Maketto was Washington, D.C.'s most anticipated new opening this year. We went inside the ambitious mixed-use space, talking to chef Erik Bruner-Yang about how it came together, his creative Asian menu, and the retail, coffee, and pastry business all operating successfully under the same roof.

By Amy McKeever
August 06, 2015
Credit: Rey Lopez

From its storefront on the Atlas District’s main thoroughfare, Maketto looks at first glance like an outlet of men’s lifestyle retailer DURKL, with glass cases displaying their sneakers, shirts, and jackets. But step further inside, and you can see a host stand leading into a sliver of a bar that opens into a courtyard, open kitchen, and dining space all serving chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s Cambodian and Taiwanese cuisine. Stairs to the side of the courtyard lead you past a vending machine filled with maneki-neko figurines and earbuds into a coffee shop powered by Vigilante Coffee, with pastries from Frenchie’s Artisan Pastries and Desserts. So much is happening in the space, but all of it is Maketto.

“Maketto is specifically, uniquely one business,” Bruner-Yang says. Though there are four individual business identities within its walls and four business partners—Bruner-Yang, Will Sharp of DURKL, Chris Vigilante of Vigilante Coffee, and Erica Skolnik of Frenchies. It’s not just a restaurant with good coffee, or a retail store with a dining counter, or a coffee shop with a bakery attached. Instead, Bruner-Yang explains, “everyone sacrificed a bit of their ambitions” by allowing their individual identities be subsumed into the whole.

Since it opened in April, Eater D.C. has singled Maketto out as a restaurant with affordable food, cheap coffee, and a great new patio. In late July, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema awarded the restaurant two and a half stars, writing, “I can’t wait to go back for more.” And earlier this week, First Lady and trendsetter Michelle Obama dined at Maketto, lending it the inevitable Obama bump.

Refining the Concept

The concept began three years ago, in early June 2012, when Bruner-Yang and Sharp announced their partnership on a retail and dining concept inspired by Asian night markets. “We’re talking color, smell, food, drinks, snacks, clothes, markets in general,” Bruner-Yang says. “How can we create something in the vein of that experience, but tailor it a little bit and hone in on the good parts?” At the time of the announcement, Vigilante was already signed on as Maketto’s official roaster. Sharp and Bruner-Yang had also gotten an early jump on the design for Maketto, drawing up their vision of the streamlined, timeless space you can find on H Street today.

But then three years passed. The inevitable real estate construction delays had stretched out comically, to the point where the Washington Post constructed a timeline of Maketto’s projected opening dates over the years. In the meantime, Bruner-Yang and chef de cuisine James Wozniuk tested out the kitchen’s menu in a series of pop-up dinners at the Hanoi House on 14th Street. Though Bruner-Yang admits that the pop-up series met with mixed results among diners, he says it was tremendously helpful in building Maketto.

“The pop-up was a really great learning curve for us because we were really ambitious and just trying to learn how to cook this food for a lot of people,” he says. Bruner-Yang explains that when he goes to eat at his Cambodian mother-in-law’s house, she makes sour soup for five people. “How do you make that delicious for 100 people?” he asks. “How do you large-batch recipes that no one has ever large-batched?”

But the pop-ups also taught Bruner-Yang and his team another important element: How to talk about their dishes. “Depending on how we named [a dish], you would get a different reaction of whether people liked it,” Bruner-Yang says. Take, for example, a recipe made with pig’s blood, sticky rice, sweet soy, crushed peanuts, and cilantro. Bruner-Yang and Wozniuk would list it under a different name on the menu over the course of four days. When named Pig’s Blood Cake, the dish did not sell. But as Black Sticky Rice Cake, it sold just fine. “It’s not that we changed the way we were making it,” Bruner-Yang says. “That was super interesting. Frustrating, but very interesting.”

Maketto Opens

With three years’ worth of anticipation under their belts, Maketto finally opened in April 2015. Its design looks exactly as the renderings pictured it three years ago, an attempt to seamlessly integrate a diverse set of businesses.

Sharp has curated a retail space filled with footwear and clothing from DURKL and other apparel brands. Vigilante offers lattes, cappuccinos, cortados, and espressos from the coffee shop upstairs, open at 7 a.m., while Erica Skolnik of Frenchie’s has joined the team, too, bringing her croissants, sticky buns, galettes, cookies, baguettes, and granola with her. And Maketto’s dinner menu includes the likes of steamed buns, scallion pancakes, grilled Khmer sausage, Taiwanese fried chicken, and a wagyu bao platter.

But Bruner-Yang has evolving plans for the menu. “I think the menu we’re doing right now is pretty safe,” he says. “We’re developing a rapport and a relationship [with the community].” He notes that while most people can enjoy the fried chicken or the bao platter—indeed, two of the most popular dishes on the menu, and dishes that are familiar enough to anyone—he hopes that those dishes will help Maketto gain the trust of its diners. After that, he says, maybe the restaurant can start offering more adventurous dishes to further explore the range of Asian cuisine.

Looking Ahead

As Maketto evolves, Bruner-Yang also hopes that it will become even more integrated with its community, hosting more events and pop-up vendors to fill the needs of its neighbors. Right now, the restaurant hosts free yoga on Sundays, and the occasional shaved ice or pickle vendor. But Bruner-Yang says those should become more frequent as Maketto matures, offering CSA pick-ups and community meeting space and private events.

Though the original plan for Maketto described it as a series of vendors, Bruner-Yang now balks at the term. “This bakery is as much [Erica’s] as it is part of Maketto,” he says. The four partners are all learning and leaning on each other in what is essentially an experiment in community business ownership. “Lunch might be particularly slow today, but all we need is two or three people to buy a watch and the whole day is paid for,” Bruner-Yang says. “It’s nice to have a safety net amongst all of each other.” At Maketto, community really is key.

Amy McKeever is on the D.C. beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.