Best Restaurateur

Ashok Bajaj
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

On a cold and blustery weekday night, Ashok Bajaj is stationed at the host stand of his newly united Ardeo + Bardeo restaurant and bar. After a million-dollar renovation, the Cleveland Park restaurant is buzzing. The bar is packed, and there are just a handful of empty tables toward the back. Always the master of logistics, the dapper Bajaj huddles with his front-of-the-house staff, then disappears into the kitchen. When he returns, he chats with some diners and checks in again with his new general manager. As all this plays out, a floor mat in the vestibule is causing the front door to get stuck. Bajaj goes to investigate and readjusts the mat.

Though Bajaj says he gives general managers and chefs the freedom to run their locations in his mini restaurant empire, no detail is too small for the cordial Delhi native who has spent over two decades fine-tuning what is being served at his restaurants and how.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” he says during an interview at 701, the 20-year-old restaurant he opened in Penn Quarter—well before that branding was applied to the downtown neighborhood that’s become a hub for destination dining. The city now has a younger vibe and a dining population with an increasing fascination with food and restaurants. Bajaj says he’s seen this change set in over the years and that it’s great for D.C.

After a career in the restaurant and hospitality industry in India and London, he moved to Washington at the tail end of the Reagan administration, later opening Bombay Club in 1989.

“With Bombay Club, I thought first here, then New York, then other cities,” he says. “The city was now expanding, and so was I.” But instead of branching out beyond the Beltway, Bajaj has staked his claim in D.C.

His first restaurants, Bombay Club and 701, which opened in 1991, became known as spots for D.C.’s powerbrokers. During the 1990s, Bajaj added The Oval Room across the street from Bombay Club, then Ardeo in Cleveland Park, joined by Bardeo next door.

While his restaurants have attracted major players of all political stripes, Clinton-era White House staffers and Democratic Party officials helped cement Bajaj’s restaurants in D.C.’s dining firmament in the 1990s. Bajaj can list names: Rahm Emanuel, George Stephanopoulos, Terry McAuliffe, and Betty Currie, for starters.

“Bill Clinton ate [at] my restaurants 12 or 13 times” during his administration, Bajaj says. While Bajaj can recall diners’ favorite dishes and the number of times they’ve dined at his businesses, having famous guests didn’t put his empire on the map. Rather, Bajaj and his teams did. His restaurants, which also include Bibiana and Rasika, have been training grounds for culinary talent. For instance, Bajaj moved Frank Morales to D.C. from New York a decade ago to revamp Oval Room’s kitchen. Morales went on to help shape Zola, Rustico, and ChurchKey. New York toque Tony Conte, who was tapped as Oval Room’s executive chef in 2005, has now been given oversight of Bajaj’s non-Indian kitchens.

Back at Ardeo + Bardeo, Bajaj is busy examining some documents at the host stand with staffers at his side. From far away, you can’t tell what they’re discussing; all of a sudden, his coat is handed to him. A moment later, Bajaj’s car pulls up to the valet stand. He puts his coat on, walks to the sidewalk, and drives off. He’s in and out in under 30 minutes.

Bajaj says he isn’t able to visit each of his restaurants every night, but he tries. And his circuit will expand in the next year or so. As other D.C. restaurateurs like José Andrés and Michel Richard look west to places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles to try new concepts, Bajaj is looking west, too. Just to the West End—D.C.’s, not London’s. Next year, he plans to open a second location for Rasika near the Ritz-Carlton, following Ris Lacoste and Eric Ripert to the neighborhood.

Bajaj shares one secret to his success: His restaurants are continually evolving. When it was suggested that he change the name of 701 as part of a renovation-driven rebranding, he shot that idea down. Bajaj tends to not get wrapped up in the next best thing and instead adapts what’s worked for him in the past.

“Every single one of my restaurants has been renovated in the past two and a half years,” he says. “I’m keeping them up to date, modern. I’m keeping them fresh.”

As we sit at 701’s bar, Bajaj talks about a different Washington, two decades ago. Pointing to Pennsylvania Avenue NW outside, he recalls when it was easy to find street parking, and the rest of the neighborhood was desolate at night.

He lists a handful of restaurants that have opened and closed in the area immediately surrounding 701: Signatures, D’Acqua, Le Paradou. They’re just footnotes. Bajaj and 701 are still around, of course.

Reflecting on 20 years in the same location and seeing the city change around him, Bajaj says: “I want to be here. I have an emotional keeps me going.”

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