‘We Felt Like The Stars Had Aligned’
Clean, white linens adorn every table at Chez Billy Sud, where the servers are clad in denim aprons. It’s a contradiction representative of the entire experience at this neighborhood French restaurant, where fine dining meets a certain…je ne sais quoi.
‘You can only break the rules once you know the rules,’ says Clementine Thomas, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Sam Vasfi. ‘How you set the table, when you remove the dishes—but then layered on top of that, we want our servers to be themselves and for that to really shine through. When thinking about all of the places we’d both worked, we enjoyed not doing the robo-server thing. Having servers who are relatable allows them to build relationships with people coming in the door.’
Clementine and Sam’s own relationship began while working at The Diner in Adams Morgan. She was pursuing a career in theater; he, in fine art and photography.
‘We certainly didn’t talk about opening a restaurant together,’ Clementine says. ‘But as we continued working in the industry, it became a shared pipe dream.’
While Clementine moved from The Diner to Open City, and back again as general manager, Sam helped Ian and Eric Hilton open Marvin on 14th Street.
‘It was around Obama’s inauguration and the city was electric,’ Sam says. ‘Being kind of in the hub of what the 14th Street corridor was destined to be, I learned a lot about the restaurant industry and the business of booze.’
Sam used his fine art background to help with the menu design for The Gibson, followed by stints with Blackbird and Brixton. During that time, he developed a close relationship with Chef Brendan L’Etoile and the Hilton brothers, who began using him as their restaurant opener.
After launching Chez Billy in Petworth, the brothers began courting the owner of a Georgetown space, interested in opening a sister restaurant.
‘I was kind of looking for a change, and they basically called up Sam and were like, ‘How would you like to be part of this project?’ Clementine says. ‘As soon as Sam heard Brendan was going to be part of it—who was always unknowingly part of our own pipe dream—it felt like the stars had aligned. I think we were all ready to step toward a more refined cooking and style of service.’
In 2014, Chez Billy Sud opened seamlessly on 31st Street, immediately filling a neighborhood void they didn’t fully realize existed.
‘Georgetown loves French food, so that was automatically a leg up,’ Clementine says. ‘There seemed to be a need for a neighborhood place that was more formal than a Clyde’s, but not quite as special occasion as Fiola Mare. We happened to get right in that niche.’
‘The previous café was on the decline for a good five years, and the neighborhood noticed that,’ Sam adds. ‘We knew we were coming into a space that was so precious, but we didn’t have an idea of the demand until we opened the doors and found out we had a lot of neighbors who were waiting for a place to bring their friends and family every day of the week and that wasn’t so fussy, but still had a clean tablecloth.’
From the start, Sam and Clementine knew they wanted to turn the neighboring space into an intimate wine bar—an Old World feel reminiscent of many detached bars in Europe. Bar a Vin opened in 2016, attracting a slightly younger clientele looking for a low-key happy hour after work. That same year, Sam and Clementine joined the Chez Billy Sud ownership team.
‘The wine bar took longer to find its groove,’ Clementine says. ‘We’ve really figured it out just in this last year. We’ve gotten to the sweet spot, but it took relaxing a little and letting time do its thing, and letting the neighborhood discover it.’
Today, Sam spends much of his time working on additional ventures throughout the city—mostly recently opening Crimson Diner + Whiskey Bar + View Bar, and Gaslight Tavern. He says their Chez Billy Sud staff feels like family—many of whom followed Sam and Brendan from their Marvin days—and have been taught by example to run the floor in his absence.
‘The staff tries to give our guests the same experience as when I managed the floor,’ Sam says. ‘They have an attitude of receiving guests as if they were an old friend already. You feel that.’
‘Good managers behave as though they’re owners,’ Clementine adds. ‘Having a product you can be super proud of is such a huge part of that. The staff loves the food and loves Brendan, and they can talk passionately about that. Hearing people describe dishes in a way that doesn’t sound scripted and seeing that twinkle in their eyes makes all the difference.’
Clementine’s eyes do the same when she mentions the duck confit—a ‘flavor bomb’, and her favorite dish on the menu. At home, the couple collects cookbooks, though they don’t have much time to actually use them.
The DC natives live in the Palisades but say coming to Georgetown feels like returning home, to the neighborhood they frequented as children.
‘It wasn’t planned at all, but it’s nice to be back where I feel like I started,’ Sam says.
‘As someone from DC, it’s interesting to think about how we introduce people to who we are as a city,’ Clementine adds. ‘Everyone hits the Smithsonian, and Georgetown. It’s kind of an entry point for DC. Having people see more locally owned businesses like ours in the neighborhood provides a great opportunity for that.’