Tonight, Washington, D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj will be honored with The Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award for his outstanding initiative that increased the profile and success of Metropolitan Washington dining. Ahead of this honor, contributor Nevin Martell spent an evening shadowing Bajaj as he oversees the restaurants in his Knightsbridge Restaurant Group.
It’s 8 p.m., so Ashok Bajaj is enjoying a single macchiato in the front lounge of his upscale Italian restaurant, Bibiana. Every evening around this time, the powerhouse D.C. restaurateur, who owns 10 of the city’s buzziest spots, from modern-minded Indian showstopper Rasika to the Oval Room, a New American white tablecloth stunner by the White House, enjoys an espresso boost to power him through the rest of the night.
The James Beard Award nominee needs it because every night he visits every one of his restaurants. It’s the culmination of an already impressively packed day. His work begins around 8 a.m. at home when he checks his email and exercises. He leaves a little after 10 for the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group offices next door to Rasika in Penn Quarter.
In the entrance hallway, there’s what Bajaj calls his “power wall,” featuring photos of him with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. A picture of him alongside Joe and Jill Biden dominates one wall of his office overlooking D Street. His desk is covered in neatly arranged paperwork, some related to the second location of Bindaas, a homage to Indian street food, which is set to open in October on Pennsylvania Avenue in Foggy Bottom. “The best part of my job is coming up with new concepts,” says Bajaj, before jokingly adding, “Running them can be the tough part.”
Though he sets aside two hours around lunchtime to be here and work, much of his day is spent at his restaurants – taking meetings, going over menu changes, and addressing operational and staffing issues. “Some people work from home, some people go to the office,” he says. “For me, these are my workplaces.”
His evening tour of his empire almost always begins at 701, a two-block stroll from his office. Tonight when he walks in the upscale American restaurant, he greets the manager on duty and does a walk through of the kitchen, saying hello to cooks prepping for service. After a quick chat with the chef, he nips out a side door onto the patio. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, I’m not needed,” he says. “Things run well. If I’m needed, I’ll stay. If I’m not, I’m gone.”
Next up? NoPa, an American accented brasserie, where he takes a seat at the bar. Always nattily dressed – tonight he’s in a deep blue suit with polished black leather loafers – Bajaj could be mistaken for a lobbyist or a power broker from the Hill. In a town defined by politics, Bajaj is a master of gracefully accommodating both sides of the aisle. “They’re not Republicans or Democrats; they’re guests,” he says.
He ticks off some regulars at his various restaurants: New Jersey senator Cory Booker (D), Tennessee senator Alexander Lamar (R), Virginia senator Mark Warner (D), and Tennessee’s junior senator Bob Corker (R).
After a brief check-in with the manager, Bajaj walks out the door and heads southward again. As he’s striding down 8th Street, he hails a figure walking towards him, “Senator Corker, I was just talking about you.”
The men shake hands and Corker sings his praises of 701. “I love it,” he says. “I don’t know how many salmons I’ve had in there – an ocean full.”
Picking up a black Benz from a nearby garage, Bajaj drives east to Rasika where he illegally parks across the street. Though his valets watch his car wherever he goes, it doesn’t mean he’s immune from meter maids. One year he paid more than $7,000 in parking tickets. From there, he journeys to Bibiana for his espresso, then on to the Oval Room and The Bombay Club, before driving northward to Cleveland Park, where Bindaas and Ardeo + Bardeo live side by side.
“I never thought I would have ten restaurants, ever,” says Bajaj, who employees roughly 500 people. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but my passion wasn’t there.”
Born in New Delhi, India, he earned an undergraduate degree in business and a postgraduate degree in hotel management. His first job was for the Ashok Group – no relation – which placed him in positions around India and, ultimately, in London. By his mid-twenties, he had the desire to open his own venture, so he scouted locations in Sydney, Australia, as well as New York City and Chicago. The District of Columbia was the last stop on his tour. Though it didn’t have many high-end restaurants in the late ‘80s, he saw potential. In 1988, he opened the Bombay Club, a formal Indian restaurant, “where I could introduce my native cuisine to Americans,” he says.
The ambitious startup got a big boost when Esquire named it one of the best new restaurants in the country and it was well reviewed by the Washington Post. 701 followed, though it did not enjoy a strong opening, in part due to the recession that hit the country. Bajaj remembers struggling to get 100 people in the dining room every night. It took two solid years to get it off the ground.
A major turning point in his career came in 1993, when President Clinton dined at the Bombay Club. “It was a dream come true,” says Bajaj. “Had a president been to an Indian restaurant ever?”
The ensuing attention gave him the support he needed in 1993 to procure the space for the Oval Room across the street from the Bombay Club. Bajaj hasn’t stopped opening restaurants since then – and they have spanned the culinary spectrum. He always asks himself, “How can I excite myself and the dining public?” he says. “What new can I do? What new can I learn? No matter what, you’ve got to stay hungry.”
His latest is Bindaas, which is humming this evening. Tables are packed, conversations are dominating the music, and Bollywood films are playing on the flat screens over the bar. He surveys the room. “I can feel if a place is running well or not running well,” he says.
A couple gets up from a table and Bajaj keeps an eye on it. “One to two minutes of an uncleaned table is okay; three is too many,” he says.
By the time Bajaj drives to the last stop of his evening, it’s almost 9 p.m. and darkness has fallen fully. Walking in to Rasika West End, he greets the hostesses while almost unconsciously straightening a chair at the bar and musing out loud about which table he’d like to dine at. He settles on one in the library area, which has a superior view of the main dining room. In the downstairs kitchen, he checks in with James Beard Award-winning executive chef Vikram Sunderam, who asks what he’d like to eat.
“Whatever you’d like to cook,” says Bajaj, who seems more than happy to let Sunderam choose after a long day of his own decision-making.
Join us in wishing heartfelt congratulations to Ashok Bajaj on receiving The Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award. Cheers to many more successes for your and The Knightsbridge Restaurant Group.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.
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Photo credits: Robert Miller (Rasika West End); Greg Powers (NoPa, Bibiana, Bindaas); Jessica Van dop Dejesus (Bombay Club); Nevin Martell (Bajaj, Rasika).