When it opens on November 1, the Shaw Bijou will be one of the most expensive dining experiences in Washington—and one of the rare places where reservations are binding, and all sales are final.*
“The ability for us to ensure that all of our costs are covered on a night-in and night-out basis allows us to source the best products we can,” says general manager Greg Vakiner of the policy. “With only an eight-table dining room at our price point, for us to have a table of four guests not show up could be a large hit for our bottom line. Using this method, it allows us to plan everything in advance, and ensures that we have the staff and infrastructure to deliver the experience as intended.”
Ticketed reservations for chef/co-owner Kwame Onwuachi’s first-ever restaurant went live on Monday—and clock in at an eye-popping $962 for two 13-course tasting menus with wine pairings (both $185 per person), tax, and automatic 20-percent gratuity. Patrons can soften the blow by purchasing the $95 per person beverage pairing, which mixes virgin and alcoholic drinks. Or, they can opt for a “custom beverage menu” that involves a consultation with the bar director or sommelier, and which starts at $50 per person.
Still, for the sake of comparing apples to apples—or in this case, ticketed dinners that cost as much as a monthly mortgage payment—the Shaw Bijou’s prix-fixe with wines leaves Pineapple & Pearls in the dust. Tickets for the latter, which also include drink pairings, tax, and tip, are a mere $500 per couple. Price-wise, the new restaurant is more on par with a wine-paired dinner at Minibar. José Andrés‘s modernist venture recently switched from an email-based reservation system to pre-paid tickets via Tock, the online reservation platform from Chicago restaurateur Nick Kokonas of the famed Alinea. Minibar tickets come out to $715 for two for food, tax, and tip; $95-plus alcohol pairings are purchased separately. Another significant detail the Shaw Bijou and Minibar have in common: all sales are final (Pineapple & Pearls maintains a 72-hour cancellation for full refunds).
In an unprecedented move in DC dining, reservations at the Shaw Bijou and Minibar are treated like “a sporting event, concert, or theater ticket,” as it states in the FAQ section of both restaurants’s Tock sites—there are no refunds, or exchanges for a different night at the last minute.
“The idea behind this is solely that ‘the show must go on’,” says Vakiner. “If you bought tickets to go see a band in concert, and a month in advance you had a change of plans, how would you deal with those tickets? That said, we will reschedule a booking for anyone outside of a week in advance. We don’t wish to discourage people from buying tickets because they won’t get their money back. We wish for people to buy tickets knowing that even if something does come up, we will work within our limitations to ensure that we can get them in the door.”
The one way out of a reservation is a transfer, which can be accomplished through Tock. At the Shaw Bijou, the current policy is to “re-release” dining tickets if the aspiring sellers are within one week of their reservation, and a refund will be issued if the passes are booked. It’s also possible to change beverage options when tickets are exchanged. There’s also the prospect of less formal dealings—selling to friends, or through Craigslist—though the restaurant warns about risks on the “secondary market.”
“Anyone who purchases a booking from another patron should take care to be sure that the beverage pairing options are as claimed by requesting both an email confirmation from us as well as a printed receipt from the seller,” states the restaurant’s Tock FAQ page. “We will not be held responsible for forgeries or misrepresentations.”
Identical language is used on the Minibar page.
The big, unprinted difference is a trust-factor. Andrés launched Minibar inside the now-closed Cafe Atlantico in 2003 with a $65 price tag. The concept grew and moved—and the tab went up—as he advanced in his career, garnering a James Beard Award among other accolades for himself and his restaurants. The Shaw Bijou and Onwuachi are both unknown quantities in DC—and in an industry where paying your dues is valued. The 26 year-old chef cooked in some of New York’s loftiest kitchens, including Eleven Madison Park and Per Se, and came across as a delightful and talented entity on the last season of Top Chef, ranking in the final rounds. His restaurant, which will channel his Bronx upbringing and Nigerian heritage, may be incredible. Still, there has been early backlash to the Shaw Bijou’s assumption that diners are willing to literally bet their wallets on a first-time executive chef—and that was before reservations, and the abundant fine print, went live.
*This post has been updated from an earlier version.