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Visit H Street NE today and you can get Swiss raclette, Burmese pepper water, vegan fine dining from Philadelphia, Ethiopian kitfo, po boys, half smokes, Trinidadian doubles, Taiwanese noodles, natural wine, cocktails, and canned beer. But relentless headlines about trendy restaurant openings come with asterisks of alarming closures. Notably, Horace and Dickies, a neighborhood mainstay for 30 years, will serve its last fish sandwich on March 1.
“The neighborhood, it’s changed,” says Simone Shannon, the daughter of Richard “Dickie” Shannon. “Everybody sees that. A lot of those neighbors, they don’t really want Horace and Dickies there anymore.”
The H Street NE commercial corridor, built in 1849, was one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in the District in the first half of the 20th century. The uprising following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. left some H Street NE businesses smoldering and led to divestment. An increased interest in central city living over the past two decades has transformed the neighborhood once again.
The near-constant change is a manifestation of a development-friendly D.C. that benefits some and punishes others. More than 20,000 black residents were displaced from low-income neighborhoods from 2000 to 2013, according to a 2019 study that named the District the most intensely gentrifying city in the nation.
There’s money to be made on H Street NE in this latest phase of redevelopment, and fortunately, some of the restaurant operators cashing in on current and future economic opportunities are people of color.
“We need a strong mix of not only black-owned businesses, but people of color need to step up and open things that have good food,” says Anwar Saleem, the executive director of H Street Main Street. “We try to attract them to come to H Street because it’s stronger when there’s a strong cultural mix.”
These five black-owned businesses have either opened since the start of the year or should launch in the next few months.
1301 H St. NE
Status: Opening in May
Chef JR Robinson treats his 209,000 Instagram followers to a steady stream of photos of gut-busting dishes like a towering stack of crab tots, Philly cheesesteak omelettes, and seafood mac and cheese. “People eat with their eyes so as soon as you see something you might like you’re going to tag your friends, come try it, and word of mouth will do the rest,” he says.
His social media prowess packs the dining room of the first KitchenCray in Lanham. The self-proclaimed “king of food porn” plans to introduce augmented reality technology, which enables customers to scan a menu item and watch a 3D image of the dish pop up on their phones.
Robinson recommends trying the crab cake, fried red snapper, and oxtails when KitchenCray opens down the block from Atlas Performing Arts Center. The expansive restaurant has two levels, a patio, and a bar serving cocktails from consulting mixologist Josue Gonzalez.
Born in Harlem, Robinson began cooking at an early age. His adolescence included stays in foster care and years when he describes “sleeping outside, sleeping on floors, and eating whatever we could eat.” He moved to the D.C. area in 2011 and worked at Blue Duck Tavern, Indulj, and high-end hotels before opening his own venture with Sudon Williams.
“I’m older than him, so he’s like my little brother,” says Williams, who worked as a corrections officer for 22 years. “People around him weren’t getting things done. I saw how hard he was working and how serious he was taking it so I said, ‘I’ll be there to match your intensity.’”
Robinson says one of his biggest accomplishments is landing a restaurant in a historic D.C. neighborhood. “We’re just trying to be somewhere major and bring that Chocolate City feel back to the D.C. area,” he says. “I feel like we’re going to bring the new chef culture to H Street.”
When Robinson first moved here he says he didn’t see many black chefs and he hopes to be a role model for others who don’t think they fit the typical chef mold. “We made it cool to wear Nike boots,” he says. “I don’t have to have a big white hat. Even if you see me walking down the street or in the restaurant, people wouldn’t think I was a chef because a chef has a certain look. We’re going to change the game.”
1362 H St. NE
Wayne Johnson and Tony Perry have been throwing parties since they were in their early 20s. They met through mutual friends and later opened two nightclubs off Dupont Circle—Saint Yves and Abigail. For their third venture, the business partners didn’t want to cannibalize their own club crowds and made a foray into the restaurant business instead.
“The people we came into nightlife with are in a different place in their life,” Johnson says. While the ages of the customers standing in line to enter his clubs stay stagnant, the 32-year-old and his circle want a night out that ends earlier and “isn’t as expensive, rowdy, or packed.” When patrons turn 27 or 28, they start asking if a venue serves food, he says. “No one younger ever asks.”
Johnson and Perry’s restaurant and hookah bar serves five styles of ramen including soy-based shoyu, creamy tonkotsu, and spicy miso ramen. Fried Japanese pub grub like chicken karaage rounds out the menu. Kitsuen’s cocktails use Japanese ingredients like yuzu juice, plum wine, and sake.
Kitsuen got slammed when it opened. Johnson attributes the buzz to hip-hop artist Pusha T, an investor in the project. Johnson says the rapper, who has a home in Bethesda, does more than lend his name. “Push is instrumental,” he says. “I talk to him as much as I talk to Tony.”
Johnson lives on H Street NE. “CorePower Yoga, Orangetheory, [solidcore]—when you start seeing those brands pop up—it’s an indicator that a neighborhood is next up,” he says. “It was a good thing to get involved early and be a fixture before the huge boom on rent.”
He was also attracted to the neighborhood because it represents a cross-section of the city. “You’re getting a mixture of races and people from different places,” Johnson says. “Everyone gets along, hangs out. You don’t see that in a lot of other neighborhoods in D.C.”
Jerk At Nite
1100 H St. NE
Status: Opening in late spring
When Denville Myrie enrolled at Howard University on a basketball scholarship, he couldn’t have predicted that by his senior year he’d have a side hustle selling Jamaican food out of his home. Friends would deliver meals to students who had grown tired of status quo pizza and Chinese. Born in New York to Jamaican parents who work in health care, Myrie had an early fascination with nutrition.
