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For about six months after I graduated from college, but before moving to New York, I worked at Tavern on the Lake in Reston. It had just opened after il Cigno, the long lived Italian restaurant closed. ‘Tavern’ as it was known, was opened by a couple, who despite being very nice people and financial whizzes, were not very good restraunteurs. They had wanted to open a little cafe and instead got stuck with this behemoth of an archaic piece of the plaza. Granted, they had some good ideas but good managers they were not. The restaurant suffered from a lack of direction, a lack of interested or experience management and a lack of focus. It also needed a renovation.
Since I left for New York, where I worked at the very well run Tribeca Grill, and then returned to Virginia for graduate school the owners had sold the Tavern off. It was reopened with basically the same everything, just new management. And about two weeks ago it closed, once again. Shocking, I know. Maybe they should have read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential before leaping so blindly into the restaurant pool.
Well, now the restaurant is up for grabs again and I’m having a hard time keeping my grabby little fingers to myself. I know, I know. I have a full time job, grad school 1/4th of the way finished and a catering business on the side struggling to start crawling. But I also have ideas! ideas that seem to pour out of me and want a canvas. And since this restaurant as my canvas seems unattainable at the moment I thought I’d at least share my ideas for how to make the place viable.
  1. Back of House- A hot mess. In order to get a coffee order one would have to either enter the little service area through a door located by the bathrooms or thread one’s way through the wine storage area. Try doing either of those with a tray full of hot beverages. The wine storage area also needs repair. There was a bar like thing with a bev tap and a little shelf under it, a diamond shaped wine shelf behind it. What purpose this ever served I don’t know. We mostly used it to store our mid shift drinks, lean against and once we used it as a bar at the reception of a wedding. LOSE IT. Make the hallway that it looks out onto, between the bar and the dining room, bigger. Service area- Clean it up, make it organized and useful. Currently there is no room for what is necessary in a service area, plus all the servers’ personal stuff. It is a jumble of things left over from the last owners. I mean the il Cigno owners!
  2. Bar- Strip the poorly varnished bar. In fact, throw it out all together. Why have a curvy shaped bar? Make it L shaped to extend the bar space and look neater. Right now only about 5 people can sit at the bar at one time. It gets crowded. Chip off all those f**king river pebbles that make up the bar wall. Nice idea that didn’t work. It looks like we’re underground. Redo the lighting, change the stage area– less dark wood. Different bar tables. Something more communal and, again, less dark wood. Install a fan to cut down on smokiness. Paint the walls.
  3. Dining room- Rip up carpet & tile. Install wood. Tear down “lounge” area that was only used once for a lounge, and was mostly used for busboy napping/storage. Paint over horrendous mural painted by owner’s mother. In fact, paint all the walls. A nice Tiffany blue color. Or eggshell blue. Leave brown trimming. Get new tables & chairs. Similar to bar tables, chairs. No tablecloths. more natural wood. Lighter chairs. Open up ‘foyer’ area that only holds two people at a time. Hide server’s station so it is not the first thing one sees when walking in. Hang lots of pictures on the walls, hang long light colored curtains by windows. Redo lighting.

Management / Service

  1. Have some managers who actually do something. Or have a bar manager who’s also a bartender and a service manager who’s an expeditor. The bar pretty much manages itself, since the bartenders they’d had all have experience. There isn’t much for a manager to do either, since the kitchen/front of house works well. In fact, the managers just sit around getting bored when they’re not doing paperwork. Why not have an on call manager?
  2. Have a well trained staff. Let them wear jeans and a button down black shirt with a long white apron (I love this look, it’s professional and casual, stylish and simple all at once). Have them trained in the wine list and have a pre shift meeting with the specials prepared for them to look at and taste. Give them a little printout of the specials.
  3. Have a cocktail waitress who runs food orders and serves the floor of the bar. Also the patio at night. This means better service for those outside and less harried bartenders. Pool the money and divide.
  4. The bussers are the most organized and coherent part of the restaurant. I’m serious.
  5. Have a hostess. Have a host stand. Let her seat people according to a rotation. Use a program like Open Table to maintain a database about repeat business. In fact, the manager can run this role. Make it more of a maitre ‘d role, where they are responsible for the ambiance of the restaurant. They are responsible for initally making the guest feel welcome, being friendly, helpful and keeping track of special events, concerns, etc.

Ambiance / Food

  1. The ambiance should suggest community, a sense of place and a desire to return to this comforting location. This should be achieved through design by making it unique and interesting, but also comfortable, organized and soothing. Make private moments and spaces possible.
  2. The service should be good, fast, polite, but also genuine, friendly, not too formal but not sloppy or too casual. They should cultivate regular business and conversation. Allowing the servers to be comfortable and confident helps.
  3. Get rid of that Michael Buble CD that played for 6 months on repeat. For the LOVE OF GOD. Play something instrumental but upbeat, not too loud but not smooth jazz either.
  4. The food should be what you would like to make yourself, but better. What is comforting but unique. Simple dishes, made with thoughtfulness. Lots of flavor. Infusions that don’t try to be showy. Good looking but not complex. Good bread baked on location and desserts that are made on location. They used to import desserts from ITALY! Sounds important but wasn’t much better than local, and an unneed expense for the prestige. In fact, try to go local and in season as much as possible. Extend the kid’s meal to something beyond chicken fingers and fries.
  5. For the patio- get space heaters to extend the use into fall. It’s one of the biggest draws of the place.

Above all this restaurant should be a place where the community, from all different areas, wants to gather. Where they can have a great meal without feeling it was overpriced or skimpy, where they can enjoy their family’s company and the atmosphere of their neighborhood as well. Keep it simple and classic with thoughtful twists and the next owner might have a run that rivals il Cigno!