Home on the Range
'Top Chef' finalist Bryan Voltaggio brings star power and ambitious plans for a new restaurant to Friendship Heights
The mechanical burst of nail guns, the whir of table saws and the banging of hammers create a cacophonous soundtrack for the frenetic scene at the Chevy Chase Pavilion in Friendship Heights. Ropes crisscross the atrium, temporary walls create a maze on the lower level by Starbucks, and construction workers outnumber consumers two to one on this mid-February morning.
In the middle of this chaos, Top Chef favorite Bryan Voltaggio sits at a table next to the coffee kiosk with the floor plans for his new restaurant, Range, spread out in front of him. Dressed in a black hoodie, gunmetal-gray jeans and ebony Converse, he looks more like a concertgoer than a critically celebrated chef and up-and-coming restaurateur. His arms are embellished with tattoos, but they’re hidden today by a blue-and-white micro-plaid shirt with a pair of classic Ray-Bans hanging from the front.
Don’t be fooled, though, by the hip façade: Voltaggio is a savvy businessman who wants to build a restaurant empire. Bringing Range to Friendship Heights is the next step in his campaign.
The ambitious, $10-million project will occupy a large portion of the mall’s second floor in the former Stein Mart space when it opens in mid-September. It’s a massive undertaking that will boast nearly 275 seats, a wine store, a grab ’n’ go coffee bar, an in-house bakery, giant wood-burning ovens, a colossal raw bar, rotisseries, a cooler to dry-age meats, and counter seating that overlooks the open kitchen, if all goes according to plan.
“I’m like a kid before Christmas,” says Voltaggio, who celebrated his 36th birthday this spring. He gestures toward the sweeping architectural schematics. “Range is all of my experiences…brought together to create a new approach to the steak house.”
The name has multiple meanings for Voltaggio. “It can refer to the range of options, the livestock coming from the range and cooking on the range,” he says.
As he shows how the terrazzo-floored section of the sprawling, 14,000-square-foot eatery will overlook the remodeled atrium, a woman at a nearby table leans over, apologizes for listening in and asks what’s going on in the upstairs space.
“I can’t tell you,” Voltaggio says with a grin.
“As long as it’s not something crappy like Panera or Cheesecake Factory,” she says with a sniff. “The area needs something better.”
That elicits a chuckle. “You’re going to be happy,” Voltaggio says. “I guarantee it.”
The eavesdropper makes a good point: There are few restaurants of this caliber in Friendship Heights. Voltaggio considers Jaleo in Bethesda and the nearby Rosa Mexicana to be his closest competition in terms of the quality of food he’s aiming for, but those are boutique chains. Range is a stand-alone effort that represents a big step forward for the local dining scene.
Voltaggio could easily have opened it in downtown D.C., but that wouldn’t have jibed with his vision for expansion. “I want to be in touch with my restaurants, so I want to be close,” he says.
He may want to build an empire, but he wants to personally oversee every corner of it. And Friendship Heights is just a 30-minute drive from his home in Urbana.
“How does Wolfgang Puck split his time?” he asks. “He’s got restaurants all over the world. I don’t want to go that far."
“I’ll be spending a good amount of time at Range when it opens,” he says, “though I’ll have to split my time between all my restaurants.”