The Menu That Has Made One José Andrés Restaurant Endure

One afternoon this January, I watched the celebrity chef José Andrés flip through the page proofs of his newest cookbook, “Zaytinya.” He had the pages spread out over the glass top of a custom-made foosball table inside the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the sprawling food group that bears his name. Here Andrés was like a king in his throne room. The José Andrés Group now directs more than 30 eateries — from a two-Michelin-starred restaurant to a food truck — as well as retail products, a podcast, newsletters and television programs. (His charitable organization, World Central Kitchen, runs through a separate nonprofit.)

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Yet Andrés’s success appeared to bring him little comfort. In his opinion, several of the cookbook’s images lacked flair. He didn’t like the way the mushrooms were photographed. He thought the Octopus Santorini needed more glistening olive oil. He flipped the pages morosely, mumbling to himself. “This one is bad.” “This one is bad. No, it’s next-level bad.” Others earned his grudging approval: “That’s OK.” “That’s OK.”

Andrés’s kingdom rose from the enduring popularity of several Washington restaurants — principally Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya, minibar and China Chilcano. All specialize in small-plate menus, a dining concept Andrés pioneered in the 1990s. Many were opened with backing from the entrepreneurs Rob Wilder and Roberto Alvarez and are in Penn Quarter, near the National Portrait Gallery. Jaleo, a collaboration with the chef Ann Cashion, honors Spanish tapas; Oyamel does Mexican. Minibar serves “avant-garde cooking,” while China Chilcano dishes out Chinese and Japanese by way of Peru.

The chef José Andrés still approves every dish on the menu at Zaytinya, but his attention is now divided between his restaurants and his humanitarian work with World Central Kitchen.

But the vegetable-centric Zaytinya has become one of the group’s most successful restaurants. When it first opened, in 2002, its modern interpretations of Greek, Lebanese and Turkish mezze bowled over diners in the capital, who were more used to steak and potatoes; on Saturday nights, they would happily wait two and half hours for a table. A year later, it was shortlisted for the James Beard Foundation’s award for the best new restaurant in America. Today, after more than two decades in business, Zaytinya is a kind of institution in Washington: a midpriced gourmet restaurant with dishes that start at $8, serving more than 700 people on a typical weekday and over a thousand on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s where my family takes out-of-town guests. It’s where we eat lunch before visiting museums on the Mall, where we grab a bite before a show.

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