“Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.” ~Golda Meir
Ever come across a business that seemed to go out of its way to hide its presence? One that didn’t announce itself prominently from its front entrance, but instead seemed to downplay its own name, its logo, its fundamental identity? It’s hard to understand why a business might take this approach, but the best way is to assess a commercial corridor where most businesses do the exact opposite. In other words, basically every commercial street in the country, urban or suburban, pedestrian scaled or auto oriented. And it’s not unique to the US: basically everywhere across the globe, a restaurant seeks to announce itself through signage close to the entry door. If the area is more automobile-scaled, the signage must be taller and larger, so it is visible from a distance and from fast-moving vehicles. I can assert this without research; it’s axiomatic. For the purposes of this restaurant assessment (and for reasons that will soon become obvious), I’ve chosen King Street in Alexandria, Virginia.
King Street is the central historic arterial in Alexandria, a commercial main street replete with restaurants, bars, art galleries, boutiques, touristy tchotchke shops, and even some more old-school mundane uses (shoe repair, barber shops, accounting firms). Though Alexandria, a city of 160,000 people, has a few other dense, urbanized nodes, King Street is the main corridor within Old Town, the one district in Alexandria that predates the founding of the country itself, by almost one hundred years. Considering how much I’ve featured Alexandria in this blog over the last five years, it’s surprising I haven’t covered this handsome road much at all. The oldest few blocks of King Street, closest to the Potomac River and most frequented by tourists, are colonial. These blocks date from before the time a young surveyor George Washington platted the immaculate street grid. Unfortunately, my only reasonable photo that captures the historic and lively vibe of the colonial part of King Street is at night—but fair enough.
Meanwhile, the middle portion of King Street looks more like a 19th century commercial corridor.
And continuing westward, the buildings are increasingly newer, with more than a few dating from the last five years.
Even outside of the tourist presence, it’s a lively place most days—a classic vintage American main street. Densely populated, readily accessible by transit like the Washington DC metro WMATA (or even water taxi across the Potomac!), walkable for at least a mile or two in any direction, and healthy array of restaurant/retail businesses: some national names, eclectic new breakthroughs, and many local institutions have endured for decades—or centuries. As restaurants become an increasingly dominant recreational activity while conventional shopping continues its retreat to a digital domain, King Street owes its vibrant core to eateries and drinkeries, most of them obvious.
But one restaurant in particular along King Street caught my attention recently, primarily because it didn’t announce itself.
Any idea what it is? Unless a person has walked along King Street, it’s not easy. No prominent sign out front. Nothing more than the little glowing lantern in the window.
The name of the restaurant is Nasime, and it’s one of the most upscale restaurants in Alexandria, a fairly upscale city in general. (Median household incomes in ALX are well into the six figures.) Having opened in 2016 as a five-course tasting menu prix fixe at $48, chef and owner Yuh Shimomura has successfully propelled his establishment—the embodiment of the term low-key—into a more involving and exclusive affair, now charging $95 for a seven-course tasting menu. Back in 2016, Shimomura reset the menu every two weeks; now it changes nightly. The bar at Nasime began high and, thanks almost entirely to word-of-mouth, he has raised it in the last six years. Double the height.
The defining feature of Nasime is the word-of-mouth character. Beyond recommendations, it’s obscure. The closest to a promotional sign it offers is that lantern, no more than a eighteen inches in height—probably less. And while this lantern certainly serves the function of a sign, it doesn’t—to overuse a root word—signify that it’s a sign. It doesn’t rest above the window or the door. It doesn’t dangle on a small chain from a protruding pole. Nothing indicates its sign-ness. The word itself—a concatenation of the Japanese words for “leaf”, “grow”, and “vegetable sprouts” (though it is not a vegetarian restaurant)—may still be cryptic to those fluent in Japanese, but certainly doesn’t reveal that it’s a restaurant. The Japanese characters on the lantern and the fan on display behind it may help some, but not a dead giveaway for the culturally unattained. Passers-by just see “Nasime” but no clarification of what type of business operates behind the curtain, or that it’s even a business at all. All shrouded (literally) in mystery.
That’s the point. The black curtain with “Nasime” printed at the bottom certainly occludes any view, no doubt helping cultivate the intimacy within. In 2016, Nasime only seated twenty people at a time. Unless this feature has changed radically, that occupancy likely remains the same. Since Shimomura prepares all food himself, it probably hasn’t grown. The relative anonymity gives Nasime the feel almost of a speakeasy. And that’s likely the point. Recommendations are strongly encouraged, and, on many nights, probably necessary. And on special nights, I suspect the restaurant fills up weeks or months in advance. It’s not a place for impulse dining and does everything possible to discourage it. Most people not already in the know will walk right past it, just as I did dozens of times before noticing it. The obscure nature is an effective gatekeeping tool, since it is unlikely that the rare person who does step in is going to respond favorably to the price; it is outside the realm of affordability for most people meandering through Old Town thinking, “Man, I’m hungry.” Nasime is not the place for such people.
