Illustration by Stephanie Rudig
Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

Taronica wants a Chili’s east of the river. It’s not because she wants to mix and match different flavors of ribs on a Friday night. She currently works at a location of the chain in Alexandria and wishes there were more restaurants in her neighborhood to shrink her commute.

But in Wards 7 and 8, despite a population of close to 160,000, there are only a handful of full-service restaurants where a family or friends can sit down for a meal. In Ward 7 there’s Sala Thai, Thai Orchid’s Kitchen, and Denny’s. Ward 8 has Cheers At The Big Chair, The Player’s Lounge (Georgina’s by day), Everlasting Life Restaurant, and IHOP

Beyond those restaurants, food options are reduced to groceries from the scant three total full-service grocery stores for both wards; carry-outs and fast food; and limited service from delivery apps that expanded their radii after Ward 7 resident Latoya Watson petitioned them.

Meanwhile, Bon Appétit named D.C. its “Restaurant City of The Year” in 2016. The same year, Michelin made Washington one of four cities in the U.S. to have its prestigious dining guide. At the time, the District had about 2,300 dining and drinking establishments, according to the National Restaurant Association. That number has only shot up like a geyser, and the city just named a director of nightlife to oversee the city’s booming after-hours economy.

To find out what types of restaurants Ward 7 and 8 residents would like to see land nearby, City Paper interviewed patrons outside of the Good Hope Marketplace Safeway on Alabama Avenue SE. The grocery store is in Ward 7, just over the border from Ward 8.

Taronica wants sports bars like Buffalo Wild Wings, fast casuals like &pizza, salad bars, and family restaurants. “It’s always the black communities that have more fast food restaurants than anywhere else,” she says. Wards 7 and 8 are both close to being 95 percent black, according to DC Office of Planning data. “That’s how we get obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.”

Like Taronica, Dante has to travel to work at a LongHorn Steakhouse in Maryland. He would rather be employed by a restaurant close to home. “We need Italian restaurants and sit-down hibachi restaurants,” he says. “More burger places too. I want to wine and dine. We have to go far to get everything.” 

Two Safeway shoppers want a buffet. Daeon goes to Golden Corral buffet about 12 miles away in Largo—especially on birthdays. Rita also wants an all-you-can-eat buffet, plus a steakhouse and a seafood restaurant. “We don’t have that over here,” she says. “It’s due to the crime.” 

High-value dining was the common denominator. Ronette’s favorite restaurant is Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen. The closest location is in Brandywine, which is about 16 miles away. They serve grilled salmon with two sides for $11.99. “It’s reasonable,” she says. “$30 will get you something to eat and maybe two or three drinks.” 

Taronica was the most optimistic about restaurants taking a chance on Wards 7 and 8. “If they build more apartments, they’ll build more restaurants because people want to go out to eat… People are working 9 to 5. When they get home, they don’t want to cook. They want to go out to eat.” 

Residents are not unanimous in their desire for more restaurants to open in Ward 7 and 8. Kay points to Stanton Elementary School across the street. “I’m quite sure a lot of children are participating in reduced or free-lunch programs,” she says. “So their parents aren’t going to be able to afford restaurants.” She’d prefer to see resources spent on bringing more libraries and bookstores to the area, and notes that she’s also fine with their being fewer restaurants because typically it means less rats. “Rarely do I see rats,” she says. “I like it over here.”

Commercial and residential development in the area is underway, making this conversation timely. As population density increases, amenities like restaurants and stores are in greater demand.

The most delicate part of the equation is balancing what today’s residents can afford with what tomorrow’s residents are willing to pay. Anacostia, for example, was one of the top 10 neighborhoods in D.C. for home appreciation from 2017 to 2018, according to UrbanTurf. The median price of a home went from $310,000 to $360,716.

“We’re getting an increasingly large number of residential units, which will bring more people and a greater critical mass of people who would be the patrons of these places,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray. “People will have to feel like they’re going to be successful.” That wasn’t the case for Ray’s The Steaks, which closed in 2012, or Walmart, which pulled out on a major deal in Skyland Town Center in 2016, citing unfavorable business conditions.

Now Gray and his Council colleagues are working to incentivize grocery stores and full-service restaurants, zeroing in on Capitol Gateway, East River Park, the Shops at Penn Hill, the Parkside planned-unit development, St. Elizabeths East Campus, the existing United Medical Center parcel, Columbian Quarter, Skyland Town Center, and Deanwood Town Center.

