Chef Kwame Onwuachi enjoyed a trajectory many young cooks dream of: At just 25 years old, he performed well on the reality juggernaut Top Chef, cementing the Eleven Madison Park alum as a bright talent to watch; he collected a major investment (and vote of confidence) that allowed him to open a highly anticipated fine-dining restaurant in D.C.; and last summer, months before his restaurant debuted, he announced he was writing a memoir/cookbook.
But now, the fairy tale is over: Onwuachi's restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, abruptly shuttered over the weekend after just two-and-a-half months in business — and weeks after he switched up the format, lowering the price and course count in an effort to better serve the dining public. Now, with the news of his restaurant closing splashed across the internet, Onwuachi tells Eater: “This has been a great lesson, and I've learned so much from it.”
Eater's national team was so surprised by the volley of negative reviews the Shaw Bijou received in its two-and-a-half months that I spoke with Onwuachi last Friday, planning to run a story about how a young business learns to pivot from early feedback. During that conversation, he didn’t intimate anything about the closure. Now he confirms that when we spoke last Friday, he “had no idea” the shutter was happening. That he was in the dark puts the rest of our conversation about the challenging first months in a new light. After the news broke this past weekend, the Washington Post reported the two principal investors “could no longer afford to keep the place running.”
A few things stand out in the brief, turbulent history of the Shaw Bijou, mostly how intense the restaurant’s short run was. A look back:
Why Everyone Was Amped for the Shaw Bijou
There was a lot to be excited about when Onwuachi, then an unknown in the D.C. food world, announced his plans for the Shaw Bijou in April 2015. Later that year, he joined the season 13 cast of Top Chef, which introduced viewers to a young, ambitious Black chef with a short but pedigreed resume: CIA graduate, Per Se extern, Eleven Madison Park alum, business owner at age 20. His operating team was green, but compelling. Co-owner Gregory Vakiner was on board as GM; he and Onwuachi went to the CIA and worked at EMP together. Co-owner Kelly Gorsuch came from the beauty industry; he is the president of Gorsuch Holdings, which owns high-end salons. Rounding out the group was business consultant Glenn Paik.
America has few high-end tasting menu destinations run by chefs of color. It’s rare to see a chef using the format to explore a story like Onwuachi’s — he would take inspiration from the culinary traditions from Nigeria, from his mother’s Creole background, and from his childhood experiences in the Bronx. His menu would be “nothing short of global,” he told me when I interviewed him for a national anticipated openings roundup. His ideas for the Shaw Bijou were genuinely new and newsworthy.
That was in January 2016. By that point, the restaurant had been building buzz for almost a year and had plenty more to come — especially as the opening date was an ever-further target. Onwuachi did not divulge specific reasons for the shutter, but the delayed opening may well have contributed to it — even a sizable investment can run out quickly when there’s no cash flowing into the business.
The delay undoubtedly ratcheted up the pitch of the pre-opening coverage. In March 2016, Onwuachi was profiled by the Washington Post (headline: “Chef Kwame’s ready to show D.C. a fine-dining experience unlike any other”), where he revealed the price tag would be upwards of $150.
Opening With an Expensive Price Tag
In August 2016, Onwuachi confirmed the $185 menu cost and the opening date, November 1. $185 covered roughly 15 courses, not including beverage, tax, or tip. All told, dinner could cost $500 per person, and the price quickly became the story.
Onwuachi was a first-time restaurant owner/operator and a relative newcomer to the city. As the Washingtonian pointed out in a December piece on the Shaw Bijou’s format change (more on that below), many in D.C. balked at the high cost. Describing the response as “often unnecessarily vitriolic and occasionally unfair,” Jessica Sidman reported that “In some ways, the restaurant never had a real shot to succeed at such a high price. Most people had made up their minds about the place before it even opened, and the restaurant team was on the defensive from the get-go.”
No doubt it took a certain type of chutzpah to debut at such a high price point. But D.C. is full of expensive meals — not all of them great. D.C. is also full of tasting menus, some very expensive — acclaimed local chef Aaron Silverman’s Pineapple & Pearls is charging $250 per person for a 13-course tasting while another veteran chef, Eric Ziebold, is charging $200 for a seven-course menu. Of course, it’s different for first-time restaurant owners and an untested chef.
