Birth of a Restaurant

Birth of a Restaurant

The opening of Food, Wine & Co. in Bethesda.

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Nov. 17, 2009: Just a thought

“You have to be crazy to open a restaurant,” says Francis Namin, who’s about to embark on a yearlong ordeal doing just that.

On this particular day, Food, Wine & Co. is just a name, a nascent idea in the restaurateur’s soon-to-be overloaded head. A clever, energetic, impulsive man, Namin seems to thrive on challenges. And during the next year, as he turns 47, he’ll encounter plenty of them: He’ll deal with endless construction problems; go $500,000 over budget; revise his initial food, wine and décor concepts; lose one of two silent partners; butt heads with his decorator; and part ways with a crucial kitchen staffer a week after the restaurant opens.

Food, Wine & Co., the bistro that will replace Uno Chicago Grill at 7272 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda, is Namin’s biggest project to date.

Namin has always been a bit of a scrapper. He was 14 when he boarded an Iranian Air Force jet by himself to immigrate to the United States to live with an older brother. After graduating from Greenbelt’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School, he dabbled in the family automotive, carpet and flooring businesses before spotting a “for sale” sign on a tiny Asian restaurant on Bethesda’s St. Elmo Avenue. Interested in starting a brick oven pizza place, he struck a deal and opened the Red Tomato Café there in 1994.

Namin soon branched out. He opened and closed a Washington, D.C., Red Tomato Café and the popular Centro Italian Grill in Bethesda. He currently owns and operates three Don Pollo restaurants, all in Maryland, and continues to have a stake in Red Tomato, Chicken on the Run and Cork 57, the beer and wine shop.

He sees another winner in Uno’s location, which he has been eyeing for more than three years. Not only is it right next to the Regal Bethesda 10 movie theater, but that block will house the terminus for the future Purple Line. Plus, there’s underground parking.

Right now, though, negotiations over the space are proceeding slowly. The landlord knows that Uno isn’t planning to renew its lease, but the restaurant has until the end of the first quarter of 2010 to leave.

Until then, Namin can’t even inspect the place. He wants to look at the kitchen, as well as the electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, the three most expensive elements of a new restaurant and those that “create the most headaches.” With the infrastructure already there, he’s figuring much of the renovation will be cosmetic.

Namin will act as his own general contractor. For the design, he has settled on Bethesda architect Michael Fanshel, who worked on Don Pollo and Cork 57. Fanshel says Namin is “very hands-on. He knows intimately what he wants.”

For the interior design, Namin is considering Barbara Hawthorn Interiors, whose restaurant portfolio includes Bezu in Potomac, the defunct Le Paradou in Washington, D.C., and Georgetown’s Il Canale—or a hip duo called Grupo7. “I’m leaning towards Grupo7,” he says, comparing the decorator-restaurateur relationship to that of a marriage. “You’d better like dealing with them.”

Dec. 1, 2009: Food, wine & chef

When Namin accepted an offer to sell Centro in 2008, his executive chef found himself out of a job. The affable, Milan-born Paolo Buffa bounced around—working at the short-lived Bice in Bethesda, then at two restaurants in New York. He returned to Washington when Roberto Donna asked him to head up the kitchen at his reincarnated Galileo, but that project stalled, leaving Buffa to take on consulting work and private events. Then Namin made him an offer, and Buffa grabbed it. “If you’re good to him, he’ll give you the world,” Buffa says of his boss.

From his time at Centro, Namin knows Buffa is no prima donna: He’s a hard worker who can handle a crowd.

As for the cuisine, Namin envisions a neighborhood bistro offering comfort food from America, Spain, France and, yes, Italy.

He also plans to have a raw bar and charcuterie station. He thinks Bethesda could use an airy, nonintimidating place to dine, and from his experience with Centro, he wants it to be quieter, with simpler, less expensive cuisine. The kind of place you’d visit on weekdays, not just weekends, and one catering to different tastes and situations—beer and oysters with buddies, pizza and pasta with the family, a salad and entrée for a quiet dinner for two.

But what will really set Food, Wine & Co. apart is the wine setup. Namin wants to divide the space into a dining room and an area resembling a wine shop. Patrons will order from a wine list or select a bottle from the shelves that they can bring to their table. And prices will be comparable to retail, rather than the typical 300 percent markup (although wines by the glass will run more). It’s a risky arrangement, as most restaurants offset thinner margins on food with a big profit on wine, but Namin is counting on volume. Instead of a glass, diners will order a bottle—or two.

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