7 DC Power Players to Watch

October 28, 2013
by Rina Rapuano

You’ve already heard plenty about restaurant empire builders like José Andrés, who won our hearts with Jaleo and keeps us ever interested with places like Zaytinya and Minibar, and Ashok Bajaj, the perfectionist and omnipresent restaurateur behind bar-raisers like Rasika and Bibiana. But we’ve collected a few restaurant-industry folks who we feel fly under the radar, others who are poised to be the next Andrés or Bajaj, and still more who hold an intangible power over this city.

Michael Babin

The man behind the ever-growing Neighborhood Restaurant Group has an uncanny ability to make calculated risks that pay off in a big way. Since opening Evening Star Café in Del Ray in 1997, he has continued to open restaurants and businesses in neighborhoods either experiencing a revival or newly developed. Tallula, Buzz Bakery, Birch & Barley and GBD Fried Chicken & Doughnuts are among the many projects brought about by NRG, with the DC openings of The Arsenal, Iron Gate and Red Apron Butchery all hotly anticipated. Babin also founded and serves as chairman of the board of directors for Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit that runs a farm and helps teach children about nutrition and growing food. Good deeds and great food? That's smart business.

Travis Croxton

Travis Croxton and his cousin, Ryan Croxton, resurrected their grandfather’s dormant oyster business nearly 10 years ago with an eye toward aquaculture and sustainability, revolutionizing Chesapeake Bay oyster production with their concept of “merroir” (think terroir for the water). They began by knocking on kitchen doors till they got the attention of Equinox’s Todd Gray - Rappahannock River Oysters’ first client - and now their oysters are seemingly everywhere. They smartly opened Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Union Market (and two other non-local spots) to much acclaim, and now Travis is branching out by partnering with cocktail wunderkind Derek Brown on opening oyster bar Eat the Rich and the soon-to-open Southern Efficiency right next door. In his case, the smell of success smells a lot like a freshly shucked oyster.

Scott Drewno

It might not be easy to shine when working in the shadow of celebrity chef mega-star Wolfgang Puck, but Scott Drewno of The Source has made a name for himself in the DC restaurant industry for his incredible abilities in the kitchen as well as his willingness to put his support behind nearly any organization in need. If there is a charity event, he is there, serving as a chef chairman for Share our Strength and Breast Cancer Bites, and helping many local causes from DC Central Kitchen to Lolly’s Locks. Add to that some mad cooking skills - he wins just about every food competition he enters, including Capital Food Fight and Cochon 555 DC (twice) - and you’ve got kindness and talent all in one package. That’s power.

Spike Gjerde

There’s always been a lot of crossover between Washingtonians and Baltimoreans, but executive chef Spike Gjerde, who opened the nationally acclaimed Woodberry Kitchen with wife Amy in 2007, has gotten Washingtonians to think of Baltimore as a dining destination in a completely new way. Plus, he keeps us coming back with new and ever more interesting projects, like the 2012 opening of Artifact Coffee and the recent Shoo-Fly diner concept, and there are plans for a full-service butcher shop called Parts and Labor expected to open by year’s end. Even so, this James Beard Award nominee will likely have us clamoring for more.

The Sweetgreen guys

Nathaniel Ru, Jonathan Neman and Nicolas Jammet met at Georgetown University’s business school and founded their runaway success of a salad shop during their senior year in 2007. Since then, they have opened more than 20 locations of their organic, farm-to-table (and addictive) salad and fro-yo concept, including offshoots in Philadelphia and Boston, and a brand-new storefront in New York. Two more Sweetgreens are slated for McLean community and Tysons Galleria by year’s end, and a juice-bar element was just added to the business model. In addition, the trio founded Sweetlife - a music festival that blends cutting-edge music with outstanding food, wellbeing and carbon-neutral footprint - in 2010, proving that success and sustainability can go hand in hand.

Nadine Brown

As the wine director and sommelier at Charlie Palmer Steak for the past 10 years, Brown has served everyone from Hillary Clinton to John McCain. While comfortable with naming clients who have already been revealed, she says what keeps people coming back - aside from the restaurant’s proximity to the Hill - is the staff’s discretion and ability to act professional when surrounded by DC power figures. There’s also power in helping grease the wheels of compromise with a little vino: “During the shutdown, I think the entire Senate was in at some point while they tried to work out their stalemate,” Brown says.

Johnny Monis

Chef-owner Johnny Monis has been quietly stunning diners with his masterful cooking at Komi for years, and he continues to do so with his fiery and soulful Northern Thai menu at the newer Little Serow just downstairs. Both restaurants are prix fixe tastings, and there's no set menu - you get what you get. (Little Serow is too small to allow for substitutions, vegetarians or allergies, but Komi is more accommodating and flexible on this front.) Regularly landing at the top of best-restaurants lists and racking up James Beard nominations is powerful enough. But he also exerts his power in his tightly guarded image and the confidence that comes with being able to say, “This is my food, and you’re going to love it.” And we do.