Woodley Park Restaurateur Finds Success Mixing Diplomacy, Dining
One evening in Woodley Park—amid sharpshooters on rooftops, limousines, barricades, police and gawking tourists—then President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton, along with two other couples, came to dine at the neighborhood restaurant New Heights.
Secret Service agents asked the owner, Amarjeet Singh, known to his patrons as “Umbi,” to be at the front door to greet the president and his party. But according to Singh, before he could say anything to the first couple, Hillary remarked, “Umbi, you probably don’t remember us, but when the president was governor, we used to eat at your Georgetown restaurant all the time.” That comment put Singh in a panic. “The first lady was calling me by my first name and then saying I probably didn’t remember them,” he said, laughing.
But Singh must have quickly regained his usual calm composure because after that evening, the Clintons would send their daughter, Chelsea, to New Heights for her first date in public. And Strobe Talbott, then the U.S. deputy secretary of state, would bring an Israeli negotiating team there for a work break.
Drawing clientele such as late newsman David Brinkley, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, super lobbyist Tommy Boggs, columnist George F. Will, former first lady Nancy Reagan, and a host of international dignitaries, New Heights is a place to loosen ties and power helmets—and relax in a setting more reminiscent of California’s Chez Panisse than the lobbyist haunts of downtown Washington. With his dress code of “blue jeans to black tie,” Singh has clearly proven that a restaurant with “soul” can be just as alluring to power types as it is to locals.
Singh branched out with other projects, including Butterfield 9, since launching New Heights in the mid 1980s. But to the delight of New Heights regulars, Singh just recently returned full time to manage New Heights with his wife Kavita. He’s also teamed with a new chef, John Wabeck, formerly of Firefly. Wabeck actually worked with Singh seven years ago, and he will reunite with Singh to develop a new menu for the restaurant.
A Sikh originally from Punjab, India, Singh moved to Washington in 1961 at the age of 11 with his Indian diplomat father and family. When Singh’s father ended his Washington tour of duty, he gave his children the choice of staying in the United States or returning to India. All three of the Singh children chose to stay.
Attending Howard University and majoring in economics, Singh decided to go into the clothing business, becoming the first clothier to sell bellbottoms to Washington’s hipsters. He went on to become a photographer covering embassy events. As part of his work, Singh had to learn who was who in the diplomatic power circles—an experience that would prove invaluable when he became a restaurateur.
Along the way, Singh was also learning “a certain graciousness” and “how to take care of people.” In 1972, at 23 years old, Singh and a friend who liked to cook opened an Indian restaurant in Georgetown called Apana. With an elegant décor and seating for 55, it attracted the likes of, yes, Arkansas Gov. and Mrs. Bill Clinton, as well as journalist Sam Donaldson, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and late Sen. John Heinz. But after a successful 12-year run, by 1984, Georgetown had changed too much for Singh’s tastes and he left Apana.
In 1986, Singh and his first wife opened New Heights at Calvert and Connecticut Streets, NW, on the edge of Washington’s most concentrated diplomatic neighborhood. The restaurant’s menu changed every three months and emphasized fresh regional ingredients in the spirit of new American cuisine. Singh collaborated with his sister Veena through their design business, Sansar, and employed 10 craftspeople to create furniture and fixtures, including a luxurious wood bar in the restaurant’s first level. The dining room on the second level features large windows that surround the space and provide views of the street life and Rock Creek Park outside. The windows were widened to maximize their effect on the restaurant’s ambiance, while the rest of the design was kept clean and simple. Contemporary art by four painters that is available for sale hangs on the walls.
From 2000 to 2007, Singh also owned Butterfield 9 on 14th Street, NW, where he spent much of his time. But New Heights continued to be where his “creative experience” and passion remained—demonstrated by the eatery’s high ratings in Zagat and the Wine Spectator.
Also among the accolades is a Food & Wine Best New Chef of the Year award for a previous chef of New Heights. Singh said he gives his chefs as much freedom as possible and that “we are still to this day one of the few restaurants where a young chef can come and make a name for himself.”
In e-mailed comments, the NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer and his wife, novelist Kate Lehrer, told The Washington Diplomat: “Umbi and New Heights know what they’re doing and how to do it. Every experience with them is truly special. And there is a smile on every face—staff and customers alike. Welcome back Umbi!” Welcome back, indeed.
New Heights 2317 Calvert St., NW For more information, please call (202) 234-4110 or visit www.newheightsrestaurant.com.
About the Author
Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.