Chef Charlie Palmer on The Wharf, steakhouses and courting younger diners

Charlie Palmer opened Charlie Palmer Steak across from the U.S. Capitol in 2003, joining the ranks of some of the city’s best fine-dining restaurants long before the city was seen as a dining hub. He passed through the District this week — the New York-based Palmer does so once or twice a month, he said — grabbing dinner one night at Bourbon Steak “to check out the competition” and hosting several reporters at a media dinner another night to celebrate the restaurant’s 11th birthday in D.C.

He sat down to chat with me about steakhouses, attracting a younger clientele and what might be next for him in D.C.

D.C.’s restaurant scene is very different than when you arrived. How does Charlie Palmer Steak fit into the new dining model? It’s amazing. D.C. has become a must-stop food town. I’ve always considered our steakhouse to be modern. We’ve always had a big emphasis on sourcing the best product.

One of the first kitchens I worked in, I had a chef tell me that a good chef could take something bad and make something good. I remember thinking, even way back then, that that was the stupidest thing I had heard in my life. So we are working on serving the best product, and then being creative, but also being smart. You’re not going to see a plate with seven sauces and 18 garnishes.

The city is seeing an influx of national steakhouse chains. How do you compete? On the higher-end tier of steakhouses, there’s been a lot of consolidation. Landry’s pretty much owns everything. I’m not privy to their business model, but they’re obviously looking at a formula, whereas no matter how many steakhouses we have, they’re all going to be different.

You’ve got multiple hotel and restaurant projects going in New York and on the West Coast. Any interest in doing another spot here in D.C.? We’ve looked around D.C. We almost did a couple things. One, I wasn’t comfortable with the partnership with the landlord. I’ve learned that if it doesn’t feel good in my gut, don’t do it. We’re in a unique position, we don’t have to do anything.

Have you been courted for CityCenter or The Wharf or any of the other big developments coming up? We looked at CityCenter. I’ve also looked at The Wharf. I think [The Wharf] is interesting. But I don’t know. It has to be the right deal. I think to be successful, it could be the kind of place which takes years to develop.

Much of the new dining excitement in the city is more casual than Charlie Palmer. Do you think a younger clientele is looking for the steakhouse experience? You know, more time is spent talking about how to engage a younger clientele, how to make a more expensive restaurant cool to a younger clientele. But I truly believe as a younger clientele becomes more sophisticated, and their tastes evolve, especially for wines, they’re going to be yearning to step up to the table. The other thing is that a lot of younger clientele are making more and more money. They want to buy the best, whether its suits or wines or meals. We’re in a perfect position for that.

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