By Melissa Flynn, Photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
Jeff Black has established a small restaurant empire in the Washington, DC, area, using local ingredients before it was the fashionable thing to do.
If you are wondering where the D.C. restaurant scene is headed , you should probably talk to Jeff Black – the chef and head of a local restaurant empire that includes BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant, Addie’s, Black Market Bistro, and Black’s Bar & Kitchen.
Staking a place in the affluent DC suburbs? Check – 15 years ago. Green energy? Yes – 100 percent wind power in the sleek Black’s Bar and Kitchen, a Bethesda restaurant rebuilt from the ground up with recycled materials. Sourcing locally? Done. A pioneer in the area, in fact.
Black was once going to be a financial planner. He had worked in restaurants since he was 13, but stepped out of the kitchen in his 20s, donned a tie, and accepted a job in finance. He hated it. “I went to lunch one day, threw my tie out the window and never went back. At that point, I decided I was going to get serious about the restaurant business. I enjoyed it and I was good at it,” said Black. Four hugely successful restaurants later and a fifth on D.C.’s hot 14th Street in the works, Black remains committed to local sources of food. He’s no hippie – it’s all about business.
A few times every year, Jeff Black takes employees out to visit some of the local farms where they source ingredients for the restaurants, including Northern Neck Fruits and Vegetables in Hague, Va., and Even’ Star Organic Farm in Lexington Park, Md. But he insists he didn’t jump on the “buy local bandwagon” as part of a publicity stunt. He began it with the creation in 1996 of Addie’s restaurant in Rockville, his first place.
“We always did it because local food just tastes better. I never did it because of hype or carbon footprints. I was doing it because I felt like I was getting a better product.” He continues, “one of the best compliments I ever received in my life I got recently from one of the farmers I use (Brett Grohsgal of Even’ Star Organic Farm) who said, ‘You know, Jeff Black was doing this when it wasn’t fashionable.’ I’ve been buying from him for 15 years.”
About 60 percent of the menu at Black’s Bar and Kitchen uses products found within the Mid-Atlantic region. One of the standouts is the Randall Lineback beef sourced from Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville, Va. “The beef has a naturally occurring nuttiness that you only find in properly raised and aged beef,” Black says. He uses locally raised whole calves “tail to snout.” Depending on the day or week, the menu may feature loin chops, steaks, veal breasts, brisket, meatballs, or burgers.
The raw bar, properly buried in ice, recently featured small crisp oysters from Virginia’s Ware River. Cooked seafood is also a standout. Addie’s mussels burst with garlic and tomato. Waiters return again and again with baskets of French bread to sop up the sauce.
The Blacks’ commitment to high-quality, local, seasonal ingredients is what he believes gives them longevity. “Restaurants in Bethesda come and go, but we keep on keeping on.”
START ‘EM YOUNG
Black learned his trade at the Culinary Institute of America where he met his wife, Barbara; she co-owns the four restaurants. After graduation, they headed to Washington, D.C., and he went to work for Bob Kinkead at 21 Federal, followed by Jean-Louis Palladin and Roberto Donna at Pesce. It was here that Black learned the business skills he needed to open his own restaurant.
“I wanted to do the cooking as well as the books, the inventory, the back office stuff—everything,” he says.
FROM THE GROUND UP
Jeff and Barbara opened Addie’s in the mid-‘90s, ignoring naysayers who said a small restaurant out in Rockville could never work. But the Blacks saw the landscape of dining in the D.C. area changing. “The people who support the restaurants live out in the suburbs—let’s bring the cooking to them,” he thought.
Addie’s was a success, and soon Black was working on his second venture in a previously occupied restaurant space in Bethesda. Unlike Addie’s, with its low-key atmosphere, off-beat décor and unadorned tables, Black’s Bar and Kitchen aimed for a different vibe. “With Black’s, we wanted tablecloths, a big bar, a raw bar—everything we couldn’t offer at Addie’s,” Black says.
The restaurant offered a menu of seasonal, organic and local fare with a focus on seafood, as well as organic meats and an impressive wine least with more than 300 labels. Unfortunately, the space Black purchased was in dire need of a renovation.
He closed the place, stripped it down to the bones and rebuilt it nearly from the ground up using recycled materials. It is now powered entirely by wind energy. Black’s Bar and Kitchen reopened in 2006 and has been one of Bethesda’s top-rated restaurants ever since.
After Black’s Bar and Kitchen and Addie’s, Jeff and Barbara opened BlackSalt, the much-loved and acclaimed seafood restaurant and fish market in upper Northwest D.C. Then came Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park, Md. Black tries to stop in the kitchen of each restaurant every day to fine tune and troubleshoot. And he’s not slowing down – he’s got a new place in the works in D.C. that should be open this summer, and plans to open a restaurant in Northern Virginia within two years.
It is a grueling pace.
“It was very challenging, but very rewarding. It’s amazing when you test yourself that hard how gratifying it is. I’m not one of these guys who jumps into a restaurant to make a lot of money and then run away. I don’t think anyone who puts their name on a business should ever think that way,” says Black.
Black’s Bar and Kitchen
7750 Woodmont Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814
11120 Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD 20852
BlackSalt Restaurant and Fish Market
4883 MacArthur Boulevard
Washington, DC 20007
Black Market Bistro
4600 Waverly Avenue
Garrett Park, MD 20896