The Mojo Missive: What Makes Magic in a Restaurant

Walk down a great urban street on a Thursday night, and you’ll inevitably find a number of restaurants. You’ll also find some of the restaurants are deadsville, while others are overstuffed, with eager customers waiting and hoping they can get in. There may be design differences, but at first glance, they both look fine—and they’re right next door to each other.

So what makes the magic?

It’s probably the most asked question among restaurateurs and designers. We’ve got a list of favorite places to stay and eat in Washington, DC, but for now, we’re going to review this phenomenon on one of our favorite restaurant streets in the city: 14th Street.

Our working/eating/drinking orientation of DC is in four major areas:

  • Georgetown
  • Downtown around Dupont Circle/Logan Circle
  • The Downtown “Convention” area
  • Capitol Hill

It’s not scientific, but when you’re there for work frequently (which we are), walkability to restaurants at night is pretty much the deciding factor. One of our favorite walking areas is between Dupont Circle and Logan Circle. If you walk between the two circles on Q, or head north on 17th, 16th, 15th, 14th or 13th, it has crazy-critical mass of novel restaurants that don’t require an expense account.

We find ourselves again and again on 14th Street walking from Thomas Circle up to about U Street. It’s a great area to assess the mojo magic.

Mojo Meter on a Wednesday night: 1-5. 1=notsomojo, 5=majormojo

LD5

Let’s start with Estadio.

Mojo Meter: 3

Assessment: The name is clever for a Spanish place (“stadium”), but it’s firmly Spanish. When you put all of your eggs in the ethnic basket, you’re immediately only appealing for some people some of the time.

The bar is central, which is good for the energy in the space, but the sightlines in and out of the bar have barriers. Also, the back bar lacks oomph (a great technical word).

Mostly, the décor and design are very heavy-handed. The whole place is a bit overdesigned and concentrates on putting materials, patterns, and things on too many surfaces. Immediate guest impression: This will be a commitment for me and I’ll have to work.

Moving to the block between Corcoran and Q on a beautiful fall evening, you can see 2-3 restaurants with people literally spilling out of them.

There’s the series of Ghibellina, Pearl Dive Oyster Bar, Barcelona, and Le Diplomate.

Ghibellina: 4

Assessment: A great long bar punctuated with a smaller island bar in the front that makes a good gathering spot—so the bar serves as both a focal point and a great seating area for groups. Also has an open window to the outside, bringing the street energy in.

Energy comes from the kitchen, too—the open space offers a view into the kitchen at the back, bringing theater and adrenaline into the dining room. Design is the basic wood and stone variety—nothing too novel, nothing offensive. They key to the space is a great, well-lit back bar that accents the brick wall, and great lighting overall. It was the lighting, walls and features, not people, that made this restaurant work.

The menu was Italian, which has basically become American. Everyone can find something in an Italian joint.

Pearl Dive Oyster Bar: 5

Assessment: This place is always packed. Why?

The layout is good, with a central bar, and space that fully integrates inside and outside. It’s tight, which always helps the mojo. The décor itself is actually a bit too unnecessarily thematic, but it’s not enough to deter people. The menu is the perfect mix of seafood and meat, fried and not fried. Most of all, it’s the perfect menu to share a lot of different items—a key to the rise in mojo.

A little further north, you walk past Barcelona, a chain formula that’s the next happening meat market place. Dim lighting, energetic, and lots of booze. Their food is fine, lots of sharable items. It’s always packed. Long-term mojo? Maybe, maybe not.

Le Diplomate: 5

Assessment: Stephen Starr is prolific, but his team is good. This place is a bit heavy-handed in the French-themed design, sure, but it’s not so far as to appear comical (never mind that real French brasseries are tiny and this place is massive). The lighting isn’t perfect—it needs more zones and areas of focus rather than uniformity—but it’s golden and glowing enough to not be off-putting.

Most of the mojo comes from a great French menu (also arguably American at this point) with massive appeal. More importantly, they execute. The service is almost always at the top of its game, and the food is fast and quality. You know when you go that you’re almost guaranteed a great experience.

Tico 3
Tico 2

On to Doi Moi.

Mojo Meter: 1

Assessment: It doesn’t look offensive to the naked eye, but the lack of mojo is directly attributed to a few key factors. First, the name immediately limits the perception of variety in the menu. Most importantly, the space is an immediate turnoff. The lighting is too even and too bright, and the space looks vast. It isn’t broken up into zones or areas, and there are no varying heights or focal points throughout, making the seating and areas look too uniform. The kitchen is open with a great relationship to the space, yes, but that isn’t enough to make up for all of the flatness and sameness.

A few others on the street that rate high on the mojo meter:

Compass Rose: It’s tiny, tight, and eclectic, with low lighting. The menu is small and interesting, but with minimal seats, you can get by with small.

Tico: This one is fairly new and much bigger. The mojo started with the solid 5 often found in new joints, but has settled into about 3.5 – 4. It’s a big space that probably could have used a bigger bar, but the lighting is pretty good, and the menu’s a crowd pleaser, featuring everything from sharable ceviches to tacos.

So what’s the moral of the Mojo Missive?

We all know successful restaurants have to hit on all three main components: service, food, and space. We also know that every client we’ve ever had wants to create an approachable restaurant. That ubiquitous term is subjective and too general of a goal.

Beyond the obvious items of have a brand and a point of differentiation, a few key things work:

  • Create the right first impression. Don’t stick a ginormous host stand front and center, and don’t create a barrier to seeing inside. And don’t put the service station as a first impression in a bar. Really?
  • Small, tight spaces, even in the midst of a bigger restaurant. Create zones with a variety of heights and types of seats.
  • And light the right things, not your guests.
  • Don’t overwhelm with décor, keep your base simple.
  • Energy and theater coming from multiple points—the street, the kitchen.
  • Did we mention that?
  • Have a few solid focal points, but not 100. Give consumers something that gets their attention (a great bar, an open kitchen, an interesting seating arrangement, a captain’s table with your larder).
  • Everyone complains that restaurants are too loud. Manage your volume by softening hard surfaces appropriately. But remember that loud is better than empty.

And that’s what brings the magic.

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