Mike Isabella: “I Thought I Was Invincible, and I’m Not”

After settling a sexual harassment suit, one of DC's most relentless empire-builders is closing two operations.

Mike Isabella. Photo by Jeff Elkins

Has restaurateur Mike Isabella closed Graffiato Richmond? That’s the rumor floating around sites like Don Rockwell, as the Virginia outpost of Isabella’s flagship Italian restaurant seems to have gone dark. Isabella’s answer: not yet. 

Isabella says the HVAC system is broken and awaiting repairs, and that it’s too hot to host staff and diners in the meantime. He plans to reopen the restaurant soon. In the longterm—well, not long-long term—he hopes to sell the lease and is currently in negotiations with a Richmond restaurant group to take over the space. 

“We don’t have a lot of time to get down there,” says Isabella. “We want to tighten things up, and focus on things closer to home.” 

Once one of Washington’s most relentless empire-builders, Isabella is now closing more operations than he’s opening. Requin Brasserie in Fairfax’s Mosaic District quietly shuttered in April. Meanwhile, the landlord of the space is suing his company for unpaid rent, the Washington Business Journal reported last week. A subsidiary of high-profile developer Edens claims Isabella’s company owes more than $700,000 in unpaid rent and penalties.

All this comes just a month after the Top Chef alum settled a lawsuit with former employee Chloe Caras, who accused the restaurateur and his business partners of sexual harassment. The financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed. In her lawsuit, Caras accused Isabella of bragging about sexual exploits with prostitutes, vulgar language, unwanted touching, and using nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking up about bad behavior. Caras also claimed she was fired after she got in an argument with Isabella after another sexual remark.

Isabella has repeatedly denied accusations of inappropriate touching or creating a hostile work environment. Unlike other accused restaurateurs in the #MeToo era, like Mario Batali and John Besh, Isabella never admitted wrongdoing or stepped down from his businesses. He claimed Caras “stormed off the job,” refusing to return to work. He also disputed the notion that there was anything nefarious about his nondisclosure agreements.  As part of the settlement, the restaurateur agreed to improve practices within his group to ensure employees work in a “comfortable environment.”

The fallout for his personal brand and multi-million dollar restaurant company has been significant. Organizations like the Nationals cut ties. The RAMMY Awards, of which Isabella was once a focal part, (often hosting after-parties for “DC food prom”), went on this past weekend without him. His restaurants were disqualified in light of the sexual harassment allegations.

While the lawsuit largely focused on Isabella’s Washington-area restaurants, Richmond Graffiato wasn’t without its alleged problems. As evidence that Isabella and his partners “failed to protect other female employees of sexual harassment,” the lawsuit disclosed an alleged incident in which Graffiato Richmond’s executive chef, Matt Robinett, repeatedly opened a bathroom door on a female employee at a neighboring bar, and publicly embarrassed her, saying “Nice vag.” The lawsuit alleges that Robinett repeatedly harassed colleagues during his tenure—he was terminated for “an unrelated” reason last year—and even fired a female employee after she made a formal complaint to MIC partner Taha Ismail about the harassment. Robinett was allegedly “protective” of Isabella and his partners while they displayed unprofessional behavior, including being intoxicated at the Richmond restaurant, and demanding staff to accompany them to strip clubs. Isabella and his partners denied any wrongdoing.

For now, Isabella isn’t necessarily eying a Batali-style comeback (granted, he never left). He says he’s back in the kitchen at Graffiato in Chinatown—his first restaurant, which opened in 2011. While Richmond may shutter, he plans to move forward in DC, working with cooks to launch Graffiato’s annual Jersey Shore pop-up this week. The back-to-the-roots move was one that was publicized before the lawsuit, but now it’s taken on a less celebratory tone. 

“I have to keep doing what I do,” says Isabella. “I just want to focus on my family and my business and my guests and co-workers. I want to work to prove, to show what I’m doing to make things better. It’s just going to take time.”

At the height of his restaurant empire-building a few years back, Isabella told Washingtonian he wanted to be like Wolfgang Puck (“He has restaurants, catering, equipment, food in the grocery stores. He has everything you could possibly want as a chef.”) His portfolio ballooned to a dozen existing restaurants in seven years. Now, he says he’s hoping for a different trajectory.

“The last few years were spent running from meeting to meeting to meeting, and it really burnt me out, and hurt me. I can’t do that anymore,” says Isabella. “I’d rather be back in the kitchen, have less restaurants. I grew too quick. I grew too fast and too big. I thought I was invincible, and I’m not. You learn and make mistakes in life. That’s kind of where it is.”

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.