Washingtonians are familiar with big name, out-of-town restaurateurs opening spinoffs of their popular restaurant concepts in upscale DC hotels. But hospitality magnate and Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer isn’t just any big name restaurateur, and Maialino Mare, which opens Wednesday in Navy Yard, isn’t just any restaurant concept. The Roman-style trattoria is the Union Square Hospitality Group’s (USHG) first seafood-centric venture, and its only full-service restaurant outside New York City.
So why DC, and why now?
“Why DC is the easy part. Why now has more to do with us,” says Meyer, who currently operates over 18 full-service ventures in New York, from casual bars to Michelin-starred restaurants (plus over 160 Shake Shacks worldwide). “We’re ready right now. Our organization is ready. I always believed if really talented people from our team wanted to live in a city I wanted to spend time in, that would be a pretty good cocktail.”
One of those people is chef Rose Noel, who started as a pasta maker at the original Maialino in Gramercy Park and rose through the ranks; most recently she was an executive sous chef at Meyer’s lofty financial district dining room Manhatta. Her menu here draws largely from the sea, though the kitchen also turns out dishes from the Roman canon: fried artichokes, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, bucatini all’Amatriciana, and the signature maialino, a slow-roasted, crisp-skinned suckling pig. Traditional seafood dishes like wine-sauced swordfish or salt-baked branzino that Meyer encountered when he was a young tour guide in Rome are joined by modern riffs such as crispy skate-wing milanese.
“What I love about Rome is that it’s not about ‘How many new things can I invent?’ It’s ‘Can I take something you know and do a really good version of it that makes you say ‘Damn it that was satisfying.’,” says Meyer. “That can sometimes be harder because you have a framework. Every restaurant in the world has linguine alle vongole. What can you add to the dialogue? That’s our challenge here.”
Out of everything happening at the Thompson Hotel restaurant, Meyer is perhaps most excited about breakfast, starting soon. (His order: soft-scrambled eggs with bottarga and housemade suckling-pig bacon, or on virtuous mornings, an off-menu egg-white omelet with jalapeños and green juice). Also on the horizon: Anchovy Social, a year-round 8,000 square-foot rooftop bar with waterfront views, spritzes, and shareable seafood—think clams casino, raw bar plateaus, and trendy tinned fish.
Like all of USHG’s New York restaurants, Maialino Mare has a hospitality-included (no-tipping) policy—a field in which Meyer is an outspoken pioneer. Beyond business practices, Meyer says he isn’t coming to Washington with a New York state of mind.
“Most cities don’t like New Yorkers telling them how they should eat,” says Meyer. “New York’s brand is, sadly, arrogance. You think about the Yankees, you think about some of the other people from New York. And that’s not who we are. It’s just really important when you go to a new town to go in with an enormous dose of humility and earn it—earn your place here.”
Maialino Mare. 221 Tingey St., SE