(Bad) Reviews Came In Fast
When a restaurant is new, so eagerly awaited, and so expensive, the reviews come fast. So it was at the Shaw Bijou.
Tom Sietsema published a first-look review for the Washington Post three days after the opening (headline: “Shaw Bijou serves a few delights and several duds. Is that worth $500 a head?”). Three days later on November 7, Laura Hayes of the Washington City Paper filed her assessment, noting that not enough dishes felt innovative, and that some even “feel like they're short one or two forkfuls for the price.” (In December, WCP declared the Shaw Bijou the “Most Overhyped Restaurant” of the year.) Corby Kummer’s full-length review for the Washingtonian dropped the first week of January, three days after the restaurant’s two-month anniversary: “As for whether the food merits this constant warmup: Not really. But then pretty much nothing would.”
When we talked last week, Onwuachi said early bad reviews “obviously do not help business,” but he knew it was part of the game. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I'm not going to sit here and say it's not fair that I was critiqued. That's the business, right?” He told me his staff did spot critics as they dined. Asked about the early timing of the reviews, he said, "There's no better time than now, but I was definitely surprised they were there the first day... but I understand it. The people that are coming the first day are going to critique, as well."
Onwuachi said that the feedback he was getting from diners seemed to show them on the same page as he was. “A lot of our diners have already come back two or three times,” he told me last week. “I feel like the diners really enjoy what we're doing... I think this restaurant is something that you have to experience and come in yourself and see, so you can really get the picture and feel what we're doing here.”
Changing the Format, Maybe Too Late
At the end of December, the Shaw Bijou team cut the course count and price: seven courses for $95 per person. They also transformed the upstairs lounge into a bar where food could be ordered a la carte, scrapping plans to make it a members-only bar. “The decision to change the format came because it was inaccessible to most people. It was something that we thought was a necessary change for us to move forward,” Onwuachi said last week, referring to what he described as “backlash” against his original pricing.
The chef was pumped on the new format. “It's more focused,” he explained, excited by the relative of ease of making changes to a seven-course menu as opposed to the longer version. He felt the shorter menu, plus the a la carte lounge, was the right direction. Incidentally, Kummer’s Washingtonian review ran after the format change but was about the original menu. No major critic reviewed the newer, cheaper experience. (Eater’s Bill Addison was planning to visit in February.)
Pivots like this are not uncommon in the first year of a restaurant. Sometimes, they can even prompt a new wave of press, as critics and dining obsessives rush to try the new menu. The Washington Post reported Gorsuch “had been trying for weeks to convince Onwuachi and Vakiner to change the concept, but he says he couldn't convince them.” It’s likely the Shaw Bijou’s format change happened too late in the life cycle of a restaurant that was getting headlines well over a year before it welcomed its first customers and reviews that found faults with the food.
Saying Goodbye to the Shaw Bijou
It’s still not clear why Onwuachi didn’t know the closure was happening. Kelly Gorsuch told the Washingtonian when they first broke the news: “It just didn’t seem to be a viable business really. The concept was good, we just weren’t able to execute it... I think it took too long to start listening to the guests.” He told the Post: “It just cost a lot of money. It was a very expensive business. I've never quite seen that in business at all. That was new for me. The numbers were staggering." Welcome to the razor-thin margins of fine dining.
The hype machine works both ways. After so much anticipation, it’s disappointing but ultimately not surprising that there are some who are greeting news of this closure with glee. It’s hard to see what’s so great about closing a restaurant that employed people, including a young chef who tried to do something unique (even if it was expensive). Regardless of whether in two-and-a-half months Onwuachi was able to properly execute his lofty vision, there can be no overstating how gutsy it was for him to try.
Last week, Onwuachi described the first few months of the Shaw Bijou as “the biggest emotional roller coaster I've ever been on.” Now that the ride is at its end, Onwuachi remains positive: “I'm happy to have served so many people, and I can't wait until I can do it again.”