Le Bistro. 111 Church St. NW, Vienna.
Vienna will soon get a French bistro from famed Italian chef Roberto Donna and his restaurateur wife Nancy Sabbagh—the latest expansion in the Turin-born chef’s 40-year career of ups and downs. Le Bistro, owned by Sabbagh with Donna as executive chef, will take over the Church Street space of the upscale Blend 111.
Blend 111’s last day of service is Saturday, August 12, and Le Bistro will be up and running within a few weeks. The restaurant sits across the street from Roberto’s Ristorante Italiano, the cozy dining room Donna and Sabbagh opened last year.
Donna’s classic Gallic offerings at Le Bistro will be informed by the French chefs who inspired him—including the late Michel Richard and Jean-Louis Palladin—and by the French influence on Lebanon, where Sabbagh is from. Along with bistro staples like escargots, moules frites, and frisée aux lardons, Donna plans to serve a variety of different steaks, and hearty classics like beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and creamy baked gnocchi à la Parisienne. Main dishes will be under $35, something Donna says was important to him.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “We just want solid, good food, affordable for everyone.”
The couple had originally been searching for a space to open a Neapolitan pizzeria, but when they heard Blend 111 was on the market, they thought the space was better suited to a bistro. For now, Le Bistro will operate as a pop-up. “We’ll see how people respond. If they answer well, we’ll keep it as a bistro,” Donna says. “Or we’ll turn it into a pizzeria—but the goal is to keep it as a bistro.”
Donna, who moved to the States at age 20, has staged at least three comebacks. He ran Galileo, one of DC’s hottest Italian restaurants in the ‘80s, where even Vice President George H.W. Bush couldn’t snag a last-minute reservation. He built a confederation of 11 local Italian restaurants and won a James Beard Award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic, in 1996, the same year he published a cookbook. But by 2004, Galileo’s parent company was bankrupt, and five years later, the last of his restaurants shut down. Eventually, he pled guilty to felony embezzlement and was hit with a raft of wage theft lawsuits from employees. An attempt at recreating Galileo in 2011 ultimately failed, with more lawsuits involved, and the chef also got into hot water for tax evasion.
Donna restored some of his reputation as the chef at Al Dente in Cathedral Heights, where he worked for seven years starting in 2012. Last year, he and Sabbagh staged a modest comeback outside DC: Roberto’s, a traditional trattoria on Vienna’s Church Street, is closer to their Reston home. Sabbagh fully owns Roberto’s, and Donna is solely the chef, allowing him to “do what he does best,” cooking risotto and pasta, rather than managing a business.
The two say they’re excited to open a second place so close by. “We love this street,” Donna says. “It’s like a mini-mini-mini Georgetown”
Blend 111, the restaurant Le Bistro will replace, had a comeback of its own. After a rough initial review by Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema in 2019, chef Andrés-Julian Zuluaga breathed new life into the menu and the place became a popular fixture. But owner Michael Biddick, an IT consultant by trade, decided to return to his day job full time and sell the place, Donna says. Sabbagh swiftly bought it on August 1, and estimates Le Bistro will start serving steaks and snails in three to four weeks.