by nevin martell | June 23, 2014 | Food & Drink
After one year, Le Diplomate continues to wow Washington’s elite while boasting unprecedented success and profits.
Guests covet the outdoor tables at Le Diplomate.
The joyous clamor of the dining room is the first thing that hits you when you walk into Le Diplomate on a Saturday night. It’s ecstatic, engaged, and electrifying. Over the course of the evening, Stephen Starr’s high-energy bistro at the heart of the white-hot 14th Street corridor serves classic French fare to more than 800 diners. That’s after more than 1,100 others have enjoyed brunch and midday meals over the course of the day. A “quiet” Monday night still finds approximately 600 people sitting down to consume towering seafood platters, spot-on steak frites, and slathers of buttery foie gras parfait on golden Texas toast–size triangles of brioche. “We expected it to be busy,” says general manager William Washington. “We didn’t expect it to be this busy.”
To call Le Dip—as its fans have dubbed it—one of the most successful restaurants in the city almost feels like an understatement. By its one-year anniversary in early April, the en vogue eatery earned more than $16 million and had been nominated for a much-coveted “New Restaurant of the Year” RAMMY Award from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. The corner crowd-pleaser has become a go-to destination for foodies, Francophiles, and DC heavy hitters, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President and Dr. Biden, and Secretary Kerry, making it one of the most desirable reservations in town. “We thought business would taper off six to eight weeks after we opened,” admits Washington, “but that hasn’t happened.”
Executive Chef Michael Abt brings classical French training to the diverse brasserie menu.
The original plan was for the restaurant to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but its popularity has precluded that from happening. To keep up with just the dinnertime and brunch crushes, the restaurant team works around the clock. On Saturday mornings, bread baking begins around the corner at 4 am (the on-site facilities couldn’t accommodate the demand, so they had to expand), the first chef comes in at 6 am, service begins at 10 am, and the kitchen staff swells to 70 at the peak of service. The last chef doesn’t go home until 3 am on Sunday morning. “One of our biggest challenges was staffing,” says Executive Chef Michael Abt. “It was tough getting people accustomed to the number of covers we are doing and finding people willing to work hard in a very, very fast-paced environment.”
Keeping the pantry stocked has proven equally challenging. The amount of ingredients the kitchen uses is staggering. They run through 4,500 pounds of potatoes and 800 hanger steaks a week. The bar requires 1,500 pounds of ice—per day.
Best sellers span the spectrum of French faves—mushroom tarts, onion soup gratinée, and trout amandine. The breakout success of the steak tartare was a surprise for Abt, who transplanted to the District from Starr’s French-focused Parc in Philadelphia. “The average DC diner is more adventurous than a Philly diner,” he says. “I didn’t expect that particular dish to go over so well.”
Hors d’oeuvres like the radish crudité with fresh butter and sea salt complement pre-dinner cocktails.
Abt’s in-depth knowledge of French cuisine helped shape this blockbuster menu, as did a “filling” research trip to Paris over a year ago. “At the end of the day, I’d roll back to the hotel room,” he says with a chuckle.
Balance was the team’s overall guiding principle. “A brasserie is a neighborhood restaurant,” says Washington, “so we want the menu to have a broad appeal.”
There’s no doubt that Le Dip has the power to please diners of every persuasion. Washington is still wowed by the positive feedback he receives from customers. “It’s so wonderful to be so warmly embraced by the city,” he says. “We couldn’t have asked for a better reception.” Here’s to many more years of well-earned success. 1601 14th St. NW, 202-332-3333
photography by greg powers