By Michael McCarthy By Michael McCarthy | October 5, 2020 |
Ashok Bajaj is DC’s biggest fine dining restaurateur—here’s how he learned to pivot and continue to serve the city’s faithful gourmands.
Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj owns 10 restaurants in the District.
When the parade of big-name celebs and guests—grinning and neck-craning to see and be seen—stopped coming to Ashok Bajaj’s critically acclaimed restaurants (knightsbridgerestaurantgroup.com) in mid-March because of the pandemic, the man who visits every single one of his 10 venues each night was, as he describes it, in a bit of a shock.
One has to understand this pied piper of DC’s culinary world to fully comprehend how devastating a quarantine was to Bajaj’s soul (not to mention his multimillion-dollar empire of white- tablecloth restaurants). It’s like Bajaj has 10 different parties each night of the week, and he’s the host. Dressed in custom suits, he glides from table to table, glad-handing and back-patting some of the most important people on the planet. And everyone else. His award-winning restaurants, including Rasika, Oval Room and the latest, Annabelle, are extensions of his accommodating and gracious personality. To dine at a Bajaj restaurant is to understand the man himself.
Vegetable tagine at Sababa.
“I was like a fish out of water,” says Bajaj about the shutdown. “I had no place to go. I walked a lot—5 to 10 miles a day. I was in a daze. But then reality hit: You have to pay your bills and keep your staff.” So, he opened five of his restaurants initially for takeout (the remaining restaurants were all open by late summer).
One of the biggest challenges to restaurants that employ decorated chefs like Vikram Sunderam and Frank Ruta (both James Beard Award winners) is making the leap from gourmet food prep to the humble presentation of a takeout container. Much could be lost in translation. Bajaj’s solution was to work with each of his chefs to change menus to maintain culinary perfection via transport.
Ratatouille tart at Oval Room.
When summer rolled around and longtime and new fans of Bajaj’s restaurants ventured out again, the restaurateur was ready: Like lots of other eateries in town, he did the unthinkable in fine dining and set up outdoors. “People want to go out,” he says. “The city has been great for expediting permits for outdoor dining.” The sleek Bombay Club extended its patio; Bindaas stretched boldly on Pennsylvania Avenue; and even Annabelle carved about creative seating in its distinct Dupont Circle neighborhood setting. Each of the restaurants also welcomed guests back inside, with socially distanced seating. Bajaj says he even consulted with mechanical engineers about each restaurant’s air filtration systems. It’s all a delicate dance amid already thin margins.
“We all have to think differently now,” says Bajaj. “Business will change forever, especially with fewer people working in downtown offices—maybe for years. But fine dining will never go away. People are dying to dress up and go out. It’s part of who we are as a city.”
So, Bajaj forges on, buzzing around each of his venues every night; he’s even introduced catering within 4 to 5 miles of his restaurants. “We’ve always accommodated our guests, and this is another way,” he says. Bajaj leaves the kicker for the end of our long chat: He’s looking to buy a Virginia winery. He won’t say which one, but when I guess right, he laughs and says, “You’re very good, Michael. It’s just something I’m looking into. No done deal yet, but it would be really fun. And the food would be excellent.” Well, naturally.
Photography by: Rey Lopez; Greg Powers; Ashlie Levy