Michael Babin isn’t necessarily a DC household name, but his restaurants sure are. He’s one of the co-owners behind the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, (NRG) the powerhouse behind Buzz, Evening Star Café, EatBar, Planet Wine, Rustico, Columbia Firehouse, Star Catering, Tallula and Vermilion – all Northern Virginia staples that have quickly become community favorites. With Michael opening his first restaurant in DC proper any day now, the beer-focused Birch & Barley and upstairs bar Churchkey, I thought it was high time to talk to him about what he loves about DC.
Katie: How long have you lived in the DC area?
Michael: 18 years.
What is the best thing about DC, in your opinion?
DC is much more manageable and affordable than just about any other city with comparable cultural attractions. Also, the people who live here tend to be well educated, well informed, and passionate about public issues. Because there is more awareness of the inside baseball of how things really work, it can seem to outsiders like a cynical town, but just as much (if not more), it’s a city of idealists and big dreamers.
What would you change about DC if you could?
Lower the pollen levels and eradicate those tiny Asian mosquitoes.
Why did you start NRG, and what do you see for it in the future?
I opened the Evening Star Cafe because I wanted to get a practical education in business by starting and owning one. A few years later, I decided to do this full-time and it turned into NRG. I have too many goals for NRG to mention, but personally I hope to continue to earn the right to work with smart, creative, and committed partners in the kitchens and fronts-of-house to create and operate places that we, and our guests, genuinely love.
Name your ideal day of DC meals – what would you eat for breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner and drinks?
I’ll leave our restaurants out of this answer to avoid playing favorites. Saturday breakfasts with my three sons are always pancakes, waffles, or dutch babies, and we have a lot of fun cooking and eating together. For lunch, I’m partial to Pho 75 in Arlington, followed by the tangy Fro Yo at Mr. Yogato on 17th St. For dinner, I really like what Chef Scott Drewno is doing at the Source, and for cocktails afterwards I’m heading to PS7′s, where Gina Chersevani makes drinks that amaze.
What do you think DC diners want out of their restaurant experience today?
What did they want ten years ago? I think there are different types of DC diners. One type is the power diner, who is interested in dining, seeing, and being seen in the newest, sleekest places. I think a lot of restaurateurs from outside of DC define the city in terms of this group. Another group (which certainly overlaps with the first) is interested in great food, food with integrity, served in settings that are hip and interesting without being ostentatious. They want to have local, unpretentious, affordable places that don’t compromise on quality. I don’t think the DC diner’s desires have changed much in ten years, but I think they have become more educated and engaged with the dining experience, which is good for everyone.
You seem to have a great grasp on how to build places that people will become regulars at. What is the key to making a restaurant friendly to DC neighborhoods?
First, pay attention to the neighborhood. If you have a location selected, don’t let your idea of the restaurant you’d like to open get in the way of giving real attention to the people who live and work in the area; what are they missing that they would love to have? Second, commit to taking care of your staff; if they love their workplace and enjoy their job, they will be more likely to treat guests with genuine warmth and hospitality.
What draws you to Northern Virginia? Why have you chosen Del Ray and Old Town for most of your restaurants?
I live in Del Ray and I know Old Town pretty well; both places have a great spirit about them. People know one another and there’s a nice community feel.
Birch & Barley is your first place in DC proper, what made you choose that location? Any more plans in DC?
I love the 14th Street corridor–I love where it is going and the people who are helping to take it there, but I also love the fact that there are still plenty of signs of where it’s been, which gives it great texture and life. There is a great mix of people out on the street and in the shops and restaurants at just about any time, day or night, and that’s what gives the area its energy.
You’ve got a wine shop, but two beer-focused restaurants. Which do you like better – beer or wine? Why?
I love wine, but right now, overall, I would have to say that I choose beer more often. I’ve gone in phases between the two (with not a few cocktails thrown in along the way), but I think that there are some very exciting things happening in the brewing world right now. One of the great things about my job is that I get to work with people like Greg Engert and Juliana Santos–their enthusiasm and passion is contagious so sometimes it depends on which one I’m talking to.
Where do you spend your days off in the city? Days off are with the kids, sometimes taking it easy around the house, or sometimes on hikes or at parks around the city.
Visit Michael’s first DC restaurant is due to open any day now. Birch & Barley and ChurchKey will be located at 1337 14th St, NW, near the Dupont Circle metro stop on the Red line. For more information, please call 202-518-7549 or visit the websites at www.birchandbarley.com and www.churchkeydc.com.