When The Black Squirrel opened in Adams Morgan in 2007 replacing T.S. Muttly’s, it had the pull of The Great Gatsby’s green light—drawing the city’s nascent craft beer lovers in droves to try its list of more than 50 brews. Co-owners Tom Knott and Amy Bowman were years ahead of beer giants like ChurchKey and Meridian Pint and quickly cultivated a stable of regular customers who craved the loaded burgers and mussels.
“Amy and Tom purchased this Irish bar and turned it into The Squirrel and all of the sudden you had this magical combination of people who cared about beer, great food, and a relaxed, casual atmosphere,” says Drew Long, a former D.C. resident and Squirrel regular. “I would frequent The Squirrel, once I discovered it, as much as I could.”
“It always felt homey and welcoming and I bonded with the bar staff and Amy and everyone there—I would get the mussels once a week,” says Marcos Harkness, another Squirrel regular and former D.C. resident. “Whenever I got back to D.C., I would make a pilgrimage to check on Amy and see if the burger lived up to the memory.”
Knott moved on and in April 2017 Bowman sold the Adams Morgan location to AJ Fastow so she could focus on growing The Black Squirrel brand in northern Virginia. The first location outside D.C. opened in Dunn Loring last summer and another is planned for Reston. “I loved every minute,” Bowman says of her time in Adams Morgan. “It was a special place for me. It was the people who made it such a wonderful place to work.”
Fastow and some silent partners operated The Black Squirrel without changing much for more than a year. But last week, Fastow announced the bar would close July 31 and reopen as a new concept, Seasons & Sessions, in September.
“We’re doing a tremendous renovation to the main floor,” Fastow says. “It’s been more gastropub divey and we want to make it a proper dining room.” He hired Chef Moe Atari to roll out a menu that leans heavily on Southern and Creole cuisines. Below the beautified dining room will be a downstairs bar and performance space for comedy and brass bands. While the transformation will be substantial, Fastow says he’s committed to maintaining the bar’s devotion to beer.
“Now that the neighborhood has changed, we feel it’s time for us to make a change as well,” Fastow says. He’s not wrong. Adams Morgan is quietly shedding its rowdy reputation and scaling up, with The Line Hotel leading the way.
“The real dive bars are dying out—Rumba Cafe is gone, Millie & Al’s is gone. Expectations from the neighborhood have gone up a little bit,” Fastow continues. “The more places that pop-up that have chefs of note who are cooking there with innovative styles puts more emphasis on keeping up with the Joneses.”
In order to stay competitive in D.C.’s constantly evolving dining scene, several restaurant and bar operators have recently closed their businesses and installed new concepts in the hopes of grabbing customers’ attention. This type of revamping hits the reset button, bumping an address back into the spotlight. In doing so, restaurateurs risk losing regular customers and name recognition. They have to hope their research and commitment to their new ventures compensate for nostalgia.
Regulars aren’t convinced that gussying up The Black Squirrel will make it better. “Sprucing it up and making it fancier, you might lose some of the appeal,” says Scott Kinney, a current Mount Pleasant resident who used to trek to the bar from Crystal City. “I don’t know what will differentiate it from the rest of Adams Morgan … It won’t have the same sentimental value.”
Further up 18th Street NW, restaurateur John Andrade took the opposite approach, swinging from refined to relaxed. He and his business partner, Chef Logan McGear, opened Rosario in March 2017. The Italian restaurant named after McGear’s mentor, the late Rosario Patti, served dishes like duck confit carbonara and rockfish piccata, paired with Italian wines. This month it reopened as Rosario’s Tacos & Tequila serving nachos, tacos, and margaritas.
“We opened Rosario and by all accounts it was a fantastic success,” Andrade says. “The food was great, nearly all of our reviews were four- and five-star reviews.” Ultimately though, Andrade felt that while they were able to fill the dining room on weekends, weekdays didn’t carry enough of a crowd to make the math work.
