Welcome to Eater Scenes, a series in which Eater captures a specific restaurant at a specific point in its lifespan. Here now, the very first night of service at Bryan Voltaggio's new restaurant Range, located in Washington, DC.
Range. [Photo: R. Lopez]
"I'm starting to feel like I'm in a fishbowl," says a bartender near the end of shift at Bryan Voltaggio's new Washington, DC, restaurant Range. He's referring to the floor-to-ceiling windows that separate the 14,000 square foot restaurant from the rest of mall in which it resides, inviting scrutiny from passers-by with shopping bags or families waiting to get into the Cheesecake Factory.
But it doesn't take much literary extrapolation to see the fishbowl as a larger metaphor. All 50-plus people working at Range that night and in the coming weeks are under a fair amount of scrutiny. Voltaggio's arrival in DC proper — even if just barely crossing state lines from Maryland into the District of Columbia —has been the subject of great anticipation for Washingtonians. Those who love his Frederick, MD, restaurants Volt and Family Meal are excited to have that Voltaggio touch just a little bit nearer. And those who don't have the option of trekking 50 miles to try out this former Top Chef contestant's cooking are ready to seize their chance.
All these people and more are watching Range. Not to be glossed over, that "more" includes a rabid local media that has soaked up every detail of Range in the year and a half since Voltaggio first announced his plans for the restaurant. And tonight is Range's first chance to prove itself.
Who Is Your Audience?
Scott Edelman and his wife Irene Vartanoff. [Photo: Scott Edelman]
Scott Edelman was one of these people anticipating Range's opening. In fact, he was so looking forward to it that he woke up before 5 a.m. on Black Friday — which he says he never does, not even for deals on flat-screen televisions — just to refresh OpenTable constantly in hopes of getting a reservation on one of the Range preview nights. Voltaggio and his team had decided upon three soft opening preview nights, opening for reservations on Black Friday about 150 seats each night for December 15-17. All reservations for the first night, Saturday, were snapped up within eight minutes of availability on Black Friday. By 10 a.m., all 450 available seats across all three preview days were gone. Edelman is not in the restaurant industry. He's a science fiction writer working for the Syfy Channel. But he loves a restaurant opening for the way it feels like a show on its opening night, with a staff full of excitement and jitters. He's in search of dining experiences that are transcendental, a pursuit that has taken him to Next in Chicago and Momofuku Shoto and Cafe Boulud shortly after they opened in Toronto. He'd tried and liked all of Voltaggio's Frederick restaurants and wanted to know what Range would be like before all the kinks were worked out.
So on the night of his reservation, Edelman made the nearly two-hour drive from his home in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia to Washington, DC. "Some people say to me, 'You're driving that far for food?'" Edelman says. "And I tell them, 'If you had a chance to go see Pavarotti sing or a great rock concert or whatever it might happen to be, [you wouldn't mind traveling] for that. But yet somehow people get embarrassed or feel guilty when it's about food, as if food is a lesser art form. But from my perspective, some people can make food be art as opposed to just sustenance. I'm continually trying to find those kind of people."
Edelman had won a four-top at 5:30 p.m. — the very first service of the night — and brought with him on the journey from West Virginia his wife, their two friends, and a cooler for their leftovers. It was Edelman's mission to order as much food as possible. Over the course of the next four hours, they will order 21 dishes from the sharing-but-not-exactly-small plates menu, plus pretty much everything they found on the dessert cart. Edelman only wishes he could have ordered more if only he'd thought to book a table for six instead.
Hanging Out Back Stage
The Range staff might not know they have Edelman waiting for them, but they sure know the stakes here. They've been training for about ten days — media previews, friends and family, and two mock services — a mix of young and old, men and women, seasoned servers, and rookies. As Voltaggio explains his hiring mentality, he's less concerned with whether someone knows how to wait tables but rather how they'll treat guests. "You can't train someone into character," he says. Anyway, even though this still isn't technically opening night, Voltaggio has made it clear that he considers it to be Day One.
So in their pre-shift meeting, managers Steve Fowler and Jon Barry reinforce the basics: show the guests your passion, bring any glitches to a manager's attention immediately, and remove words such as "no," "y'all," and "guys" from your vocabulary. As Barry puts it, "This is a really sexy beautiful restaurant, right? You don't want Flo the waitress waiting your tables in a restaurant like this." Beverage director Owen Thomson informs the staff that his buzzed-about beef ice cocktail the Vegan Sacrifice is not yet available as he's saving it for opening night. He makes the staff repeat twice that they are in no circumstances allowed to ask the bar for a Vegan Sacrifice at risk of a sacrifice of their own.