The goals of the East End Grocery and Retail Incentive Tax Exemption Act of 2018 and the East End Commercial Real Property Tax Rate Reduction Amendment Act of 2018 are to offer attractive enough tax breaks to lure in anchor stores, creating opportunities for smaller retailers and restaurants to follow. Sit-down restaurants are considered eligible for such tax breaks. 

The East End Food Justice Amendment Act of 2018 is under Council review. This bill would create the East End Grocery and Retail Incentive Program under the purview of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. Should the bill become a law, it would enable the city to use end-of-year surplus money to help pay for the construction of anchor stores. 

The bill attributes the dearth of grocery stores and retail corridors to the fact that many businesses make decisions based on a community’s median annual income. Ward 7’s is $38,559 and Ward 8’s is $31,139, according to 2016 Census data. 

Where Gray says he thinks a Red Lobster would succeed, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, wants a Chuck E. Cheese’s because the casual restaurant doubles as a place for families to play.

“Historically in poverty stricken communities, it’s hard for businesses to get started for fear that they won’t do well,” White says. “We’re calling on our colleagues and the mayor so we can have the same amenities as everyone else and do it responsibly.”

White recently held up a bill that would have empowered the city to help finance a 1.5- million-square-foot development in Anacostia with apartments, a hotel, offices, and retail space, by borrowing against future tax receipts the project would generate.

As City Paper reported, White believes there are too few planned affordable apartment units, too few guaranteed jobs for Ward 8 residents, and too few commitments to involve local businesses. “Some people may say, ‘Trayon is against development,’ but I’m for participation from local businesses as well, not just big food chains,” he explains. 

Ward 8 ANC Commissioner Troy Donté Prestwood (8A04) was also at the Safeway on Saturday. “The community is hungry for more amenities, services, more retail, but the pace of development is slow,” he says.

The self-proclaimed optimist thinks restaurants “that are committed to serving a diverse clientele with different price points, quality food, and great customer service” would do very well in his community. “What happens is many of us travel around the city and outside of the city searching for these establishments,” he says. 

Nikki Peele, a Ward 8 resident and marketing consultant who blogs about her neighborhood, agrees that too many dining and grocery dollars are being spent in other parts of the city. “Imagine the irony for those of us getting in our cars to go sit down for a meal outside of my ward and being served by someone from my ward,” she says.

This fall, Peele created a Twitter hashtag, #TheDiscards, where she and other east-of-the-river residents documented what daily life is like, such as how long an Uber Eats delivery takes and the disrepair of the restroom inside the Giant. “We do love the ward, but to be quite honest people are getting frustrated,” she says.

“I’m one of the few people who isn’t afraid of change,” she says. “As much as this is a discussion about places to eat, it’s an economic conversation. If you don’t have restaurants and grocery stores, those basic third places to go and connect, you’re missing important revenue streams and jobs.” 

Peele also wishes other parts of Ward 8 were “flourishing” as much as Anacostia. That’s where Andy Shallal says he’s opening a Busboys and Poets in the first quarter of 2019. “I am very bullish on the area,” he says. “I think it’s going to do great.”

His strategy is to make the restaurant about the neighborhood by hiring locally and developing hyper-local programming. “Customers are very loyal when it comes to having authentic spaces that really cater specifically to the needs of that community rather than just to the bottom line,” he says. Shallal believes he’s a barometer. “There’s lots of eyes on us to see what happens before others make the commitment to go there.” 

Two existing restaurant owners confront challenges but are sticking it out while they wait for other restaurateurs to be a part of the rising tide they’re banking on. Oy Changsila opened Sala Thai years ago where Minnesota Avenue SE meets Benning Road SE. “The first year was difficult. It takes until a third year to pick up business.” 

Changsila says his customers respond best to his generous happy hour. “You can’t get $5 glasses of wine anywhere now!” he says. “Even a Long Island Ice Tea or Martini is $5.95. We’re making money little by little.” 

Changsila welcomes competition, especially if it’s from a restaurant serving Cajun or Creole food. “If they come here right now, at least I won’t be alone,” he says. “We’d like to invite everyone to come to Ward 7. It will get better and better.” 

Over in Anacostia, Michael Sterling operates Caribbean Citations—a Jamaican carryout with a couple of seats that gives customers a discount if they bring in parking tickets. He already had a history with the neighborhood, having briefly operated where Cheers At The Big Chair now stands. He struggles in determining what to charge because Caribbean food uses high-price proteins like snapper and goat. “You have to be careful to make money and stay afloat.”

Still, Sterling has hope. “I’m seeing blueprints of buildings and hotels that are going to be put up here,” he says. “If they can weather the storm like I’ve been trying to do, this is the best time to get over here and be established.” 

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