all photos: Jeff Martin
It is an unseasonably warm, though windy, day in December (remember those?) and a storefront on 1827 Adams Mill Rd is bustling behind a taped up glass: Tail Up Goat, a brand new, Mediterranean inspired, restaurant is about to open. The three person team behind it is young and bright and by the time we have this chat in December have already warranted Washington Post and City Paper write ups, and had a very sold-out preview pop-up happen a few weeks before. None of them have ever owned a restaurant, there is no PR person involved, and seemingly a whole village of DC’s food brethren is counting down the days till early February when the 66 seat eatery and 16 seat bar will start welcoming customers for dinner service.
We are here because, well, we are excited too.
And because, after what seemed like a few years of celebrity chefs invading (but then not actually cooking) the DC’s new restaurant universe, Tail-Up Goat is a story of a homegrown talent team staying in the city that shaped them both as people and industry professionals and adding to its (increasingly) delicious landscape. It is also a story how about the value of community one can find in DC. And, those are both stories worth celebrating.
Once Tail Up Goat opens its doors, it is former Komi sous chef Jon Sybert that will lead the kitchen, former Komi service director and wine and beverage director Bill Jensen will oversee the beverage program, and former Little Serow service director Jill Tyler will head up the front-of-house. Sybert and Tyler are married, and all three of them are clearly great friends in a way that only a decade of coming up together among the ranks of DC’s finest dining experience can seal a friendship.
The restaurant, on the day we talk, is in that “just over a month to go till opening” state (meaning, still in complete construction chaos, though the Edit Lab plans promise a wonderful, clean-yet-welcoming experience for the diners) so we retreat to a neighborhood coffee shop to talk about how they ended up where they are now (meaning: in DC, busy, wrapping up other jobs while working around the clock on this project, but as happy and excited as can be).
First things first, why DC and why the restaurant world? “Well”, Bill starts, “I’ve always been here”. A DC native, he made his way back here after college and worked at 2Amys, where he really fell in love food and wine, in that “particular, special way”, though it took him a while to finally decide to commit himself to the industry. There were political media flirtations, a brief return to grad school, and more but all the roads seem to back to 2Amys. He actually met Johnny and Anne (Monnis and Marler, respectively, the husband and wife team behind Komi and Little Serow, who themselves met working in a DC restaurant -ed) at 2Amys, and “one epic meal at Komi” later decided that the only place to work in DC in food, for him at least, was Komi.
At his first shift there, it was Jill who greeted him at the door singing… Lily Allen’s Smile. “Can we change the song to something that doesn’t age us all in such an obvious way?” laughs Jon. “No, I think the aging part is appropriate, it’s good” everyone eventually decides. In that wonderful “DC truly is a village” way, Jill had known Bill’s wife at American University, back in 2002, before Bill’s wife even knew Bill, and had landed at Komi after a series of jobs both in her native Virgin Islands and DC, that included both Cheesecake Factory and Bourbon. She landed at Komi after reading a City Paper article on the restaurant, and similarly deciding that “this was a place for me”.
Jon moved here in 2007, from Chicago, because his Mother was in the area, and upon his arrival, a buddy of his “was raving about his dinner the night before”, which turned out to be at Komi and lo and behold, he chanced upon an ad for an opening there on Craigslist. His first day there was Jill’s last. “He doesn’t remember meeting me”, she laughs at her husband. “I was VERY focused, I really wanted this job”, he explains.
At the time, Jill was taking a little break to try some new things, but stayed intrinsically tied to the Komi family, having, among other things, finally met Jon in earnest, a sous chef at the restaurant and her future husband at the time, through Johnny and Anne, and came back to the team when Little Serow was opening as its service director. She stayed there for 3.5 years which solidified the trio’s friendship and was the starting point to hatching this next step.
What was that first time this plan started feeling real? “In this industry, the ultimate step is always to have your own place”, says Jill. So, of course, they talked and brushed upon the idea over the years, but it was really a dinner at Red Hen that they all point out as a time and place that they started talking about THEIR future, not just Jon’s or Jill’s or Bill’s, but THEIRS and what the final destination of this journey thus far should be. “For me, that night”, says Jon, “that night just felt REALLY good”. “Hearing them talk about it”, says Bill, “just got me in the same place”.
