A few years ago, when it was planning its entrance into the US, the Lebanese chain Kabab-ji hired a consulting firm for recommendations on where it should locate the first of its full-service kebab restaurants. It was easy to understand why the first two cities suggested by iFranchise – New York and Miami – might give a warm welcome to an outpost of Beirut party culture. But Kabab-ji ultimately went with the third, and most surprising, suggestion: dowdy Washington – never known for its good taste or dynamic consumer culture.
Late last year, Kabab-ji’s first American grill began glowing in a Connecticut Avenue storefront just south of Dupont Circle, the latest in a growing list of foreign restaurant chains who are choosing to bypass New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and plant their flag in the capital instead.
This winter, London’s Ping Pong Dim Sum began serving its first stateside dumplings in Washington’s Chinatown, a block away from the spot where Johannesburg-based Nando’s opened the first of its two restaurants in late 2007. This spring, Wagamama will move in further down Seventh Street, Northwest, also skipping bigger metropolises for its second US city after Boston.
They are enlivening the mix in a city whose dining options have long been remarkable for little other than the banality of its expense-account lunch culture. Washington’s downtown restaurant scene is rich in chain steakhouses (the Palm, Capitol Grille), the occasional celebrity-chef restaurants (Wolfgang Puck’s The Source, Alain Ducasse’s Adour) and celebrity-chef steakhouse chains (Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak, Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak).
The new foreigners are lured by Washington’s changing demographics. The city has developed into a home for one of the country’s most affluent and well-educated consumer bases. This, according to restaurant consultants, makes it particularly receptive to the chains’ worldly concepts. The population is also a transient one, presenting an advantage to companies with the marketing dollars to make a quick impression.
Nando’s and Kabab-ji share the same growth strategy: saturating Washington and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs with as many as 10 restaurants each, so that they can justify aggressive PR and advertising in the region before looking at other cities. This year, Nando’s began sponsoring Georgetown University basketball, something of a local obsession, releasing its rooster mascot to patrol the floor when play stops.
Then there is Washington’s international community and steady flow of foreign visitors, which give brands otherwise obscure in the US the possibility of a ready-made fan base. At Kabab-ji, about 60 per cent of the clientele has a Middle Eastern background, says development director Khal Risheq. “We had a good following of people who already knew us from Lebanon and the Middle Eastern countries,” he says. Soon he will find out if Washington’s suburbs are as worldly.