by Brandon Fox
Bryan Voltaggio -- James Beard finalist, cookbook author and “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Masters” alumnus -- and his business partner, restaurateur Hilda Staples, have opened three restaurants in 120 days. That’s in addition to six other restaurants they own together. The last in their string of projects opens quietly this week in Willow Lawn.
“That’s a lot,” Voltaggio says. “That wasn’t in the plans.”
Voltaggio is straightforward and to the point. His television-ready blue eyes may be looking at you directly, but he seems aware of everything going on around him in his restaurant. As the last pieces are drilled into the garage doors that make up the facade of Family Meal and the wait-staff training gears up, he somehow knows when each dish -- pot pie fritters, fried chicken and a classic chopped salad -- are ready to go, even though the kitchen pass-through is directly behind him.
The cool, extra-large subway tile, black concrete floor and rough-hewn, weathered boards bring the current obsession for rustic-industrial design to a spot that you wouldn’t expect for a chef-driven restaurant. Surrounded by Willow Lawn’s chains, Family Meal’s long pergola strung with globe lights is striking. “What we found is that people are excited to have something that’s a little bit more,” he says.
Voltaggio sees his menu as American diner food -- rethought -- and this translates to more locally derived ingredients, as well as approachable meals for families without sacrificing the kind of creativity that fuels a chef who received a serious nod from the James Beard Foundation.
After the restaurant is up and running smoothly, Voltaggio will leave Ryan Cauffman in charge. The 30-year-old chef is a seasoned veteran of the growing Voltaggio-Staples organization, but looks deceptively younger. Core items will remain on the menu, Voltaggio says. But as he and his staff relax into the new space, other, regionally influenced dishes will start to appear.
“Ryan understands what I’m looking for,” Voltaggio says.
It’s a collaborative environment, and that’s another way Family Meal is different from the chain restaurants around it. “It’s about mentoring and trusting other people,” he says.
The first Family Meal in Frederick, Maryland, came about for a simple reason. Although Voltaggio co-owned a successful fine-dining restaurant, Volt, it wasn’t a place where he could take his children. His partner Staples had the same problem: Their town had too few choices. Hence, the birth of Family Meal -- a spot created to feed two families and everyone else in Frederick who had the same problem. He thinks Richmonders are looking for something similar to fill the gap here.
“When we opened in Ashburn, we were crushed -- in a good way,” Voltaggio says. “People were waiting for it to open.”
He hopes his new West End neighbors feel the same way.