All-day cafes have become popular across the region, but restaurateur Nick Freshman thinks a lot of them suffer from an identity crisis. “You either feel like you’re drinking a martini inside a bakery or you’re having a latte in a bar,” he says. “It’s not easy to make the space evolve throughout the day.
That’s one of the issues he’s hoping to avoid at the Freshman, an all-day restaurant opening in National Landing on Wednesday, April 21. The place is designed to seamlessly transition from day to night with a coffee bar that melds with the actual bar, and lots of windows to help set the mood through natural light. Meanwhile, a single menu offers breakfast all day—plus flatbreads, sandwiches, bistro classics, and oysters available after 11 AM.
“I really wanted the Freshman to be the kind of concept where we meet you with what you need wherever you are in your day,” says Freshman, who co-owns Clarendon’s Spider Kelly’s and is a founder of the restaurant consulting group Mothersauce Partners.
The menu aims to offer simple dishes that are well-executed—think a classic egg omelet with dressed greens, or a roasted and deboned half chicken with farro. All-day breakfast options include egg-and-cheese sandwiches or egg-white-and-avocado grain bowls. Village Sweet Bakery in Arlington supplies the pastries, which include vanilla cardamom bread and bacon-cheddar-jalapeno scones.
On the after-11 AM menu, snackier dishes range from spring-pea hummus to chicken-fried oysters to a selection of “fancy toast” (one version comes topped with ham, goat cheese, and dried fig). There’s a burger and fried catfish po’ boy alongside a “grain goddess” salad or grilled-broccoli-and-Brussels Caesar. More composed entrees include steak frites with lemon-peppercorn sauce or housemade herb pappardelle with roasted wild mushrooms.
If you’re not dining in the 120-seat dining room or on the 50-seat patio, everything is available to-go. “I wanted it to be as easy to order a coffee to go from here as it is from Starbucks. And I wanted it to be as easy to order lunch from here to go as it is from Sweetgreen. Both of those are in our neighborhood,” Freshman says. “We were leaning pretty heavy into technology before this started, and the pandemic just reinforced the need for it. So we have the ability for our customers to order and pay at the table and to order ahead online.” The Freshman aims to also implement its own delivery system by fall.
The 16-bottle wine list focuses on food-friendly, Old World varietals with most offerings under $50 and also available by the glass. Beers, meanwhile, skew local, with options from Aslin, Fair Winds, and other area breweries. The handful of cocktails include a white sangria, a Manhattan, and a citrusy sweet espresso-spiked drink for brunch or a nightcap.
Freshman signed a lease for the restaurant just before Amazon announced plans to bring its HQ2 to the neighborhood, and it was initially set to open last spring. When the pandemic hit, the place instead served as a distribution center for Hook Hall Helps, an initiative to provide food and supplies to struggling hospitality workers. Most of the office workers who were going to fuel the neighborhood, including those new Amazon employees, still have yet to return. In the meantime, Freshman is focusing on the people—like himself—who live nearby.
Freshman initially decided to close the restaurant on Monday and Tuesday because of the lack of commercial business. Now, though, he says he couldn’t open then if he wanted to because of lack of staff. He can’t remember a time when hiring has been so difficult.
“The public and the press are ready for this amazing dining boom. It’s going to be the Roaring ’20s of dining in DC. And I really think that could happen. Except that if we don’t have the people, we can’t open,” Freshman says. “Our frontline workers in this industry had the worst year. Many of them have transitioned out of the business, that’s what we’ve seen. Others are very leery. They don’t necessarily trust their employers to protect them. They don’t trust the dining public to respect them.”
One small symbolic gesture to highlight the often overlooked people who help make the hospitality industry tick is a colorful mural from DC artist Cita Sadeli (aka MISS CHELOVE), which pays homage to cultural elements of Central American immigrants. Freshman notes that much of his success in the restaurant business has come in large part thanks to workers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Central and South American countries.
“The story of The Freshman is always going be the story of ‘local guy opens a restaurant named after himself,’ maybe because he’s a narcissist, maybe not,” Freshman says. “I can’t change that, but what I can do is try to elevate others and maybe tell a parallel story.”
The Freshman. 2011 Crystal Drive, Arlington.