When a member of the waitstaff asks if there are any VIPs in the house tonight, Barry invokes what is one of the night's themes, saying, "Everybody in this building tonight is a VIP. Anybody that gets up at 5 in the morning to get a reservation in this restaurant is a VIP as far as I'm concerned." That said, there are actual VIPs coming in for dinner that night — Voltaggio's wife and one of the restaurant's partners are both having dinner at Range. Platitudes aside, these details are covered later in the meeting.
Bryan Voltaggio Takes the Stage
Finally, after checking to make sure everyone's hands are clean, Fowler and Barry hand out the night's menu so that Voltaggio, chef de cuisine Matt Hill and pastry chef John Miele can go over it. "Chef on deck," shouts a member of the waitstaff. Voltaggio laughs as he notices the staff is literally lined up waiting for him. He has been at the restaurant for eight hours already that day and is battling a cold, but it's time to get his staff revved up:
Voltaggio: I had this really inspirational video I was going to play for you tonight, but I don't have the cable. We'll do it tomorrow. ... Instead I'm just going to speak because I'm the inspirational speaker, right? Staff: Yes, sir.
Voltaggio: That's a bunch of shit. But I'll do my best. Thank you for all of your hard work so far. You guys have done a fantastic job. Tonight is the night where we're going to actually show off what we've been accomplishing together over the last couple of weeks. Very important tonight because we've officially slowly sort of opened. I count this as Day One.
Remember the first night when we had the group of writers that came in and we did a preview of the restaurant and we had this conversation and when we came back here we talked about hospitality right? We talked about smiling, we talked about greeting guests, we talked about people coming into your home, which is now Range for the time being this evening, and making sure that they have a fantastic time. That's what we're here to do. If we're able to do that tonight and everybody who walks out of this door today will feel like they've enjoyed themselves, spending a few hours with us on their — Is this Saturday or Friday?
Voltaggio: Saturday night. (laughs)
Voltaggio goes on to remind the servers yet again that all of tonight's reservations were made within eight minutes at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. This point cannot seem to be reinforced enough. Then he and Hill go down the list of menu changes: The Noble Road cheese has changed and Voltaggio highly recommends the merguez-stuffed lamb breast with cabbage, a new dish that he says, "tastes really effing good."
But then he gets to the crux of it. Range is not your typical restaurant. It is made up of several separate kitchens — the bakery, the wood oven, the salumeria, pasta, wood grill, and more. Dishes are designed for sharing and come out separately. For example, the hanger steak comes only with shishito peppers, so a diner would probably want to order a side to go with it, which might come out of a different kitchen and not precisely at the same time. Voltaggio explains, "Build a dish for them. Understand these are going to come out separately, but that's the style of the menu. This is what we're doing." Noting that it's up to the waitstaff to explain the menu style, he adds, "Please feel comfortable with it. Please."
By now, it is nearly 5:30 p.m. and time for everyone to get into place. While the past hour has been full of last-minute instructions, there's an undercurrent of excitement in this group of young people who have studied the menu while scribbling notes in their moleskins. One employee, Manuel, most recently worked at another Washington newcomer Boqueria, but says of Range, "I think this is a very special place." There's also a nervous excitement among the managers, including Fowler who jokes with the staff, "I'm not worried at all. I did not say that confidently enough."
- Voltaggio taking service notes.
- One of Range's two entrances.
- The other Range entrance.
- "Yes, I still change the fryer," says Voltaggio.
- Pizza chef Edan MacQuaid.
- This is a half of a seafood platter.
- Staff was instructed to walk guests to the bathrooms, not merely point them in the right direction.
- Beverage director Owen Thomson.
- Voltaggio greeting a guest who had been advised to go to Range by a friend in Frederick. He is, however, disappointed that there is no Jack Daniels at the bar. Voltaggio assures him they have plenty of other fine whiskey.
- VIP Table: Voltaggio's wife and friends.
- VIPs on a tour of the kitchen.
The Show Goes On
It's a cliche, of course, but the next seven hours are a bit of a blur. Again, only about 150 of the 300-seat restaurant will be taken — staggered — throughout the course of the night, but as is often the case in restaurants it will be a long one. Range's last seating is at 10 p.m., but they'll still be sending food out at 11:30 p.m. with tables of people lingering after midnight.
The bar is packed within 15 minutes of opening the doors, which is likely attributable to Voltaggio's decision to inform his Twitter followers that they're offering the full menu at the bar first come first served for those who hadn't managed to get a reservation. Voltaggio is starting to wonder if tweeting that precious intel was a good idea after all, but Thomson is confident. He has about eight people manning the bar — all in all, two-thirds of the entire Range staff are working that night — and he trusts they can handle the high volume.
