You would think owner Dan Simons would be a little nervous, but he’s energized and excited. After two and a half years of work, the George Washington-inspired Farmers & Distillers is finally opening in Washington, D.C.’s history-rich Mount Vernon Square neighborhood. It’s the fifth restaurant from the Farmers Restaurant Group, which owns three locations of the wildly popular Founding Farmers – D.C., Tysons Corner, Virginia, and Potomac, Maryland – and Farmers Fishers Bakers on the Georgetown waterfront, which are all owned in part by the North Dakota Farmers Union. An astounding 7,000 diners have already booked reservations for Farmers & Distillers first six days of business, which includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and brunch from the start.
The sprawling 12,000-square-foot space on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 6th Street NW in the northern reaches of Chinatown boasts 310 seats and employs approximately 200 staffers, making it the biggest restaurant in the group’s portfolio. Each area is a unique microclimate inspired by some aspect of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate – from the Pleasure Garden by the bar replete with a canopy of floral- inspired lighting to the Sunshine & Honey dining room, which is aglow with honeycomb accents. “I’m especially excited about the General’s Parlor,” says Simons. “You follow the red brick road down to it, through the kitchen on the lower level. It’s a 16-person private dining room with a wet bar, television, and a special menu that’s only available there.”
The restaurant’s main menu is characteristically ambitious and contains no crossover from their other eateries. “The thought of replicating the same thing is so entirely boring to me and [co-owner] Mike Vucurevich,” says Simons. “And it’s boring to the kind of people we want to work with. Repetition doesn’t attract the coolest, most interesting talent.”
There plenty of nods to the neighborhood, including sections devoted to Chinatown classics, such as dumplings, shaobing (Chinese flatbread), spring rolls, and hand-pulled noodles. As a tip of the hat to the German immigrants that used to make the surrounding area their home, there is pork schnitzel and other items. The menu is filled out with handmade pastas, sandwiches, burgers, pizza, steak, seafood, and an impressive array of vegetarian options. “A lot is what you’d expect from us with elevated cooking nuance,” says Simons.
Desserts from executive pastry chef Amanda King range from a dozen different doughnuts (only a buck each!) and chocolate coconut crunch cake to sour cream apple pie and epic sundaes. Guests can complement these sweets with a custom First Bake blend coffee made with locally roasted beans from Compass Coffee or T-Salon tea, which arrives with a clever triple hourglass timer to alert tea tipplers when it will be steeped to their preferred level of flavor depth.
Perhaps the grandest component to the concept is the on-site distillery, Founding Spirits, which produces vodka and amaro. It’s a natural step for the company since they already collaborate with Copper Fox Distillery on rye and gin and create pisco with Macchu Pisco. Because of this, “I’ve always been close to the distillation process,” says Jon Arroyo, beverage director for Farmers Restaurant Group and overseer of the distillery operation. “But actually doing it yourself and having your hands all over it is a completely different experience.”
The spirits team bought a column still a year ago and temporarily installed it offsite so they could fine-tune the device and the recipe. After many false starts and some major adjustments, they finally arrived at a premium process and product. Now the still – nicknamed Caroline, because “she’s so sweet,” says Simons – sits in a special room at Farmers & Distillers with peek-a-boo windows looking in from the bar area and the street. Once the operation is up and running, Arroyo plans to finish the restaurant’s proprietary gin in the still and blend their rye on site as well.
Though this latest project is Farmers Restaurant Group’s biggest yet, they’re not slowing down to enjoy the accomplishment. They are opening locations of Founding Farmers in Reston, Virginia, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania in late summer 2017. “Once you’ve had enough children, you can have twins,” jokes Simons, adding, “We want to keep growing because the more restaurants we have, the more we can deliver on our mission, which is to educate the general public about family farmers, increase demand directly for family farm product, and advocate for family farmers as opposed to corporate farms. And we’re a for-profit business, so the more money we make, the greater share of the food dollar our farmer-owners get.”
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.
Photo credits: Ken Fletcher.