Isabella Eatery Set for a Tysons Takeover

Here's what you'll find when the massive food hall finally opens.

Photo by Ralph Alswang

The food world was abuzz in early 2016 when star chef Mike Isabella announced his grand plans to replace all 10 outlets in Tysons Galleria’s food court with a food hall concept. The forthcoming Isabella Eatery (slated to begin opening in phases in October) will span 41,000 square feet with seating for 500 or more. To pull it all off, Isabella hired fellow toque Joe Palma as culinary director. Most recently the chef at Bourbon Steak in the District, Palma has also cooked at Le Bernardin in New York City, High Cotton in Charleston and D.C.’s West End Bistro. Here’s Palma’s take on his new job.

So many concepts under one roof! Break it down for us.
Phase 1 includes an ice cream shop called Retro Creamery, a coffee shop called Non-Fiction Coffee and Graffiato, a full-service restaurant with a fast-casual window offering items such as paninis and thick-crust pizzas. Phase 2 brings Octagon, a classic cocktail bar, and Kapnos Marketa, a takeout-only outlet selling Greek spreads, phyllo pies and spit-roasted meats by the pound. Phase 3, the grand dining concept, will have common seating for more than 260, allowing guests to order items from five different places: Arroz (tapas and other traditional Spanish foods); Requin Raw Bar (raw bar, crabcakes, caviar, cured fish and sparkling wines); Pepita (tacos, nachos, quesadillas); Yona (which will have a big sushi component); and Octagon. Phase 3 also will include a private dining room for up to 65 people. I think the private dining will really take off—especially for breakfast meetings—but if it doesn’t, we have a Mediterranean grilled meats concept ready to go. That would be Phase 4.

How is Isabella Eatery different from a food court?
The service aspect is what sets us apart. You can make reservations, a host seats you, and there’s a grand dining area with one menu for multiple restaurants, although those outlets all have their own dedicated kitchens.

There’s a commissary kitchen, too, right?
Yes, to service the nuts and bolts of all concepts. We will make one chicken stock, one guacamole. We will standardize as much as possible. We will move Isabella Catering to that kitchen. It will also service the Marketa and make all the breads and pastries, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What appeals to you about the culinary director job?
I don’t have the desire to own a restaurant. I prefer an operator role. Mike is asking me to streamline, to build systems to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. That may sound dry and dispassionate, but those kinds of challenges are enticing to me.

How much cooking will you do?
Ideally, none. I’m happy to throw on whites and help, but if I’m cooking on the line, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t have my eyes on. I am setting up systems and making sure they work. If the food isn’t being rotated, for example, and there’s waste on a large scale, that is a lot of money.

Who wrote the menus?
Mike did. They are his concepts. Offering food that originated in his other restaurants is fine with me—the kinks are worked out. Going into an opening of this size, I’m happy to have things that people already enjoy and that work operationally. Then I can see what is missing after we open and create to meet those needs.

How many employees will you manage?
Around 200 in the front of the house and 96 in the back of the house.

Restaurateurs say there are too many restaurants opening and not enough people to work in them. Do you foresee that as a problem?
I think the location works to our benefit for staffing. I see the culinary talent pool as people who want to work for an established D.C. restaurateur but don’t want to pay D.C. rent, move their car four times a day, drive an hour to get to work or pay for parking. It’s easier to live near where you work. Plus, Isabella Eatery can be an entry point into the company. They can move later to one of our other restaurants, if they want. It could be a symbiotic relationship in a positive way. www.isabellaeatery.com


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