“There were a couple of things I never accounted for coming from the craft beer world with more casual dining,” Andrade says. He also owns Meridian Pint and its sister establishments, where lower prices and approachable food bring patrons in once or twice a week. “Dining out on Italian fare tends to be less frequent and more occasion-based.” Not having a private room to accommodate “never-ending” requests for parties also handicapped the restaurant.
Andrade began considering a rebrand this past winter and committed to it in the spring. He went with a Mexican menu, partially because he grew up eating Latin food in a Colombian household and partially because it’s a cuisine many embrace since it doesn’t have to break the bank.
The abrupt shift has lead to some interesting pairings. “I had a woman in the other night that loved Rosario for all it was,” Andrade says. “She was having tacos with wine. We still have some wonderful Italian wine.”
Andrade isn’t concerned that the area is already home to Los Cuates, Lauriol Plaza, El Tamarindo, and Johnny Pistolas. He compares his move to opening an Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End. “The more the merrier,” he says. “Everyone has liked it so far.”
Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj is also pleased with the response he’s getting at Sababa—the Israeli restaurant he opened in place of Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park. “Not to toot my own horn, but the customers say, ‘This is brilliant, what you did.’”
Bajaj operates several long-tenured restaurants in D.C. including 701 Restaurant and The Bombay Club. While he’s known to give his restaurants regular facelifts by hanging fresh art and bringing in new chefs, what he did on Connecticut Avenue NW is more dramatic. He first turned half the space into the Indian street food restaurant Bindaas in August 2016, and when that proved successful, he started considering how to replace what remained of Ardeo + Bardeo.
“Four years ago when things started to close down, I thought I better do something here,” Bajaj says. Palena, Nam-Viet, Ripple, Dino, and others didn’t make it. “The energy is moving to 14th Street and other neighborhoods. What can I do that’s new and exciting to draw diners back?”
Unlike Andrade who went with a cuisine he enjoys and grew up with, Ashok seems to have astutely studied national trends. Many food scribes named Israeli cuisine one of the biggest food trends of 2018, pointing to the success of restaurants like Philadelphia’s Zahav, New Orleans’ Shaya, and Montreal’s Damas.
For most of Ardeo + Bardeo’s tenure, Bajaj noticed diners were more traditional. They wanted their own salads and entrees. But with experimental Bindaas, he found people were more enticed to order small plates and share. That gave him the gumption to travel to Israel for research and make the leap with Sababa.
“We’re all afraid of change sometimes,” Bajaj says. “But what’s new, what’s new, what’s new? We’re in that era now with social media and the younger generation. Even the people who are older are saying, ‘Been there, done that.’” His advice to other restaurateurs facing a five-, 10-, or 20-year itch? “Don’t be afraid to change. It costs money and it’s a hard process, but if something is not working, change it.”
That’s exactly what Aziz Safi did with Panache in Golden Triangle. The restaurant that offered a menu of “Euro-Mediterranean tapas” was cutting edge when it opened in 2004. But a decade later, it was among a litany of global small plates restaurants in the District. “The first half of 12 years we did really well, then things were changing,” Safi says. “You have to adapt.”
He closed the restaurant in August 2016 and reopened it as French American Le DeSales in March 2017 with Michelin-starred Chef Raphael Francois as his partner. “We thought the renovation wouldn’t take more than three to four months, but it took seven,” Safi says. “You can’t have old shoes with a new dress. You go and you keep adding, that’s the challenge.”
Safi’s strategy was to identify talent—Francois—and shape the concept around him. The Le DeSales dinner menu features combinations like cantaloupe with duck prosciutto served with lemon sorbetto and bass with cranberries and cashews. Bar star Lukas B. Smith worked with Aleh Kazak to develop a cutting edge cocktail menu to match. But Safi knows that even with dynamite talent in the kitchen and behind the bar, there’s no guarantee new concepts will shine and regulars will return.
“Restaurant and food is like the fashion industry,” he says. “A fashion designer has so much talent, but not every design is going to work. Sometimes it clicks and you become a hot spot and sometimes with perfect execution, you don’t survive for too long. You have to keep that in mind when you go into the restaurant industry.”
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