Throughout the course of the night, servers and runners move back and forth between the dining room and kitchen. Fowler and Barry prowl the dining room with earpieces, looking for anything that might need smoothing over. Voltaggio moves from station to station in the enormous L-shaped open kitchen and visits tables to chat and take photographs with diners. Pizza chef Edan MacQuaid is busy with everything but pizza, it seems — perhaps because Washingtonians haven't yet heard that one of the city's top pizzaiolos has been brought on board. Head baker Ben Arnold is nearing the end of his day, which began at 6 a.m. to make focaccia, ciabatta, cheddar chive biscuits, and more. And chef de cuisine Matt Hill — poached away from Charlie Palmer Steak — is orchestrating the movements of the separate kitchens and scribbling notes whenever he notices hiccups in the operation.
Indeed, there are no catastrophes tonight. But there certainly are hiccups. Still and sparkling water are decanted into identical bottles that the waitstaff confuses more than a few times. Buttons on the Micros ordering system need to be refined so as to stop the beef cheek stroganoff (which should go to the pasta kitchen) from instead being sent to the cooks who are pan roasting the pork cheeks. While there aren't too many kinks, Hill says, "You're searching for it to be better than it could ever be. It's part of the job."
Maybe the biggest kink here, though, would be the beef shin, a big intimidating cut of meat that's braised for three days, cooked in the wood oven and served whole. While Voltaggio and Hill had originally estimated it would take 30 minutes to cook, reality proves it much longer. One table waits at least 40 minutes for their shin, which arrives sometime after 11:30 p.m. But, no matter, the table takes the shin to-go and Voltaggio is even pretty sure they're leaving happy. But still, it's an indicator that some of the kitchen's timing is a little off. That will need to be re-tooled later.
Applause From the Audience
Bryan Voltaggio and Scott Edelman. [Photo: Scott Edelman]
Edelman and his table of four also noticed slip-ups during their four-hour meal at Range. But, then again, that's why he came, saying, "There's something special about a restaurant when it's just opened." He came to Range on its first day because he wanted to see this project that he saw as risky and ambitious, hoping it would deliver in the same way Voltaggio's other restaurants did for him. And he finds mistakes like confusing still water for sparkling to be endearing — during a restaurant's early days, at least. Having been to a number of openings, Edelman's ordering strategy was predicated on the fact that restaurants are constantly re-tooling based upon things they learn in these early days. So he orders the rabbit and the beef heart and other dishes he fears might not remain on the menu forever should the rest of Range's diners prove to be less adventurous in their ordering.
Edelman says he did notice some Yelp reviews after the first preview night accusing servers of pushing them to order too much. But, he says, he didn't have that experience. His servers were very much about guiding him, just in the way that Voltaggio had instructed them to do before service started.
Even though some tables continue to linger, chatting and eating, things have slowed down considerably by the end of the night. One server takes a minute to pause at the bar. When a bartender asks how the night went, the server shoots him a look and pauses. "It's the first day," he says. Voltaggio, Hill, Fowler, and Barry are already starting to confer about things that didn't go so well that evening and decide that something must be done about that shin. But Fowler seems pleasantly surprised with how the night went, saying, "We were all pretty calm, too. I've been through much worse."
This is what they reflect in the post-shift meeting with the front-of-the-house staff, which takes place sometime around 1 a.m. Sure, Barry and Fowler remind the staff to communicate with the kitchen about VIPs, how to best clear glasses from the table and to please slow down so that they won't be dropping things. Voltaggio points out that the open kitchen is louder than they had anticipated — guests apparently loved their servers but could not always hear them. "Yes, we should be 100 percent ready already at this point," Voltaggio says, "But this is a new restaurant for you. It's a new restaurant for me. ... Every kitchen is different, every restaurant is different... It is ours now. Congratulations, this was a great night."
A few days later, just hours before Range celebrated its official opening night, Voltaggio reflects back on that first night. He still feels pretty excited about where they are, saying it's been a good start and joking, "It could always be worse." They've been using those kinks or slip-ups from the first nights to refine and improve everything. They're taking a look at which dishes people are ordering the most to have that readily available, cleaning up the ordering system so that their beef cheeks would no longer be confused with pork cheeks, and even just moving things around at the stations. And then there's the matter of that beef shin.
Voltaggio still wants to offer the shin — those kinds of odd cuts are an important part of this restaurant — but he knows it doesn't quite work as-is. He says, "we definitely should not be offering something that does not work for the guests." So for now the Range team is considering its options: either make it a smaller portion size or perhaps make it something a diner has to reserve ahead of time, giving the restaurant ample notice of the order. And while Voltaggio describes the shin incident as "a huge lesson to us," it's also reassuring in a way because, as he says, "It's one of those things we never want to have fail, but if it's all we really had fail, I consider us still off to a good start."