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It’s Friday night. The bar at Sizzling Express, a Capitol Hill deli, is crowded with men and women talking and watching the NBA Finals game between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors on one of the two TVs suspended above the bottles of liquor. The mood in the eatery at 600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE is somewhat subdued.
Teressa Dantley Brown, a certified public accountant, sips a white wine while Drew Bethea, a postal worker, anchors his usual seat on the corner near the grill. Gary Hang, 70, owns the eatery and runs it with his 67-year-old wife, Hue Tran. Tonight, Hang’s filling drink orders when he’s not responding to text messages.
Hang’s been getting a lot lately because after nearly 20 years as a Capitol Hill institution, Sizzling Express will close on June 15, and its legions of loyal customers—many of whom have become friends with each other and Hang and Tran—are texting, wishing him and his family well, expressing how much the restaurant has meant to them.
For many loyal customers, Sizzling Express is more than a place to get something good to eat at a reasonable price. “For people in the African American community, it’s like the black Cheers,” Dantley Brown says, referring to the NBC sitcom about a Boston bar where everybody knows your name.
Bethea is the bar’s vigilant version of Norm. A big guy, he’s Sizzling Express’s unofficial bouncer on the rare occasions bar arguments get too heated or when a customer verbally berates a young cashier. A few years ago, Hang made a sign, “Big Daddy Drew,” that he placed on the bar corner, recognizing his faithful customer’s corner seat. Though the basketball game stretches well past the deli’s closing time of 10 p.m., Hang lets Bethea and others stay at the bar to watch the rest of the game while he cleans up. Tran has always allowed bar stalwarts to stay past closing time to watch the end of a game, Bethea says.
That kind of consideration is one of the reasons Sizzling Express has developed such a loyal following among its patrons. “It’s a smorgasbord of people,” Dantley Brown says. “We’ve developed friendships here, we’ve had groups that have gone together to the Birchmere, Blues Alley, we’ve played tennis, and been to each other’s homes. That says a lot when you invite people into your personal space.”
In her cellphone, Dantley Brown has photos of herself and her cousin, former NBA Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, as well as Hang and Tran’s wedding photo. When Dantley Brown’s daughter was born, Tran, a skilled tailor, made pillowcases for the infant. Dantley Brown gazes at her friends at the bar and wipes away a tear. “This is a big loss,” she says.
Many who live and work in the neighborhood—or who go out of their way to patronize the eatery—feel the same way. A tweet from Capitol Hill Books, a short walk from the restaurant, captures the mood among many of the restaurant’s regulars: “This is hard to say….but the Sizzling Express around the corner from us is closing. This is going to require dramatic changes to our lifestyle. *Imagines slo-mo video montage of all the General Tso’s we’ve eaten there*”
Most of the food at Sizzling Express isn’t fancy, but it’s reliably good, affordable, and available buffet-style. Hot and cold sandwiches run from $5.99 to $9.99 each. Slices of cake are sold individually. Unprompted, four different patrons recommend a sushi roll featuring cooked salmon. One bar patron said he loves that dish so much he’d be getting the phone number of Sizzling Express’s sushi chef, so he could follow him to his next gig.
The space feels a bit like an upscale cafeteria: no servers, separate buffet sections for hot and cold foods, and serve-yourself soda and coffee machines. The walls are decorated with photos of Capitol Hill buildings in the 1960s, on loan from the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals.
The changes occurring in neighborhoods throughout the city led to the restaurant’s imminent closure. Like many other D.C. restaurants and bars that have closed their doors in recent years, Sizzling Express is a victim of rising rents. When the restaurant opened in July 1999, Hang says the rent was $7,000 a month. Now, it’s $21,000 a month.
“The rent’s too high,” he says. “Food costs are rising, payroll costs too. I can’t afford it anymore.” Hang says he told the management company that owns the building two years ago that he wouldn’t be renewing his lease. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
The passage of time and health concerns are also factors for Hang and his wife. “How many years [do I have] to enjoy my life?” he asks. “I told [the management company] I’m getting too old. I want to retire.” Tran, meanwhile, says she takes more than a dozen medications for various health issues, like high blood pressure, on a daily basis.
Though Hang decided a couple of years ago to retire, many of the restaurant’s customers just learned the news in recent days and weeks. Word is spreading among Sizzling Express bar patrons, current and past, Dantley Brown says. She expects a large turnout for the restaurant’s final day.
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill resident Jack Wandersee, who is part of a group of older people who have met at Sizzling Express for breakfast every Saturday for about 10 years, is wondering whether he and his friends will continue to get together.
“Maybe I’ll end up drinking coffee by myself in the park,” he says. Sizzling Express has been a second home for Wandersee. On a gray Sunday morning, Marietta Davis, whose parents were friends with Wandersee when she was a child growing up in Capitol Hill, drops into the restaurant to say hi to him. Davis, in her forties, lives in New York City but visits D.C. regularly, and when she does, she goes to Sizzling Express to catch up with her old friend.
Wandersee’s group started out meeting at the snack bar at the Library of Congress, but migrated to Sizzling Express years ago. They typically talk about politics, books, and movies. Mike Seltz, one of Wandersee’s friends (though not a regular member of the Saturday morning group) says the friends might start gathering at a nearby Capitol Hill eatery.
Aside from the social groups that have called Sizzling Express a second home, many older neighborhood residents who don’t cook have relied on the eatery for many of their meals, Tran says. Some eat at the restaurant daily, some come in for two or three meals. One couple, now in their 90s, eats at Sizzling Express almost every day, she says. Tran worries about these older regulars. “They can’t afford to eat at other restaurants,” she says.
Sizzling Express, 600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; (202) 548-0900; sizzex1.com