“Bill got excited about all the same weird stuff we get excited about”, says Jon, “we are both very similar in the sense that we both definitely over-romanticize what we do, though sitting in the kitchen for 12 hours in probably the exact same two same square feet is maybe the least romantic thing one can do”
Next steps: a business plan and such. “Mainly, that process an opportunity for us to really decide what kind of business we wanted to have, and what kind of owners we wanted to be”, the three of them say almost simultaneously. This is also where the relationships they built over the past decade or so in DC shined through. “We got so lucky”, says Jill. The generosity of their friends in the industry who have been down this path before, both in terms of giving advice and jumping in has been extraordinary. They all single out Lauren Winter and Brian Miller of Edit Lab, the Red Hen team, and Jeff Jetton of Toki Underground as people who were really there for them the feedback and experience sharing. “I have definitely called Lauren at midnight”, Jill says, “Just to ask “What is this and why is it happening?”, and she has answered that call”. You can’t put a price on that.
In the end, it came down to one very valuable relationship. Bill had developed a close friendship with one of Komi regulars, Kevin Doyle, and one week after the team sent out the business plans out to close friends and family for feedback, they had an investor. That was investing enough to be the SOLE investor. “To have Kevin on board as our fourth, and to have this sorted out so early in the game, really allowed us to focus on all the other things”
Did this in any way accelerate the process? “Well, it may have, but things always happen”, smiles Jon, “The permitting process, for one, is always fun”. And… “We did choose a building that was still being built” says Jill.
How did the location come about? The goal was always to have a place that felt truly part of a neighborhood, and with Jon and Jill living in Adams Morgan, and Bill in Columbia Heights…. “It was really the only space that ever truly an option”, they all say. For a brief time, they flirted with another 18th street area location, the former Mixtec space, but it just didn’t feel right in the end for what they wanted to do. But the cool thing with a brand new building is nice, because we do get to see it designed from scratch”
And in terms of food? Was their Komi background an influence they embraced or…? Jon, being the man behind the kitchen, chimes in: “We did have an idea when we started this but it obviously substantially crystallized since. I have, somehow, always worked in Mediterranean and Italian restaurants myself, and that has always been the kind of food. And… well, we all just vibe on those flavors…”
“In terms of food and wine, that is in our DNA”, says Bill, “It is the place we will always return to. Not necessarily the only place we’ll visit, but it IS the bedrock”
What they ARE excited about? Lots of housemade efforts: home made breads, home made pastas… and “Even with keeping a relatively concise menu, being able to indulge some more of our flights of fancy”, says Bill. The restaurant is not huge but it is twice as big as Komi, and doing the menu a la carte (vs a prix fixe) is very different, “The diner’s investment is different – you don’t have to worry about the suitability to a wider taste. You can throw some really bizarre stuff out there, and the diners can CHOOSE whether to indulge you. Crazy organ meat, or an unexpected combination of flavors, or some super oxidized wine or a very bitter cocktail. That is the kind of food we are excited to eat and drink and we are excited to pepper these throughout the menu”.
Some of those more adventurous dishes Jon has been testing out throughout the summer, with his sous chefs Jared Dalby and Zach Leasure, and they put them to practice during their pop-up in December.
Like a cavatelli pasta with octopus ragu and chocolate bread crumbs that some of the diners enthusiastically embraced, and others reacted with a “it was a little too intense for us”. “And that is ok”- they all say.
The feedback has, though, been almost universally encouraging. The neighborhood is very excited for the new addition. The neighboring restaurants are welcoming them, truly as a neighbor. “It really makes us very proud to be doing this in DC”, they say.
“I don’t want to get too new agey about this”, says Bill. (“I think you should DEFINITELY get too new agey about this” John interludes) “But, while this process has maybe taken longer than we initially wanted, it is amazing how much you learn about yourself in the process, about how you work under stress, and how you can develop under these situations”
“To continue under the new agey route, we really found our voice in terms of the food and wine, and it really feels distinct to the places we worked at before, and all the restaurants we love frequenting. It is completely different in every way. We want it to feel like home when the doors open and we can honestly say we put our stamp on it.”
“What we all really like about it, is the hospitality” – says Jill – “Becoming part of someone’s story, a place where people celebrate big and little moments”
“And we are so excited to share it all” – says Bill. And everyone nods.
We, for one, cannot wait. See you all at 1827 Adams Mill Road in early February. And onward.