After over three years of waiting, the sprawling Citizens & Culture casual fine dining restaurant and performance space is about a month away from opening with a diverse, “DMV”-inspired menu in Silver Spring.
The 15,000 square-foot space seats about 500 people and includes a retractable roof, an outdoor patio and garden walls. The leadership backgrounds range from upscale dining to a “Beat Bobby Flay” finalist. The menu promises to source local ingredients, like oysters and produce, in the service of flavors inspired by the Ethiopian, Chinese, Thai and West Indian cuisines that are abundant in this area.
The restaurant is projected to open mid to late April with the goal of highlighting the diversity of the community and the essence of the Washington, D.C. area, says Tsegaw Hailem, 42, the Kaldi’s Social House owner who formed Citizens & Culture.
On a recent visit, the upcoming eatery appeared to be entering its final stages with the garden wall with a neon sign of the restaurant’s name was up on the main level; plenty of seating filled the main and second floor; the balcony on the upper deck featured a marble countertop along the railing; and the garden walls on the second floor were still being assembled.
Hailem assumed ownership of the site that was formerly occupied by Pacci’s Neapolitan Pizzeria at 8113 Georgia Ave. in 2020. After waiting a year to get the permits required to renovate, the pandemic hit, and construction was stalled before resuming two years later, he said.
Hailem originally thought the restaurant would be more of a sports bar but with the help of his chef consultant, Jessica Shields, 39, the concept evolved into a more casual fine dining eatery within the two-story structure.
According to Shields, although the menu at Citizens & Culture will be different from Kaldi’s’s Social House, there is one element the two will have in common.
“Both Kaldi’s Social House and this restaurant are based on bringing people together and bringing communities together,” she said. “I think that has been one of the things Tsegaw has strived for from the beginning.”
The name of the establishment highlights the restaurant’s goal of providing a place where everyone can see themselves, Hailem said.
“Citizens comes with culture too,” he said. “So, I’m trying to accommodate all citizens while coming with their culture here and the menu actually reflecting those that are here.”
In order to meet the new criteria of a casual fine dining eatery, Hailem said they needed a great executive chef, which lead them to hiring Ryan Hackney, 36, prominently known for being a finalist on the Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” in 2019.
In line with the vision of inclusion that Tsegaw based Citizens & Culture on, Hackney said the trio are working to highlight the transient culture of the area in the restaurant’s menu.
“I think we’re trying to take my fine dining background but also the culture of this neighborhood, of this street, of this city and bring it up to a level of dining that really speaks to anybody who has ever lived here,” Hackney said. “Both Jessica and I come from heavily fine dining, cooking backgrounds and we would like to offer that level of service matched with the consideration of what we’re actually cooking for the people in this city.”
Shields said the two chefs share a love for bold, bright, flavorful food that highlights different cultures, along with making them from local ingredients.
Some of the upcoming items that will be on the restaurant’s menu might be familiar to Food Network viewers, Hackney said.
“I’m going to be showcasing some stuff that I’ve done on Food Network, especially like my Thai cooking that I showcased on ‘Beat Bobby Flay,’ as well as really showcasing some of the local attributes to our culinary scene: our oysters, our beautiful vegetables.”
While working on the menu, Hackney said he’s tapping into his experience in Ethiopian, Chinese, Thai and West Indian cooking to focus on what the culture of the city comprises. He added that there will be a lot of seafood on the menu along with 10 different types of mumbo sauce, a sweet and tangy sauce popular in the Washington, D.C. region.
In addition to the diverse menu, the three are also planning to highlight music that aligns with the restaurant’s mission.
“The music is going to be another way that we showcase the cultures and the diversity,” Shields said. “It really is all facets from the ground up. It’s going to be all about celebrating Georgia Avenue.”
Hackney said they are working with several national booking agents but they are locally focused on and tapping into the local music scene and with artists that reflect the culture of the city.
The main floor will feature the primary bar, the kitchen, dining room and a small stage for live performances. The second floor has a clear retractable roof, an outdoor patio, garden walls and a secondary bar.
There is performance space upstairs and downstairs, depending on the size of the bands, but primarily Friday and Saturday evenings, upstairs will become more of a nightlife scene featuring a DJ, according to Hailem.
“I think there’s not an overbearing but a very evident inclusion of energy as soon as you walk through our doors, being able to see the kitchen, being able to see what’s going on, being able to see the bar program,” Hackney said. “It’s all about inclusion.”