I stopped by Grapeseed late last Sunday morning, about 12 hours after chef/owner Jeff Heineman cooked his last meal and locked the doors on his Cordell Avenue restaurant for the last time. Heineman announced in early July that, after 17 years, he was closing the restaurant on July 29.
On Sunday, the place already had been transformed, as a swarm of people dismantled furniture, moved equipment and displayed the restaurant’s large wine inventory—getting everything ready for auction.
One benefit of being the editor of Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat is that I go out to eat a lot. Over the last 13 years, my wife, Susan, and I have gotten to know many restaurants and restaurateurs—but none more so than Grapeseed and Heineman. Like clockwork, we ate at Grapeseed every other Friday night, usually sitting at the chef’s counter overlooking the action in the open kitchen and chatting with Heineman and his staff.
Heineman’s a local guy. He grew up in Germantown and went to Seneca Valley High School. He learned about wine while working at The Wine Rack in Gaithersburg in his late teens and early 20s, and got interested in food while a student at William & Mary, when he cooked for his roommates.
At 6’4’ and close to 300 pounds, he has a body befitting the football lineman he was at Seneca Valley and William & Mary. Too many hits playing football and later touring the world as a rugby player—and too many hours on his feet in kitchens—have taken their toll. He’s already had one hip replaced and will have the other done soon.
Jeff Heineman (provided photo)
Heineman could be gruff, with vendors, his staff and the occasional demanding customer (or magazine editor). He had strong opinions about changes in the restaurant business, the behavior of patrons and the challenges of owning a restaurant in Montgomery County. (People not showing up when they had reservations really set him off—and with good reason.) But most of the time, he was welcoming and wickedly funny. And he could cook.
Grapeseed was at its best when Heineman was in the kitchen. The gradual decline in business over the last five years forced him to cut back on his staff. The upside of that downside was that Heineman was back cooking. And it showed.
My favorites—the “Blistered green beans, bacon, Thai basil;” and “Norwegian salmon, with walnuty-bacony Brussels, mustard and dill”—were better than anything else I’ve eaten at a Bethesda restaurant. I’m convinced that if Susan were forced to choose between me and Heineman’s “Brick chicken with crushed potatoes, spinach and lemon caper sauce,” I would lose every time. (Fortunately for me, she never had to make that choice.)
Recently, Heineman tried to attract customers by offering inventive themed tasting menus on Fridays and Saturdays. There were Thai, Jamaican and Brazilian menus, and “whole animal” menus that featured four courses from the same creature. (The all-goat menu may have taken the idea a little too far!)
Then there was the wine. Near the end, Grapeseed had more than 2,500 bottles in stock. The list was heavy on domestic wines and rich in variety.
Grapeseed was one of the first restaurants in Montgomery County to pair dishes and wines. Heineman knew (and occasionally scoffed at) my somewhat pedestrian wine tastes, but he recommended wines he knew I would like without fail.
Being the chef/owner of a stand-alone restaurant isn’t easy. Profit margins are thin, there are no economies of scale and the business is way too dependent on one person. Heineman routinely worked six days a week and rarely took more than a few days off. A few times, he slept at the restaurant when he was preparing barbeque for a special holiday menu.
Many local restaurateurs have thrived by opening multiple restaurants. Jeff Black started with Addie’s on Rockville Pike and now has a small and highly regarded restaurant empire. Roberto and Riccardo Pietrobono began with Olazzo in Silver Spring and Bethesda, and now also own Gringos & Mariachis and Alatri Brothers, neighbors on Cordell Avenue. (A new Addie’s and Gringos will open soon at Park Potomac.)
But there’s something special about a restaurant where the owner/chef still prepares the menu, oversees the kitchen and mixes with the patrons. There’s an intimacy to that experience that transcends the food and drink.
There’s also something special about being a “regular.”
In the movie “Groundhog Day,” the character played by Bill Murray knows exactly what is going to happen and when because he is repeating the same day over and over. Because we were at Grapeseed so often, Susan and I got to know the rhythms of the place—almost like we knew what was going to happen before it did. The staff got to know our preferences and—in my case—peculiarities. The servers knew that I wanted a bourbon neat, with three cherries. That’s nice.
Interacting with the staff—Memo, Tony and Eric in the kitchen; and Elias, Gavin, Katie, Perry and Shannon (Jeff’s wife) up front—was part of the experience. Elias, who now has a baby girl, had worked at Grapeseed since he was a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Memo (Elias’ cousin) would occasionally slip Susan a small plate of something he was cooking.
Grapeseed wasn’t perfect. Critics and some patrons said the restaurant never adapted to diners’ evolving preference for more casual fare at lower prices. But it was, I believe, among a handful of restaurants that defined—and elevated—the Bethesda dining scene.
Susan and I are still at a loss for where we’re going to go every other Friday night.