Illustration by Julia Terbrock
Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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Restaurants are closing in D.C. Last week alone, Whaley’s, Vinoteca, The Commodore Public House & Kitchen, and Philly Wing Fry announced November swan songs. The decision to cease operating is an emotional one, according to longtime D.C. restaurateurs who have both closed restaurants and operated long-tenured success stories. 

“It’s not just a business,” says David Winer of restaurant group EatWell DC. “It’s a business, it’s a creative endeavor, it’s our money, it’s often our family’s money, it’s our lives. We live this, we don’t just punch in.” 

He’s operated Grillfish for more than 20 years and Logan Tavern for 16. But he also recently closed Frenchy’s Naturel after The Bird didn’t take flight in the same space. Untamed optimism sometimes clouds a restaurateur’s judgement when it comes time to let go. 

“We’re all the Wright brothers believing we can fly,” Winer says. “That’s the truth, or we wouldn’t do it. We don’t see it coming because we’re optimistic, we’re hopeful. We believe the solution is one special away. One good night will trigger another good night. We just fool ourselves into believing that it’s going to get better.”

There are just as many reasons restaurants close as there are cuisines in the world, but local restaurateurs cite three main ones.

First, many eateries that opened during D.C.’s initial restaurant boom are seeing their five- and 10-year leases come up for renewal. Some landlords are using the opportunity to ask for double, triple, or quadruple what the restaurants previously paid. 

This problem has become pervasive enough that Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen introduced legislation to support “legacy” and small local businesses by providing financial assistance, incentivizing landlords to enter into or renew leases with longtime businesses, and engineering other forms of protection. Fifty Washingtonians signed up to testify at a hearing on three bills with similar goals earlier this month—most of them were small businesses worried about their survival.

Next is finding and affording labor. D.C.’s minimum wage will reach $15 an hour in July 2020. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. If you pay a dishwasher $15 an hour, a cook with more advanced skills isn’t going to work for the same rate. 

“We can’t get good labor and the labor we do get is very expensive,” says a restaurateur who asked to remain anonymous. We’ll call them Alex. “I don’t have a line cook here under $17. In 2010 I was starting line cooks at $9 an hour. It’s almost double. And, our population hasn’t grown that much. There’s a density problem at some point.” 

Housing in the city is too expensive for many would-be residents, including service industry professionals. A 2019 study by SmartAsset found that the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in D.C. is $3,100 a month, which is $37,200 a year. And because Metro doesn’t run late enough to ferry workers home to the suburbs, the pool of applicants is diminishing. 

Finally, some restaurateurs feel there’s an oversaturation of restaurants. “I remember we used to get three turns,” says Passion Food Hospitality co-founder David Wizenberg. “Now it’s two turns.” A “turn” is a timed wave of diners coming through for a meal, such as at 5:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m., and 9:30 p.m. 

Having recently closed Acadiana after 13 years, along with Penn Commons and TenPenh in Tysons Corner, Passion Food Hospitality is consolidating its restaurants to focus on District Commons, PassionFish, and Burger Tap & Shake.

“There’s such saturation,” Wizenberg continues. “If diners can’t get in at the exact time they want, they’ll go somewhere else. People say, ‘Oh, it’s great, the restaurant scene,’ but there’s always a balance. Restaurant sales are overall not increasing, but bills and rent are.”

The recent high concentration of restaurants is more obvious in some neighborhoods than others. “It’s very clear that places like Navy Yard and The Wharf have sucked some of the nightlife and dining density away from other areas,” says another restaurateur who asked to remain anonymous. We’ll call them Charlie. “Both of those developments are good for the city. Everything is going down towards the water at this point. Look across the globe, that’s where most of the action is.”

Charlie has closed restaurants and bars. “It’s such an emotional decision to admit that you got it wrong,” they explain. “I think for people who have groups behind them, they’ll certainly hang on longer than a mom-and-pop or single independent restaurant. You’ll see the more obvious signs of panic—signs that things are going downhill.” 

When a restaurateur opens their books and calculates that sales are slipping and expenses are surpassing revenue, they begin to strategize on how to right the ship. 

“If you’re drowning, you do everything you can to stay afloat,” Winer says. “I’m not a desperate kind of person. I try to do things with dignity. I’m not going to pee my pants and cry. These are hard decisions to be made. And still, I’d say to the last gasping breath of Frenchy’s I wanted to believe I could save the day with something.”

