The Observer

New fast-casual restaurants open in D.C.

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By By Ben Fox, Staff Writer

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In the 1970s Burger King created one of its most memorable slogans, the now infamous line “Have it your way!” The meaning behind that phrase was that the food a customer ordered could be changed based on what toppings the person preferred. Today, 40 years later, “Have it your way” is being taken to a new level in the form of “fast-casual” restaurants, which are increasingly being embraced by a younger crowd.

At “fast-casual” restaurants, customers follows their food as it is prepared. Most people know fast-casual dining in the form of popular restaurant Chipotle, but though the Mexican chain was one of the first fast-casuals, it is no longer the only one of its kind. Three notable fast-casual restaurants, Meatballs, Merzi and Shophouse, have recently opened up in downtown DC, and are already proving to be well-liked by many of the area’s teenagers.

Meatballs, which recently opened last November and is located in Penn Quarter, is the product of celebrity chef Michel Richard. The main concept of the restaurant is classic meatball-themed meals, such as meatballs subs, with such toppings as marinara sauce and even Fritos.

Mark Bucher, a consultant to Meatballs, has worked in many restaurants over the years including popular local spots like BGR The Burger Joint and Cheesecake Factory. According to Bucher, meatballs were chosen as the basis for the restaurant because they bring out a sense of nostalgia in many costumers.

“Meatballs are America’s comfort food,” Bucher said. “Everyone loves spaghetti and meatballs, so there was a unique opportunity to create a small restaurant that focused just on them.”

Meatballs’ customer base has grown largely since its opening and, according to Bucher, serves about 600 people for lunch every day.

The restaurant is already creating more new locations, with four scheduled to open over the next six months. One restaurant will open in Atlantic City, one in Las Vegas, and two more in Washington.

“It’s cheap,” Bucher said of the meal that customers get. “There’s a lot of food for not a lot of money, plus it’s a cool place to hang out.”

Meatballs may be popular, but it isn’t the only new restaurant being talked about in Penn Quarter. Merzi, a year-old Indian fast-casual restaurant, was founded by chef and CEO Qaiser “Kaz” Kazmi and already has a following among D.C. residents.

“I always felt that Indian food, if done in the right way, was going to make a big impact in this country,” Kazmi said, who was born in Great Britain and is of Indian decent.

DC may not seem like the ideal choice for a fledgling restaurant, but according to Kazmi the area has become a great starting point for many young chefs looking to start a business.

“DC happens to be one of the hottest areas in the world to open up a restaurant,” Kazmi said. “This is a very competitive area and I thought that if this works well on 7th Street it’s going to work nearly everywhere.”

Though Kazmi chose DC because of its competitive mentality, not all local restaurateurs share this reasoning for their choice of location. In nearby Dupont Circle, Southeast Asian restaurant ShopHouse, a product of Chipotle Founder Steve Ells, opened last September for a different reason.

According to ShopHouse manager Liz Disla, Chipotle decided to open the first ShopHouse in DC because of the belief that the area was a “comfort zone” for Chipotle management.

The restaurant offers customers a variety of choices in their food. There are four types of meat, including steak and tofu, served on a choice of noodles or rice, along with a large assortment of vegetables, garnishes and spices to add flavor.

Disla believes that the draw of ShopHouse, Chipotle and other restaurants like them are because of the amount of freedom costumers have in their food.

“People feel creative because every time they come they can create a different bowl,” Disla said. “You don’t know if what you get is going to be good or if it’s going to be great, but you want to try everything.”

The days have passed when only hamburgers and fries can be made “your way.” New fast-casual restaurants that showcase a variety of customizable flavors from around the world are finding a home in DC. This new style of restaurant has revolutionized the way American teenagers eat is redefining the term “fast-food.”

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