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Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

One of D.C.’s key commercial corridors is going through yet another round of transformation. There’s the redevelopment of Whitman-Walker that’s set to become the “Liz,” a seven-floor, block-long building with 78 apartments, offices, and ground-floor retail. Further up the street, the block that was once anchored by the nonprofit Martha’s Table is poised to be rebuilt as “Collection 14,” a sprawling complex with more than 200 apartments, retail, offices, and an event space. These major developments will add some of the density that existing and forthcoming restaurants and retail shops have been hungry for.

But not every restaurant can cash in. As Washingtonian reported this week after speaking with real estate broker Tom Papadopoulos, rents that averaged around $40 per square foot 10 years ago are now closer to $75 to $90 per square foot. In City Paper’s reporting over the past two years, some restaurateurs and realtors shared going rates of up to $120 per square foot. As older restaurants’ five- and ten-year leases come up for renewal, some can’t stomach the increase, and they close. And because of rent hikes, aspiring local restaurateurs can’t fathom inking a deal for a 14th Street NW address for a first project.

Chef Adam Greenberg was interested in the neighborhood when he was staking out where to open Coconut Club. “When you hire a good broker, you need them to tell you, ‘No, you can’t afford this—here’s where you can afford,’” he explains. “The closest I could get to 14th was the Manhattan Laundry Building in front of Maydan,” he says. The building is located where 14th Street NW meets Florida Avenue NW. “I went into a lease and backed out.” 

He finally settled on the neighborhood that hugs Union Market. Greenberg sought a space that was 2,500 to 3,000 square feet priced at $55 to $65 per square foot. “Most mom-and-pop people who don’t have deep pockets who are grinding out investments from family and friends, that’s the number they’re comfortable with in this city. I haven’t heard of anything below $55 per square foot in a year.” 

These factors, plus D.C.’s increasingly exciting dining scene, have attracted a bevy of imports from other cities and national enterprises to the corridor, including Shake Shack, Peet’s Coffee, JINYA Ramen Bar, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Blue Bottle Coffee, Barcelona Wine Bar, Le Diplomate, and Pizzeria Vetri (now closed). 

Just this week, the District learned that Gypsy Kitchen from Atlanta-based restaurant group Southern Proper Hospitality would take over the Masa 14 space (1825 14th St. NW), and New York-based wine bar chainlet Vin Sur Vingt Wine Bar would replace Drafting Table (1529 14th St. NW). Another newcomer, The Meatball Shop, opened in the original Cork Wine Bar space (1720 14th St. NW) back in October. 

City Paper spoke with leadership from all three to learn why they chose D.C., and specifically 14th Street NW, for their first foray into business outside of their home regions. 

“What was important to us was doing something close enough to our home base, but still within our supply chain,” explains Meatball Shop CEO Adam Rosenbaum. He wanted to source from the same farms he uses at his six restaurants in New York. “It’s tough for New York brands to break into the Philly market, especially without being somewhere else first. Boston is a great place as well, but D.C. has had a burgeoning food scene for a while. It came down to where we found a great space in a neighborhood that was lively.” 

He was charmed by the brick walls and row house feel of the building, and felt he could fill a void in the neighborhood. “Something that wasn’t a bar that serves food and not something super high-end and a solid place for lunch,” he says. The Meatball Shop introduced some hat tips to D.C. with meatballs coated in Mumbo sauce and local beer on draft. “It takes time to be ingrained in a community. It’s not something you can force. You can’t manufacture culture in a business.” 

Rosenbaum calculates that rent prices in D.C. aren’t much different than the Big Apple. “A corner storefront in D.C. is going to be what an in-line store is in New York. It’s a little less, but not much. Rents are not cheap in D.C. They’re catching up to New York. You’re seeing certain businesses closing and new businesses—either national brands or brands from other markets opening in D.C.” 

Vin Sur Vingt Wine Bar is another such business. New York has five locations of the bar with French food and a wine list boasting about 40 French wines by the glass. Co-founder Sebastian Auvet says he’s not tweaking the concept significantly. “It’ll be tapas-style food and mostly the same menu with some twists because we’ll have a full kitchen,” he says. Think steak tartare, melted Brie cheese with honey, and a smoked salmon tartine. 

Auvet says he and his business partner were traveling the country and found D.C. to be a cosmopolitan city with a lot of diversity. “It’s starting to have a lot of very nice restaurants,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity for us to be there.” In selecting the exact destination for his wine bar, Auvet looked for areas with foot traffic.

“We went to D.C. a couple of times and saw there was always a waiting list at Le Diplomate and Barcelona Wine Bar,” he continues. “We thought, ‘Oh wow! OK, it has nice energy.’” Auvet hopes Vin Sur Vingt opens by the beginning of 2020. 

For Alex Curley, the COO for Southern Proper Hospitality, opening a restaurant in D.C. is a homecoming. He only left the city in January 2018 to move to Atlanta, where his company with 22 restaurants and a hotel is headquartered. He’d been in the District since 1992.

Curley’s last general manager job in the District was at Masa 14, the exact building Gypsy Kitchen is going into. “I know that building inside and out,” he says. “I’ve crawled through the crawl spaces. I know where it leaks and where it doesn’t.” Because of his connection (and some of his colleagues’ connections) to D.C., he insists they’re not outsiders coming in. “We just happen to live in a different city.”

The Atlanta location of Gypsy Kitchen serves tapas like Serrano ham-wrapped dates, chicken croquetas, and grilled Spanish octopus, but Curley says the D.C. outpost will focus on small plates showcasing the “cultural diversity of the spice trade route” including flavors from the Mediterranean, North Africa, and India. “We don’t need another Spanish tapas restaurant,” he says. “There are a lot that do a good job.” He points to Estadio and Barcelona Wine Bar, also on 14th Street NW. 

Other than his personal connection to D.C., Curley says his company is expanding outside of Georgia and North Carolina for the first time because they consider the District recession-proof. “You have the government, you have Congress, everyone that follows them, three great universities, a new administration every four or eight years, and so many transient [people],” he says.

Curley wants District diners to know that when Gypsy Kitchen opens in the spring or summer of 2020, they’re “not just the big bad monsters coming to town.”

“We’ve always loved that space,” he says. “We don’t want it to be a gas station. We don’t want it to be a convenience store. We don’t want it to be something that’s just sold to the highest bidder who comes in there with disregard for the culture of D.C. and 14th Street. We feel that we can protect that better than some people.” 

But what do veteran 14th Street NW business owners think of their freshmen or soon-to-be neighbors? 

“When we first started, there was almost nothing here,” explains Cork Wine Bar and Market co-owner Diane Gross. That was more than a decade ago. “[Cafe] Saint Ex, Rice, and us. Many of the owners and managers lived in the neighborhood. It was a street ripe for development, and that’s what’s happened.” 

Cork Wine Bar relocated from where The Meatball Shop is now is to 1805 14th St. NW in 2017. Gross and her husband and business partner, Khalid Pitts, now own their building so they’re protected from rent increases. 

“I think that 14th Street is a microcosm for what’s happening all over the city,” she continues. “People can’t afford to open small, independent spaces so there’s no other option but for larger, high-end chain places to come in because they have more flexibility and more revenue to meet the higher prices.” 

Landlords and developers aren’t the only ones to blame, according to Gross, who hopes the neighborhood can maintain a mix of different types of businesses. “I have to also put the blame with the city,” she says. She suggests creating a task force of those who are impacted. Maybe even a tax break. “As people are developing, there could be an urban plan that looks more intently to maintain the unique identity of neighborhoods. That’s not really happening as far as 14th Street is concerned.”