Some of the tells are more obvious than others—such as the signboard that appears on the sidewalk advertising all-night happy hour, seven nights a week. City Paper asked the four aforementioned restaurateurs to run down others: 

  • A restaurant on OpenTable begins offering additional dining points for table times beyond the typical 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. seatings. Restaurants can woo diners by promising them 1,000-point reservations on the platform. Points add up to dining credits.
  • You no longer see your favorite bartender or server. If their take-home pay is reduced, you can’t blame a server from moving on. “Loyalty can only go so far when you have to pay the bills,” says one of the restaurateurs.
  • Restaurants will eliminate certain positions first. If you walk in and are never greeted by a host, “that’s either poor management or serious cost-cutting,” says another of the restaurateurs.
  • You’re ordering off a tighter menu. If the restaurant has cut staff or staff have left on their own volition, the kitchen can no longer execute a long, complex menu.
  • Repairs and maintenance become an afterthought. “You go into a restaurant and see dilapidation—typically at that point the cash flow is so seriously gone that the first thing that goes is you just stop fixing shit,” says one restaurateur.
  • When restaurants waver from their mission. “The biggest sign to me has been promoters. Dinner is served until 8 p.m. and then it turns over to some guy who is charging at the door for dancing,” says a restaurateur.
  • Chefs shrink their portion sizes, particularly for entrées.
  • Services get slashed. Suddenly there’s no Saturday brunch. Then the restaurant is closed Mondays. Then Tuesdays. 

Taking some of these measures can have consequences. “The moment the diner smells desperation, the general public knows and moves on because they’re worried about the quality,” Alex explains. “They know they can get better bang for their buck at a place that’s thriving. They don’t want to waste money on a place that’s struggling.”

There’s a lot to weigh. Do you take some of these cost-savings measures or do you try and stay the course without altering quality? “It’s a chicken and egg thing,” Charlie says. “If you start cutting staff and have the customer be impacted by lesser service or a product that’s not as good, it’s just going to get worse.” 

“Some places take the wrong course when things get sticky,” Winer concurs. “They go out and buy cheap products and cut corners to the point where they’re trying to make a living on diminished business. I understand it, but it goes against what we do. If business is suffering, I’m not going to buy cheaper ground beef. It’s not going to work for me. It’s not going to work for guests either.”

Restaurateurs want diners to know that there’s a difference between desperation and reinvestment. Major changes or generous promotions aren’t necessarily signs of imminent death. “There’s so much competition that you can’t make the assumption that just because people are doing half-price wine or aggressive happy hour specials they’re closing,” Charlie says. “Even places that are thriving should do that to stay ahead of the curve.”

Winer says if he notices a softening in late night or lunch business, for example, he works hard to drive guests to the restaurant during those hours. “It doesn’t mean we’re in trouble,” he says. “If I’m doing a killer brunch business and it dissipates, I’ll try to promote the hell out of it to get it back.”

In fact, Winer says he’s investing more time and money into promotions than ever before to manage steep competition. “When I first opened Logan Tavern [in 2003], we didn’t have to do anything,” he recounts. “My entire pre-opening budget was a sign I hung in the window that said, ‘Now Open.’ From night one, we were on a wait and we were full every night for the next two years.” 

A reader contacted City Paper worried that one of his go-to restaurants was on the ropes because his inbox was stuffed with advertising emails pushing one special or another.

“An onslaught of emails could be a reinvigoration,” Alex cautions. “A restaurant will go out and raise money and use that reinvestment.” You have to spend money to make money. “Often one of the first things people tackle is public relations. You know the things that actually cost money. PR, hiring a new chef with a name, or remodeling. That’s reinvestment.” Some restaurants will even close and reopen under a new name. 

Alex says it’s up to restaurateurs to make sure that diners remember their restaurants, but can patrons take action if they sense their neighborhood haunt is flailing? “If you want a place to make it, come more often,” Wizenberg urges. “If you feel like, ‘Wow, it’s slow when I’m here,’ tell your friends.” 

“It’s not enough to go in and eat,” Winer agrees. “They need to tell their friends. Everything I read still says word-of-mouth referrals from friends is where the lion’s share of restaurant visits are generated … If you want a restaurant to survive then talk it up. Post on Facebook. There is so much noise in the world that without many voices, without flags being run up the pole all the time, it’s hard out there.”