Is This The Biggest Restaurant Expansion Of The Covid-Era?

As a national destination, Washington, D.C., is still an underrated restaurant city, muted most recently by the Trump administration's refusal to dine around town beyond its own brand.

But with D.C.'s Teflon economy, the nation's capital is a good bet in a high-risk business like hospitality — which brings us to the growth of its restaurants. From big names like José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup to the staying power of spots in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (which expanded to NYC's Market Line with the international beer-centric Grand Delancey), the city's restaurant growth knows no bounds. 

That's how it seems for 5-year-old KNEAD Hospitality + Design from Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin, at least. Their restaurants include glossy openings like Edward Lee's Succotash, debuting in Penn Quarter in 2017 but is temporarily closed amid the pandemic. Also on the roster: Mi Vida from Roberto Santibañez of NYC's Fonda opened at the Wharf in 2018; The Grill at the Wharf opened in February, just before the pandemic, and the team-up with Umber Ahmad of Manhattan bakery, Mah-Ze-Dahr in Navy Yard in September. 

If that's not enough, here's the jaw-dropper: Berry said the group will grow from offering 350 jobs pre-pandemic to 800 positions by fall, with the opening of at least eight concepts between now and June if things stay on track. That will be 13 restaurants total in the D.C. area. 

"This is a time of sadness and has been very challenging for everyone," Berry said, but it's also a time of opportunity for their group. "We thought we were going to lose everything back in March," but by summer, a few deals fell into their hands. "It's been an emotional whirlwind," he said. 

With a mix of sit-down dining and fast-casual spots, new restaurants include the long-delayed, 350-seat, 9,000-square-foot Gatsby — what the group is calling a reimagined American diner — next door to Mah-Ze-Dahr at the Navy Yard. Amazon's HQ2 in Virginia is also awaiting an even splashier Mah-Ze-Dahr that will double as its commissary kitchen. There's also the corner Dupont location for Mi Casa in what had been Bareburger, with a rent deal that reflects pandemic pricing.

Expansion means a bigger footprint for existing restaurants like the bakery and a fast-casual Dupont location of Succotash called Lil Succotash. It also means new spots, like a handful of Dupont quick-service restaurants in conjunction with a to-be-named UK hospitality group, along with a French bistro opening at the Wharf. 

Berry is bullish about the future of restaurants as more people are inoculated and it's safer to dine indoors again. 

"Like the Roaring '20s after the Spanish flu," he noted, "there's all this pent-up demand following a period of suffering. People will want to celebrate life."