As of the end of October, Escafe has new owners and a new direction. Actually it’s an old direction: “We want to bring it back to the way things were with Sean and Doug,” says Todd Howard, who is one of those new owners, and the new general manager. Howard is referring, of course, to beloved dining duo Doug Smith and Sean Concannon, who in the mid-1990s took over the famed fine dining restaurant Eastern Standard and later created the bistro offshoot Escafe, the latter of which soon achieved a loyal drinking and dining and dating cult along the lines of Miller’s and Fellini’s. Back then, Howard reminds us, Escafe was known as the “comfortable but eclectic” place to go when you wanted some good but affordable eats, a great bottle of wine and a Bohemian (read: gay-friendly) crowd. It was all fun and fancy-free, but then Smith and Concannon sold the restaurant and left for Portland several years ago. Mark Brown took over the building and kept Escafe chugging along, but it was obvious where his passions lie when in February he kicked Al Dente Ristorante out of the top floor to open his own upscale steak, seafood and scotch pad called The Upstairs. Soon thereafter, he put Escafe on the block.
And the eat goes on: Todd Howard, one of the new owners, and the new general manager, of Escafe, is planning to bring back “a sense of style” to the famed Downtown restaurant.
With all that turmoil in recent years, Restaurantarama senses that Escafe has lost a bit of its former charm and become known more for its late night DJ/dance scene than its cuisine or character. Old Escafe regulars will be happy to hear, however, that over the next few months Howard is planning to bring back “a sense of style” and new riffs on some old menu favorites, such as the spicy sesame noodle bowl, the marinated tofu sandwiches and entrees and the open-faced turkey sandwich. He’s already resurrected the original Mom’s Meatloaf recipe, and in collaboration with the current chef, added a Romesco sauce in place of the chipotle catsup.
Howard, who spends part of his days working alongside Bill Curtis at Tastings, is also planning to diversify the wine list, which he says is “too French” right now. “We want to bring back an element of fun,” he says, and for him that means representing more grapes and regions and adding quirky bottlings such as the Bad Boy Bordeaux from Jean-Luc Thunevin and an unpretentious but boldly flavored California blend of a gazillion red grapes called Hey Mambo. Howard and Restaurantarama tasted the latter straight off the distributor’s truck at, oh, 9:15 in the morning last Wednesday—very Boho, no?
As for décor, Howard recently repainted the bar room a dusty blue and plans to bring in more greenery and someday turn the front of the dining room into a lounge area.
“We want to rebuild the reputation of Escafe as a place where Bohemia can happen,” says Howard.
No worries to the new crowd, though, as Howard assures us that Escafe’s late night party scene and, yes, ’80s night, are staying firmly in place.
High on the hill
The much-anticipated new Monticello Visitor’s Center on Route 53 opened on November 8. Scratch that, the much-anticipated new Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center (along with the fancy new architect-ed building, the visitor center has a fancy new architect-ed name) opened on that day, and with it came the new Café at Monticello. Karen Laetare of Brix Marketplace on Thomas Jefferson Avenue and Brix Terrace Café in Pantops is running the show at the new Monticello eatery, so you know it has tasty grilled paninis, cold sandwiches, salads and freshly baked goodies, as well as cheeses, meats and snacks for creating your own picnic to enjoy around the grounds of the big house. Incidentally, Laetare recently sold the flagship Brix Marketplace down there over the hill to concentrate on her Pantops location and this contract with Monticello. We’ll keep you posted on what the new owners are planning for the TJ Avenue space.