I was mortified. After spending a considerable amount of time assuring a friend that Vermilion makes gluten-free pastas, we arrived at the restaurant to find out I was wrong. I reddened at my error. I was so sure of myself! After all, how can a place that has an in-house pasta program NOT have gluten-free pastas! Being used to this situation (she’s gluten-free and dairy-free), my friend rallied. Meanwhile, I sat deflated, like a balloon with plans to soar high before being rudely pricked by the beak of a cocky bird.
We placed our orders; pasta for the men, meat for the women (it was the least I could do). Our server apologetically whisked our menus away.
Within seconds, a smiling face greeted us at our table and began chatting away. Soon, he had us in splits of laughter. Somehow, this man had read the awkward vibe at our table and diffused it within moments. He introduced himself as Wesleigh Lin, the assistant general manager of Vermilion. He inquired about our drink choices and accommodatingly brought out several samples, all while bantering so strikingly, I suspected he was a stand-up comedian on the side. Turns out, he’s not. He’s just damn good at his job.
Two weeks later, I find myself perched on a bar stool armed with questions for Lin. Namely, how on earth did he know what to do and how well to do it.
When he sees me, he bounds out from behind the bar and asks, “Wanna try something weird?” Without so much as a hello or a response, he extends a cocktail napkin to me. It has a sliver of what looked like onion skin fallen away from its host and some sugar granules. I pop it in my mouth. Citrus bursts across the tip of my tongue, dissolving into an herbaceous sugar that melts across my palate.
“Dehydrated blood orange with rosemary meringue,” he explains. “It’s for a cocktail.”
I’d drink that.
After some coaxing, I get Lin talking about his background. His first taste of the service industry came at a Ruby Tuesday’s where he also learned his love for cooking. He graduated to kitchen manager and began working in several restaurants, mostly Italian. After a few years, he indulged in a brief stint of culinary school (he learned that he got more out of being in kitchens than classrooms). His career spanned several well-known DC restaurants, including sous chef at Charlie Palmer’s steakhouse—twice.
“The culture had changed,” Lin muses about his return to Palmer’s. “I have a lot of respect for Charlie Palmer but it was no longer something I wanted to be a part of. I began to wander, struggling to find a kitchen.” Later, Lin learned through word of mouth that Vermilion in Old Town, Alexandria was hiring.
“They were desperate enough that I got the job,” he laughs in his self-deprecating way.
“We were lucky enough, actually.” Jay Kendall, General Manager, joins us.
The two immediately turn to each other and begin to talk service points for the upcoming lunch crowd. Then, as seamlessly as they began, they stop to continue our initial conversation.
Kendall worked at restaurants all through college, bussing tables, cooking, and taking on small management roles. After graduation, he became a financial planner. “I got tired of that so I moved into residential appraising. Turns out that’s a lot of travel and long hours. I got burned out doing 80-hour weeks on the road. So, I decided to go back to restaurants. My cousin was working the bar here and they were hiring. I already had a love for the restaurant and the reputation so I came on board.”
Kendall quickly got bumped to hourly manager and kept moving up the ranks. Within two years, he had his dream job—General Manager.
Together, Kendall and Lin make quite the duo. “We’re like an interracial Tango and Cash,” they chortle.
I ask directly—what’s the secret?
“We have a strong background of knowing hospitality. Of what service should be like,” Kendall says. “[Neighborhood Restaurant Group] gives us leeway to adjust make that happen.”
“Every table has a conversation,” Lin continues. “It depends on how it’s going. Each experience is individual. We’re always talking to our staff to figure out how we can increase the experience and create an environment. We want you to come out on the other end saying, ‘Wow. That was something special.’”
I think back to our dinner there just two weeks ago. We had come out saying those very words.
I ask if there’s anything they wish guests would know either about the restaurant or just about restaurant etiquette.
“Feet on the couches or bar stools does bother me,” Kendall throws in and Lin laughs.
“But really, we never want to tell a guest what to think. We want to help them discover. If we make a mistake, we need to admit it and have a conversation with the guest. Nine times out of ten, they just want to know they’re being heard.”
It’s a tactful response in line with the level of service I’ve come to expect from the restaurant.
We shift the discussion to the hardships of the job.
“Jay and I are a jigsaw puzzle,” Lin explains. “We work in different arenas to produce this thing.”
“Training is our constant attention,” Kendall contributes. “Getting everyone on the basic level is easy. Taking them around the bend is hard.”
“Think about any server coming in right now,” Lin begins to list off his fingers. “They have the chef’s menus to learn. The wine list. The wines by the bottle list. The rotating beers. The cocktails. And then the steps to service. To learn all those things and then to execute with grace is a big thing. Knowing all the mechanics like whether the bartender is stirring things right, to serving from the right side, to clearing politely, and putting the dish down correctly. All these things put together makes training hard. We have high expectations. It’s why we respect our staff so much and put so much effort into them. They’re the ones that show up to face the challenge every day.”
“If someone ever leaves our team, they need to feel like they have a minor in spirits and wines.” Kendall explains.
“Flipping tables means guiding the dining experience along within the comfort levels of the diners,” Lin gets into his secrets. “Meanwhile, we’re always keeping an eye on people from the corners, watching them get adjusted to the space and the restaurant. We want them to understand the culture of our team before we even touch the table.”
“Training is constant and ongoing,” Kendall jumps in. “At the end of the night, we do a recap. Those check-ins lead to bigger conversations.”
“We definitely have the Oh Fuck moments,” says Lin. “There’s so many different intonations of it. There’s Oh Fuck, That Went Well. There’s Oh Fuck, I’m About To Do This. And then there’s just…the Oh Shit Oh Fuck.”
“It’s a balance,” Kendall puts it simply. “We want to be on the floor during service. In between service, we find time to get all the other stuff done. But, once 5:30pm hits, if you’re not dancing around looking at everything on the floor, things will fall. You have to be support for your staff. Be a busser, a waiter, a bartender, an expeditor. Be everything.”
At the end of the day, perfection is what this team strives for. “It rarely happens,” Kendall admits. “But as long as the guest says it’s perfect, we’re good. We want the guest to think it was perfect even if we’re down three servers and the kitchen is on fire.”
I reflect upon the service we experienced during our dinner that Monday night. It was exceptional, no doubt. The training that Kendall and Lin are so passionate about shone through. But there was more to it—genuine joy of hospitality. A good friend in the industry once told me, “You either love making people happy or you don’t.” The points of hospitality can certainly be taught—and taught well. But the deeper connection involved with bringing an exceptional experience to life for each guest in a unique way? That’s the really good “Oh, Fuck.”
1120 King St, Alexandria, VA 22314
Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 11:30am to 10pm; Tuesday from 5:30am to 10pm, Saturday from 10:30am to 11pm, and Sunday from 10:30am to 9pm