Like many restaurateurs, Aaron Gordon* spent March nights waking up in a 2 AM panic.
The owner of DC pizza bar Red Light and neighborhood hangout Little Beast says his mind bounced around—from vaccine timetables to years-long closures, from missed mortgage and rent payments to the potential of a looming recession or depression. In other words, he worried the restaurants he’d worked so hard to establish would be toast.
Then, he says, “something spectacular happened”: his takeout business at Chevy Chase’s Little Beast took off almost immediately. A few weeks into the Covid closures, Gordon was making even more in sales than he had pre-pandemic. He seized on a new idea: what if he went all-in on takeout? What if he merged the concept of a food hall with that of a ghost kitchen (essentially, a takeout-only restaurant with no actual restaurant space)? Both food halls and virtual restaurants are having a moment in the pandemic as businesses owners seek to diversify their offerings with a minimal footprint, but the idea of merging the two is new one.
In mid-August, Gordon will do just that in the Glover Park space (2340 Wisconsin Ave., NW) that once housed prepster tavern Town Hall. The business—tentatively called DC Ghost Kitchen—will feature a roster of carryout options from different DC chefs ranging from high-profile names to ambitious startups.
The opening lineup includes veteran DC chef and podcaster Rock Harper, who will specialize in around-the-world takes on fried chicken (including Southern, Korean, Japanese styles). Hiro Mitsui, who heads the popular Ramen by Uzu in Union Market, is bringing his Japanese soups, along with pork buns and—in partnership with a former Sushi Nakazawa cook—a menu of rolls and nigiri. Naomi Gallego, the pastry chef who created some of the city’s best Detroit pizza at Logan Circle’s Red Light, won’t only oversee those square pies here. She’ll also run an upscale Tex Mex operation, which is slated to launch in October. And Gordon’s Bosnian father-in-law will serve a shortlist of family recipes including lamb-and-beef burgers and five-day smoked beef, which, according to Gordon, tastes like “the best steakhouse steak you’ve ever had. Smoky on the outside and red on the inside.” Every Sunday, he’ll feature a smoked lamb that each chef at the food hall can use for their own menus.
Those concepts, plus a bar serving batched cocktails, will run alongside Gordon’s own Red Velvet Cupcakes and pastry shop Bakers and Baristas. An iteration of Little Beast will shift from brick-oven pizza to a more New York-style pie, and also serve egg sandwiches.
Besides tricking out the patio with a water feature and some fresh furniture, Gordon is trading a focus on decor for a focus on packaging. “You know when you open that iPhone for the first time and it’s sparkling and beautiful?” He wants his venture’s takeaway presentations to evoke the same excitement. Sushi, for example, will come in a bamboo box outfitted with a cooling mechanism.
The restaurateur doesn’t plan to open the inside of the space anytime soon—or ever. Customers will be able to order online for takeout or delivery—Gordon is ditching GrubHub and setting up a fleet of his own drivers—or grab food from a walk-up window and sit outside.
“Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I think I’m a realist—the idea of indoor restaurants is going to be dead for a long time,” says Gordon. “But we still want the sound of a restaurant and want to people watch, just from a distance. And not under a roof, under the sky.”
*Gordon is the brother-in-law of Washingtonian food editor Anna Spiegel.