To be fair, Nasime does feature its name—its logo—a few other locations. As the lefthand side of the previous photo indicated, a sign hangs from inside the glass entry door. An actual sign.
And there it is again, on the inner door through the vestibule. So I concede: Nasime has a sign. But it’s unobtrusive as possible, not easily visible from a distance, and only serves to say: “This is the door by which to enter and reach Nasime.” Outside of those Japanese characters, it still doesn’t offer a clue what Nasime is. It remains consciously obscure.
This obscurity not only regulates who will enter Nasime by simply knowing about it, it endows it with an air of prestige that Chef Shimomura must honor. Should it fail to offer both a meal worth the price tag and the ambiance of intimacy that comes through such exclusiveness, Nasime would likely get the reputation (at best) of “pretentious” in a hot minute and “highway robbery” in minute two. The high current rate of inflation notwithstanding, the act of doubling the price of a meal over just six years is an impressive feat—one that Nasime most likely achieves in the eyes of most patrons, thus explaining how it has stayed in business amidst the punishing business and economic climate imposed through COVID restrictions.
And it’s not the only one of its kind in the area. I recall patronizing a restaurant in New Orleans about fifteen years ago that had no sign out front and operated out of a converted old house. Recommended to me by a friend, it was brand-new at the time–a soft opening I think. My first reaction was how pretentious this was for an unknown restaurant to willfully be so obscure, yet I also surmised that it could very well work as an almost inverse marketing strategy—if the restaurant was good enough and lived up to the prestige it was trying to convey. The owner claimed she was ready to open, having received her occupancy permit and liquor license before her customized sign had arrived. I liked the place but didn’t stick around New Orleans to see if she ever procured her sign. And the restaurant closed within three years. Perhaps it remains too obscure for too long.
Elsewhere, though, such obscurity might not even need to signal prestige; it could just operate as a clever marketing ploy. That’s precisely the case across the river from Alexandria, in Washington DC’s Navy Yard neighborhood, which is dense and pedestrian scaled like Old Town, albeit much much newer development. Here in Navy Yard, one can witness an even more obscure anti-sign.
Yes, so it looks like it says Shilling Canning Company. As it does. A carefully wrought series of decals on the window; an attractive protruding metal engraving protruding from the wall featuring the logo. No attempt at subtlety here. Just the normal amount of restaurant signage. But take a look at the papers affixed to the wall.
Four of them are the menu. But the one on the lower left is different.
It’s a “ghost kitchen”—a restaurant with no branding outside of this sign and no real physical branding beyond this sheet of paper. Operating out of Shilling Canning Company, Ampersandwich offers a slightly more blue-collar alternative to the new American fare of the parent restaurant. Outside of that little paper stuck to the window, Ampersandwich’s presence is entirely virtual: the website, a reference on Google Maps, and the results from search engines. But the entire physicality of the restaurant, indoors and outdoors, rests under the auspices of Shilling Canning Company.
Ampersandwich claims little more than a small corner of the kitchen. It’s obscure even by the standards of Shilling Canning Company. But the two establishments largely stay out of one another’s way: the parent restaurant operates mostly at night; it’s between-the-bread child thrives during the lunch hours, from 10:30am to 2:30pm Wednesday through Sunday.
It turns out “ghost kitchens” have operated for quite some time; but they finally emerged as a trend during the peak of COVID-19, when lockdowns and business restrictions forced restaurateurs to devise creative solutions to remain in operation, spinning out alternative menus to cater to a carry-out clientele. The menus, the ingredients the operations, the entire ethos was so different that the owners of the establishments decided to give them an different brand. Ghost kitchens that consist of a restaurant subletting from the original are rare; I’m not sure in most cases it’s legal. The restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept usually involves a side hobby or spin-off that the chef/owner develops on his or her own. Shilling Canning Company only opened a few months before COVID broke forth; chef Reid Shilling decided to synchronize his much more upscale original concept with a more accessible, carry-out friendly menu of burgers, ribs, and fried chicken, all between two slices of bread. And the ghost conditions can survive or even prosper despite being obscure, since they hitch their cart to a much bigger and better-known horse. Though Shilling Canning Company has operated back at full capacity for well over eighteen months, Ampersandwich continues as a separate thing.
Ironically, the portability, lower price tag, and convenience of Ampersandwich would make it a likelier impulse buy than the slowly curated dishes of Shilling Canning Company, but Ampersandwich claims no street or sidewalk visibility whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine anyone could have learned about it in the era before the Internet–too obscure. But, like Nasime (and this is the only facet the two restaurant have in common), Ampersandiwch derives a certain clout by not promoting itself; it feels like something a select group of cool kids know about. I did not mean the famous (and potentially apocryphal) Golda Meir quote as a backhanded compliment to these two restaurants; the fact that they’ve sustained themselves by remaining almost invisible is probably a testament to the craft that transpires in their kitchens, however obscure they might be. Some places are all promo, all hype. Nasima and Ampersandiwch achieve the opposite: a culinary humblebrag.