Design | September 2017 | By Sam Oches

D.C. Fast Casual is Business in Front, Party in Back

A new Washington, D.C., joint pairs a fast-casual rotisserie chicken concept with a full-service whiskey bar.
A refrigerator door (background) is all that separates Chicken + Whiskey’s two halves. Carla Sevilla
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Washington, D.C.’s long and narrow row houses are as iconic to the nation’s capital as the sweeping roundabouts and countless monuments that dot the city’s landscape.

The row houses are not, however, particularly efficient when it comes to housing a fast-casual restaurant concept. But Desmond Reilly and his business partners at Star Restaurant Group found a creative way to put a row house at the corner of 14th and S streets to use in their newest restaurant venture.

The business partners divided the long, rectangular row-house space in half, then opened a counter-service Peruvian rotisserie chicken concept in the front of the building and a full-service whiskey bar in the back.

The aptly named Chicken + Whiskey opened earlier this year, with a refrigerator walk-in door dividing the two spaces—a nod to the New York City dining scene of the 1990s, Reilly says, and particularly the renowned former cocktail bar Milk & Honey, which inspired a whole generation of restaurant and bar entrepreneurs.

“If you walk into the chicken joint, you would never know that there is a bar back there,” he says. “But people just flip out when they see a beautiful full bar, and we’ve got a block ice program, we’ve got 66 whiskeys, we’ve got tap wine. [The refrigerator door is] a total gimmick to us, but these millennials don’t know anything about it, so to them it’s like new.”

Reilly and business partners Kristopher Carr, Stuart Damon, and Charles Koch see millennials as being the prime demographic for Chicken + Whiskey, and the restaurant and whiskey bar have each been designed in kind.

In the fast-casual half, chicken is served atop brown wax paper on trays. The interior has a gritty, “industrial, vintage feel,” Reilly says, with metallic stools, painted bricks, and butcher blocks as highlights. Meanwhile, the whiskey bar features a DJ booth with a vinyl collection that guests can browse.

The design and the menu, Reilly says, are intentionally stylized to resonate on Instagram, where so many millennials discover new food businesses.

He adds that millennials are influenced by the experience and adventure of food, which is to Chicken + Whiskey’s advantage. While the chicken and whiskey halves of the restaurant look like two different concepts, customers grasp that the intention is for there to be crossover (although there’s no chicken allowed in the whiskey bar). It’s common for guests to drop into the bar first, grab a cocktail, and then get in line for food, he says.

“Ultimately, the audience imparts on you what it will, regardless of what you’re trying to do,” he says. “I’m really specific with the vision in terms of what I’m offering the guests. But the guests are really telling me what to do next—in terms of how they move through the space, what they’re eating, what they’re drinking, how they’re eating and drinking—and it’s kind of cool to experience.”

This is the first fast-casual concept for Star Restaurant Group, which owns and operates The Walrus Oyster & Ale House in National Harbor, Maryland (it’s also developed operations and beverage programs for other concepts).

Managing principal Reilly—whose resume includes hospitality stints with The Ritz Carlton, McCormick & Schmick’s, and The Cheesecake Factory, along with roles in developing several full-service restaurants, bars, and lounges in New York and D.C.—initially wanted to do a Korean fried chicken concept, but a partnership with a potential chef fell through. The team then shifted to a healthier chicken concept (the name Chicken + Whiskey was pretty much set in stone from the get-go), which led them to consider a rotisserie menu.

Reilly eventually connected with Enrique Limardo, an award-winning chef whose restaurant Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore has earned rave reviews for its upscale Venezuelan fare. They worked on R&D for a year before landing on today’s 21-item, Peruvian rotisserie chicken menu.

The star of the menu is the Pollo a la Brasa, which has been brined for 12 hours in a mixture of herbs, juices, spices, and dark beer and slow-cooked over wood charcoal. Guests can order a whole, half, or quarter chicken on a platter with two sides, which include Yuca Fries, Sweet Plantains, and Chifa Noodles, among others. There are also sandwiches, wings, and desserts available on the menu.

“We’ve got this fast-casual model in the sense that you order your chicken and your two sides, and then you get it—and if you want a Pollo Frito, which is our ridiculously good fried chicken sandwich, you get that—and it takes maybe 4 minutes to make that,” Reilly says. “But we don’t want anyone in line for more than 4 minutes, 5 minutes max, unless there’s a wait, which is a good problem. … The whole interaction is only meant to be 15 minutes total, and then you’re out the door.”

Reilly isn’t planning to expand Chicken + Whiskey—at least, not yet.

Developing it into a multiunit brand isn’t out of the question, but he’s still tweaking the menu and the concept, and besides, he doesn’t think an operator should plan on turning a restaurant into a multiunit business out of the gate because that’s “letting the tail wag the dog.”

“Everything has to be bold and specific with any kind of creative choice, whether you’re a painter or a writer or an actor or a singer,” he says. “If you don’t make really specific choices, everything is going to be wishy-washy. If you come out of the gate strong and make really bold, specific choices, even if it’s only a one-off, that’s where everything begins.”