New York or Chicago or San Fran. You’re competing with more Italian restaurants. Something like Kapnos, there’s nothing like it in America. Maybe you have ten great Greek restaurants in America for every thousand Italian restaurants. So I felt it was an easier market to do more Kapnoses.
What are the biggest changes in the restaurant scene in the past five years?
There’s a lot more neighborhoods with a lot more restaurants. There’s a lot more variety and choices. There are a lot of great chefs that either come from the rankings down below and work their way up, like I did, or come in from out of town. It’s a struggle to keep your business the way you want to keep. It’s tough, so you have to keep it fun—doing industry takeovers, bourbon dinners, or having a pop-up week in the summer—keeping your name out there.
Where did the idea for industry nights come from, and what was the craziest one?
It was a lot of work for me—two years straight, once a month, bringing different chefs and mixologists in, and throwing a big party. I got burnt out from partying, and I never thought I would. It made a big impact, bringing the chefs in the community together—or chefs from Las Vegas, Chicago, or New York in. All the chefs here were able to meet other chefs—whether they were Top Chefs or James Beard chefs or just good chefs from other cities. It brought the camaraderie to DC.
The craziest one was Philly, with Jen Carroll, her first time down here. Derek Brown was guest bar tending. Everyone got really drunk, and the next thing you know, we were lighting off fireworks in the restaurant. It got out of control, and it went to the outside back, Jen was shooting me with roman candles, people were slamming pizza peels on dumpster. I don’t know how the night ends. Next thing you know, we got a call from the condo building behind us with complaints. So I apologized, said I’d throw a party for them. They came over for happy hour with about 100 people, and spent about $5,000 at my restaurant—for free—just because of that industry night.
When you were opening Graffiato five years ago, you told me: “Some days I want to wake up and cry from happiness, and others I want to cry from nervousness.” Do you still get that feeling opening restaurants?
One hundred percent. There’s a quote I’ll never forget it: ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.’ That’s the story of my life. I take a lot of risks, and I’m nervous. I just came from Tysons Galleria. If you get a chance to go to Tysons Galleria and you go to the third floor and see all the blacked-out walls [for the forthcoming Isabella Eatery], you’ll understand how scared I really am. Look for all the black on both sides—one side is 150 yards long, with seven concepts. That’s just one side. So yeah, I’m very scared about a lot of things I do. I think about it every day, and I don’t sleep much, which drives me to keep working seven days a week, from early in the morning to late at night.