Balkan restaurant Ambar doesn’t make most local critics’ lists of the best places to eat in Washington. But head to travel review site TripAdvisor, and you’ll find the small plates restaurant ranked number one out of 2,496 eateries in the area. In fact, the Capitol Hill location has topped the list for more than nine months. By contrast, Ambar’s Barracks Row neighbor Rose’s Luxury—a darling among local and national media—comes in at number 26.
It’s no surprise that the opinions of professional restaurant reviewers often differ with those of the general public. Classic example: Founding Farmers is the most booked restaurant on OpenTable despite the fact that the Post‘s Tom Sietsema gave it zero stars.
But just how did Ambar become a traveler favorite?
Owner Ivan Iricanin will tell you it’s all about great food and great service. Another selling point for the masses: the restaurant offers a $49 “Balkan experience,” where dinner patrons can order unlimited dishes and drinks. (A similar $39 deal is offered at brunch.) It is genuinely a really good bargain if you want to eat and drink a lot.
But this doesn’t completely explain Ambar’s meteoric TripAdvisor rise. Lots of restaurants have great food and great service—arguably better food and better service.
Iricanin says he’s never done any marketing or advertising with TripAdvisor. He has, however, made a concerted effort to engage online reviewers. It didn’t hurt that he already had a connection to an international community of travelers.
Iricanin has five other popular restaurants, employing 260 people, in his native country of Serbia. His businesses include another location of Ambar, Mala Fabrika Ukusa (meaning “Little Factory of Taste”), and Burrito Madre, which he says is “sort of like Chipotle”. Iricanin started paying closer attention to TripAdvisor after seeing how it affected his Belgrade businesses.
“I would say 40 or 50 percent [or our customers] are tourists over there. I used a lot of experience from Serbia to implement over here,” he says. “Knowing that DC is one of the busiest tourist places in the United States… we said, ‘How do we target these people?'”
A year and a half ago, Iricanin relinquished his role as director of operations with Richard Sandoval Restaurants (Masa 14, El Centro, et. al) and started focusing exclusively on Ambar and his Serbian restaurants. He began rethinking the way that Ambar hires and trains employees when it comes to hospitality—in person and online.
The Ambar team now responds to every review on TripAdvisor and monitors other online review sites as well. If the restaurant gets a negative review, a “guest relations manager” will contact the poster to find out what went wrong and invite them back. Extra service measures are also taken while diners are still in the restaurant, especially for those who’ve gone out of their way to make it.
“If we hear that they’re coming from Canada, we will maybe give them a free dessert and write something on it to connect with them,” says Iricanin. “Then management coming to the table and literally becoming friends at the end of the dinner.”
Now in its fourth year, Ambar is breaking its revenue records, Iricanin says. The restaurant is also getting far more tourists than in previous years—as much as 20 to 30 percent of the clientele. And it’s not just out-of-towners; Iricanin says the TripAdvisor status has helped draw more people from Virginia, Maryland, and other parts of the greater Washington area. He just opened a new location in Clarendon.
A snowball effect is partially to thank. “The more tourists you get, if they’re happy, they’re going to talk about it. And the more they talk, the more people are going to come,” Iricanin says. “It’s kind of a never-ending train.”