After years of planning and $2.5 billion in investment, Hoffman-Madison Waterfront will unveil the Wharf on October 12. The official opening weekend festivities are slated to bring thousands of people to the Southwest Waterfront—DC’s biggest development project in recent history—with headliners like the Foo Fighters at the new Anthem, and free entertainment by local musicians and actor Kevin Bacon. Unfortunately when it comes to stars from the culinary world, not all is aligned.
Through next year, 30-plus restaurants and bars are expected to open in three major phases at the Wharf. Over a dozen were originally slated to debut in “phase one” on October 12. Due to construction and permitting delays, and the need to train staff on-site, all of the big-name chefs won’t technically open until later in the month (or beyond).
Restaurateur Mike Isabella says he isn’t ready to serve food or drinks from Requin’s menu, so he’s planning “party food for the masses” for the opening festivities—around a dozen simple items like burgers, salads, and steak. He plans to close the finer-dining French restaurant after the festivities on October 15, and officially open for dinner service on October 23.
“The city is working hard for this project to help get it open, but it’s tough,” says Isabella. “Construction is tough, permitting is tough, inspections are tough—especially when you’re opening however many restaurants, hotels and condos and offices and bars and clubs and music venues all in the same block.”
The Wharf’s most upscale dining room, Del Mar by Fabio Trabocchi, is also on hold until the week of October 23rd, and possibly into November. This weekend, the public will be able to order a small menu of snacks from sister restaurant Casa Luca’s catering team in Del Mar (think of it like an outside caterer in a fancy party space). As of now, Trabocchi says there’s no set opening date for the luxe Spanish spot—it’ll be ready when it’s ready.
“It’s been confusing to the public, but the opening of the Wharf and the opening of the restaurants are divorced,” says Trabocchi. “There was always the goal to try to open with the Wharf, but there’s the goal and the reality.”
Kaliwa from Restaurant Eve chef Cathal Armstrong already pushed back its opening to winter due to “contractor issues.” Hank’s Oyster Bar will be temporarily open for the weekend, but is still awaiting final inspections and its alcohol license. Shane Mayson, JL Restaurant Group’s director of business development, says their plan may be similar to Requin’s: open for the weekend festivities, then close to get ready for business. The eatery plans to give out free snacks and swag on their patio, Thursday through Sunday.*
Delays are basically a given in the restaurant world. But the Wharf’s hard deadline for opening makes these ones noteworthy. None of restaurateurs say finding staff has been a problem—though some predict the Wharf’s opening and 900 hospitality jobs could cause a major staffing shortage in Washington. Instead, they say the issue is getting their people in the right place at the right time. Creating the best impression right off the bat is a major concern for businesses operating in what will be a “new neighborhood” to many of the visitors.
“We’ve been training people at all other other properties so they’re on board” says Mayson. “Our only concern is that we haven’t had time to train in the space. We’re not going to do this wrong. People are going to come down for the first time, and if we’re open, they expect it to be right.”
Of all the big-name chefs slated to open at the Wharf this week, former Shaw Bijou toque Kwame Onwuachi was poised to be the only one to move forward fully as planned. His restaurant inside the InterContinental hotel, Kith and Kin, was scheduled to debut with an à la carte menu of dishes that incorporate on African, Caribbean, and Creole flavors. Representatives from the restaurant now say they’ve “encountered a few standard delays” but plan to open this month.
When it comes to the Wharf’s more casual venues, the story is different. English pub the Brighton from Eric and Ian Hilton and Irish pub Kirwan’s on the Wharf say they’re ready to launch on October 12—debuts that are perhaps better suited for thousands of concertgoers than fine-dining venues. Shake Shack, one of the few non-local chains, will be cutting its ribbon and serving 100 free “super fry frickle” burgers made with Gordy’s jalapeños at 11 am. Major entertainment venues like the 6,000-person Anthem and Pearl Street Warehouse are gearing up for grand opening.
Even among the restaurateurs who’re experiencing delays, there’s an audible sense of both nervousness and excitement.
“It’s like a Swiss watch where all the mechanisms are going in with tweezers” says Mayson. “We’re all hyper-focused and holding our breath, just waiting to hit the button and hoping it all goes click.”
* This post has been updated from an earlier version.