While interning at the D.C. Department of Health as a junior food truck inspector he says he observed that there weren’t enough trucks offering healthy options made from fresh, local ingredients. After testing the Jerk At Nite concept on his classmates, Myrie raised enough money to launch his first food truck in 2015. Farley Craig Capital—a D.C.-based private venture capital firm headed by Howard alumni—issued Myrie several loans.
Now Jerk at Nite consists of two food trucks, a robust catering and events business, and the forthcoming H Street NE restaurant. The “Jerk Box N Mac” is the biggest seller. It comes with jerk chicken, “JaMacNCheese,” and rasta bread. Myrie, who spent some of his childhood in Jamaica, says he had to tame the heat in his jerk seasoning for the masses. Customers also crave the jerk nachos and jerk tacos.
At the restaurant, Myrie plans to launch a vegan and organic menu and will center the drinks around fresh fruit juices and smoothies, in addition to Red Stripe beer and fermented sorrel. “When making food, the most important thing is the ingredients that you’re using,” he says, touting small local farms. “The best food comes from the simplest people.”
Jerk At Nite will lean on its food truck origins to get people in and out fast. “It’s going to be more like an &pizza meets Jamaica meets the Chipotle model with soul flare,” Myrie explains. Diners will be able to place orders from a walk-up window, order delivery, or opt to sit down for a meal inside or on a patio.
1208 H St. NE
Status: Opening in early March
You can find Smokin’ Pig either by following the smell of smoky brisket or looking for the restaurant’s mascot guarding the door. The tiered statue features three animals central to barbecue. Owner Bernard Gibson named them Maggy Moo, Piggy Smalls, and the Cocksmith.
Shawn McWhirter, formerly of Hill Country Barbecue Market and DCity Smokehouse, is the pitmaster. He’ll borrow traditions from three key barbecue regions and use a gas smoker with a firebox for wood. Look forward to Texas-style brisket, Kansas City-inspired smoked chicken wings, and Carolina-style pork complimented by sides like chili mac, loaded baked potatoes, and “pigtail” fries.
Gibson and McWhirter are crossing their fingers that smoked turkey legs—the cartoonishly large ones frequently devoured at renaissance fairs and amusement parks—will emerge as the signature dish. There will also be vegetarian options. The drinks from beverage director Lance Smith will focus on whiskey.
Though there are two floors and a patio, seating is limited. Gibson hopes to serve more customers through take-out and delivery. “You’re going to see a lot of city workers in their trucks licking their fingers,” McWhirter says. “I’m out here trying to reach the working man and working woman.”
Gibson and McWhirter grew up just off H Street NE and have watched many businesses turn over. “Certain places shouldn’t have left,” McWhirter says. “The Children’s Museum shouldn’t have left. I used to love that spot when I was a kid. There are historical spots around here that you don’t want to see go.”
“I also think change is good,” Gibson says. “The city is building up. The street is building up. It’s the circle of life.” He owned a chicken franchise on H Street NE in 2007. “Back then I was paying $13 per square foot. Now landlords are asking for $50 or $55 per square foot, some as high as $60.”
McWhirter expects to encounter neighbors who watched him grow up. “A lot of older people are going to [come] see what you accomplished,” he says. “They’re going to wanna support, they wanna come see, they wanna critique. So you gotta make sure you’re up to par on everything.”
The closest barbecue restaurant to Smokin’ Pig is Kenny’s BBQ Smokehouse on Maryland Avenue NE. “We want to set the bar on H Street. I want tradition to last like that old man around the corner,” McWhirter says, referring to Dickie Shannon of Horace and Dickie’s.
The Bar @ Milk & Honey
1245 H St. NE
The Bar @ Milk & Honey represents the next chapter of the Milk & Honey brand known for decadent brunch dishes. The new restaurant offers a full bar and an all-day menu from Chef Sammy Davis with savory dishes ranging from mussels in saffron broth and jerk lamb lollipops to a deep-fried lobster tail nestled atop a cornbread waffle drizzled with truffle honey butter.
Davis started cooking as a homeless teen. Early in his career he worked at high-volume chains like LongHorn Steakhouse before getting a big break at Roy’s. At the Atlanta outpost of the Hawaiian restaurant, Davis advanced from dishwasher to executive sous chef. At future jobs he gravitated toward cooking brunch and eventually developed a business plan for a restaurant that serves the meal daily.
His first Milk & Honey Cafe in Atlanta failed. Davis tried again in Beltsville and found success after taking over the former Swahili Village Bar and Restaurant. A four-hour wait to dine wasn’t uncommon. Davis’ business and romantic partner Monique Rose had to set “house rules” and loosely enforce them. “No reservations unless you’re Barack Obama!” “No table hibernation—others gotta eat too!”
Rose and Davis grew into a bigger space in College Park and currently operate five Milk & Honey locations. Rose focuses on the dining room and cocktails. “We put all of our time, our money, our energy into our dishes and drinks,” she says. “There’s not a lot of money spent on flatware. Stuff like that doesn’t matter at the end of the day. We want you to feel like you went over to your friend’s house.”
Rose likes her address on H Street NE in the former Smith Commons space because it’s on a strip of black-owned businesses. “You can have a bite and go to the next one,” she says. “I thought the feel of it was so cool. People had some dope concepts.”
“It’s a truly great mix of people you can satisfy if you can reach them through food,” Davis adds. “There’s Union Station down the street and then Whole Foods. Further down it gets more urban, then it gets cleaned up, then urban again.”