April 16, 2014
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Home on the Range

‘Top Chef’ finalist Bryan Voltaggio brings star power and ambitious plans for a new restaurant to Friendship Heights

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Voltaggio plates at Volt, the Frederick restaurant that earned him a James Beard nomination in 2010. Photo by Ken GoodmanCurrently, Voltaggio has several restaurants in Frederick: his flagship, Volt, which opened in the summer of 2008 and earned him a James Beard nomination two years later; Lunchbox, a soup and sammie spot that he opened in the fall of 2011; and Family Meal, a modern diner scheduled to open this summer.

Volt had already been open about a year when Voltaggio appeared on the Bravo TV series Top Chef, coming in second to his younger brother, Michael, a celebrated chef in his own right who lives in L.A. The older Voltaggio still has a hard time believing that people consider him a celebrity and can sometimes be shy when fans want to take a picture with him. “I wake up every day wondering how I got here,” he says.

His business partner, 41-year-old Frederick resident Hilda Staples, who has a hand in all of Voltaggio’s restaurants—as well as in Top Chef alum Mike Isabella’s Graffiato and R.J. Cooper’s Rogue 24 in D.C.—was blown away by the aftershock of Voltaggio’s Top Chef appearance. “Bryan really did become a celebrity overnight,” she says.

As Voltaggio’s episodes aired, Staples organized viewing parties at Volt to cheer on her partner. These started with 10 people huddled around an old television set in Volt’s lounge, but as Voltaggio began to dominate the competition, more and more people showed up. Ultimately, Staples had to buy a giant flat screen so everyone could watch the culinary contest, including Voltaggio, who was back behind the burners by then.

More than 300 people attended the finale, almost getting the restaurant shut down by the fire marshal due to overcrowding. “Everyone assumed that Bryan had won,” Staples recalls. “When they announced Michael was the winner, there was a momentary silence. Then everyone started congratulating him, because it was like he won anyway.”

After the show aired, Voltaggio was flooded with offers to open new restaurants, but he demurred. “I didn’t go out there and put up a bunch of crap,” he says. “I wanted to do it right.”

The Frederick native started his career bussing tables at a local Holiday Inn. That wasn’t good enough, though; he wanted to work in the kitchen. “I thought being a chef would be a cool way to pick up chicks,” he jokes.

He married his high school sweetheart, Jennifer, and they now have two children, a 4-year-old son named Thacher and Piper, who celebrates her first birthday this summer.

After studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Voltaggio spent almost a decade working for James Beard Award-winner Charlie Palmer at Aureole in New York and Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, D.C., and he learned a lot about building out a boutique brand. He helped his mentor open a number of new locations around the country. When it came time to set up shop on Capitol Hill in 2003, Palmer gave him complete control. “He gave me the keys and told me, ‘Open up Charlie Palmer Steak,’ ” Voltaggio says. “I was there from the construction onward, which really gave me the confidence to do Range.”

Range is a huge undertaking, with more than twice the number of seats as Volt. The project has been in the works since the end of 2010, when real estate investment management firm Clarion Partners approached Voltaggio. They wanted a top-tier restaurant with a celebrity chef attached to it to bring some A-list shine to Chevy Chase Pavilion, which housed retailers such as J. Crew and World Market but hadn’t been the shopping hot spot developers had hoped it would be.

Voltaggio had been thinking about opening a restaurant in the District, but hadn’t considered Friendship Heights. He quickly realized its potential. “I saw the neighborhood as having a need for great dining,” he says. “There are some great restaurants there, but not chef-driven concepts.”

To make the space more attractive to Voltaggio, Clarion Partners developed plans to give the mall a multimillion-dollar facelift, including a three-story LED screen, new escalator and elevator systems, and a complete aesthetic revamp of the center atrium.

It took some convincing, but after almost a year of negotiations Voltaggio finally signed the lease in February. “When you’re working on a project this large, you have to be sure that every piece of the project is going to work the way that you want it to,” he says. “There’s no room for error.”

Voltaggio and Staples originally thought about putting in a restaurant/gourmet grocery called Market Kitchen, modeled after Mario Batali’s Eataly in New York, but they ultimately decided the concept wouldn’t work. After looking at the Friendship Heights demographics—businessmen, retail shoppers and young families—they decided to go in a different direction. “It looked like a more traditional dining experience would do well there,” Voltaggio says.

Traditional isn’t a fancy way of saying average. “We wanted to do something original that’s not cookie-cutter,” says Staples, who partnered with Voltaggio in 2006 when she set out to open a champagne lounge in Frederick, the project that ultimately became Volt. “The area has so much fine retail, but there’s no great food. The area needs this.”

“Bryan coming to Chevy Chase is good news,” says acclaimed chef and restaurateur José Andrés, who knows both brothers well and used to employ Michael at The Bazaar in Los Angeles. “Volt is amazing, plus he’s hardworking, humble and has his head on his shoulders.”

Top Chef competitor-turned-friend Mike Isabella, who thinks of the Volt chef as a big brother, couldn’t agree more. “I wish all of his restaurants were in D.C.,” he says. “That way I wouldn’t have to drive so far to eat his food.”

When Range opens, Isabella can start saving on his fuel bill. Voltaggio refers to the restaurant’s wide-ranging menu as “casual fine dining.” There will be an emphasis on small plates and shareable options, though you’ll still be able to get straight-up steak for one if that’s what you want. Even when you’re getting your carnivore on, Voltaggio wants options beyond what you’d find at Ruth’s Chris. Small plates will cost $8 to $18, and entrées will be in the $25 to $33 range.

“The idea is to go beyond the classic center cuts,” he says. “A rib-eye is great, but I don’t understand how people can eat it every day.”

In a way, Range is a return to Voltaggio’s Charlie Palmer Steak roots. “I miss that à la carte atmosphere where people order a bunch of different things to try,” he says. “But that style of restaurant requires a lot of space and a dense population, both of which we have here.”

He has no interest, however, in repeating the past, so he has designed Range to go far beyond what his old stomping grounds could handle. This sprawling new setup will have several rotisserie ovens, and will offer whole roasted chickens, legs of lamb and pork shoulders. There also are plans for the menu to include flatbreads, house-made charcuterie, fresh shellfish and casual lunch options.

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