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Transforming America's dining experience and the D.C. dining scene

Wednesday - 4/10/2013, 2:15pm  ET

Jaleo opened 20 years ago in Penn Quarter. It helped to launch D.C.'s dining scene and Jose Andres' career. (Photo courtesy of Greg Powers)

Rachel Nania,

WASHINGTON - Twenty years ago, restaurant partners Rob Wilder and Roberto Alvarez convinced a 23-year-old chef to help them launch a new restaurant in downtown D.C.

At the time, Wilder and Alvarez had big dreams of opening a tapas restaurant in the District -- and the young chef, Jose Andres, dreamed of bringing innovative Spanish cuisine and culture to American tables.

On April 5, 1993, the three restaurateurs opened Jaleo, a restaurant dedicated to traditional Spanish tapas and small plates, in Penn Quarter.

"We decided we found our great chef and future partner," says Rob Wilder, CEO and founding partner of Jaleo. Wilder explains that prior to coming to D.C., Andres spent time traveling around the country, but was not tied to a specific city or restaurant.

At the time, Wilder, Alvarez and Andres were stepping into a new territory with Jaleo's tapas menu. Very few restaurants were serving small plates -- a style of dining that is now much more common.

"We weren't the only ones doing tapas. There were a couple of outposts around and some places in New York. Really, the place where tapas were first embraced in the U.S. was in Chicago," Wilder explains. "But Jaleo really did help to accelerate and transform the idea of tapas."

Similar to Jaleo's transformation of traditional Spanish food, the restaurant also helped to transform D.C.'s downtown dining scene.

"It was transitional downtown in the early 90s," Wilder says. "Now the area is a beautiful mix. But it was abandoned when we opened in 1993. Some people were scared to come out and eat."

Wilder says Jaleo's early success can be attributed to Andres' culinary talent and the internal organizational structure of the restaurant. Now, Jaleo employees around 800 people in the D.C. area, alone.

Andres was also able to flex his creativity during his first years in D.C. at Alvarez's other restaurant, Cafe Atlantico, where he experimented with a wide range of cuisines.

The national press began to take notice of Andres' accomplishments. He won the James Beard Foundation's award for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003. In 2011, Andres added to his recognition with the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef Award.

Wilder says the most famous dishes at Jaleo are the classic ones, including the garlic shrimp and the chicken croquetas.

"It's the ABCs of comfort food in Spain," he says.

Jaleo has three locations in the Washington area, including one in Bethesda, Md. and one in Arlington, Va. Jaleo is also in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

As for the future, Wilder says he plans to focus on two things.

"We want to keep creating and innovating," he says.

Wilder also hopes expand the restaurant to other parts of the county, and possibly the world.

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