Kelly Phillips is cofounder and hospitality director of DC-based Destination Unknown Restaurants, which includes Destino, Las Gemelas, and Espita. Destination Unknown’s restaurants did away with tipping in 2020—guests now pay a standard service fee, and front-of-house staff are salaried—and staff members earn bonuses based on satisfied customer reviews. In May 2021, President Joe Biden paid Las Gemelas a visit to announce that the taqueria would be the first restaurant in the United States to receive a Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant.
Writing is my first love. I studied journalism in college and started out as an intern at a local paper in Philadelphia. I really fell in love with the food scene, exploring and learning more about chefs and restaurant operators. I got this idea in my head that I would love to open a restaurant one day.
It’s really important that your guests understand what you’re offering, the story that you’re telling. Everybody’s looking at restaurants on Instagram, they’re reading the websites. They care more about chefs and the operators, the people behind them. You’re telling a story from the moment they book a reservation on your website, follow you on Instagram, and then when they enter your door. You have to be good at many different things, telling that story, cooking the food, and making sure it hits the table on time.
Restaurants in DC have always been very influenced by what’s happening in politics, so if Congress is not in session, restaurants might be a little bit slower. That’s changing. You have more people here for different industries, and there’s more of a creative scene. But if there is a big rally, it definitely impacts service. A lot of our guests might not be able to get to us because of traffic. We’re always tuned in to what protests are happening. If there is an important hearing and people want to be in front of the television at home, they might order from Ghostburger that night instead of having dinner at Destino.
Photo: Reema Desai.
Receiving the first Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant was actually crazy. We got a call the day before that somebody from the White House would be coming in. We had no idea why. They did background checks on all of the partners. Then an hour beforehand, we learned that President Biden would be awarding us the grant in person. I took his order. He ordered very well, by the way—four tacos and two quesadillas.
We were all just completely in shock and surprise. It was the busiest day we’ve ever had.
We had signed the lease for this new restaurant before the pandemic. …….