Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

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When you’ve operated a restaurant in the same neighborhood for more than three decades like the owners of Nam Viet in Clarendon, it’s impossible not to notice changes, be they gradual or drastic.

Located just off Clarendon Central Park, from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on weekends patrons can only access the Vietnamese restaurant by foot, according to co-owner Richard Nguyen. The police shut down Hudson Street to cars on Friday and Saturday nights due to alcohol-related safety concerns. 

“After 10 p.m., it’s the clientele I don’t want anyway,” Nguyen says. “They’re hitting up the bar scene and are trying to sober up. They may be a hindrance to the staff and my property.” 

The increase in tipsy foot traffic correlates with an influx of bars and restaurants including Don Tito, Pamplona, Bar Bao, Wilson Hardware, and The G.O.A.T. They all opened in 2015 or later and can morph into club-like establishments after the last dinner patrons pay their bills. They joined Spider Kelly’s, Clarendon Ballroom, O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub, Bracket Room, and other mainstays to create a party hub that draws young crowds from D.C., Arlington, and further flung parts of Northern Virginia.

If you sit on the Nam Viet patio long enough, you’re bound to hear sirens headed toward Don Tito, according to Nguyen. “There are some nights when I go outside and there’s an ambulance parked on the corner of Hudson and Wilson,” he says. “On St. Patrick’s Day alone, I saw six or seven ambulances fly by.” 

Nguyen isn’t imagining things. According to data City Paper obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Arlington police, fire, and EMS responded to 177 calls to Don Tito in 2017. That’s practically one every other day. The police alone responded to 146 calls, 57 percent of which fell into the categories of assault, disorderly conduct, drunk in public, fights, exposure, and disputes. 

More specifically, there were nine fights, in addition to five calls for assaults, 26 for disorderly conduct, and 33 for public drunkenness. Calls do not necessarily mean a crime was committed nor that an arrest was made. It simply means the police were called in to help.

Compare Don Tito’s statistics with Clarendon Ballroom, which only had 64 combined calls in 2017. Spider Kelly’s, in the same calendar year, had 136 combined calls. There, 35 percent of police calls were for similar alcohol-related issues, but 44 percent of them were parking-related. Only 2 percent of calls at Don Tito were for parking problems.

The only address with a higher number of calls than Don Tito was 3100 Wilson Blvd. The fact that there were 189 combined police, fire, and EMS calls there can be attributed to the fact that four restaurants share the address: Pamplona, Bar Bao, Mister Days, and Bronx Pizza

Don Tito co-owner Scott Parker says business is good at his bar. “We’re lucky to be on the block we’re on,” he says. “It’s the epicenter of all of the bar hopping. We’re seeing people from D.C., but far and away the majority of the crowd is the locals and kids from rural parts of Virginia. If you’re a young person in your twenties, going to Clarendon is a no-brainer.” 

He says all his staff members have completed training through the the commonwealth’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “They learn how to properly serve alcohol and cut people off if they’ve had too much to drink,” Parker explains. 

He says the high number of police calls is a direct result of the Arlington police department’s stance that business owners should get them involved immediately when an issue arises. “A lot of bars don’t do that,” Parker says. “Don Tito does. To an outsider looking in, it’s going to look like we’re having more problems than we’re having.” 

Arlington’s restaurant liaison officer, Dimitrios “Jim” Mastoras, confirms police are encouraging a higher level of intervention. The master police officer has been in the role for two years and says he works to improve best practices and standards for restaurants that hold ABC licenses. 

His goal is to reduce alcohol-related harm through relationships with the community, businesses, and the government. “Business owners allow us to intervene and come into the restaurant and take care of issues before they get big,” Mastoras says. “We also provide a high level of training.” 

Clarendon has a dedicated nightlife detail staffed by officers in an overtime capacity that operates Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. So far it’s the only such detail in the county, but the strategies and measures of success used in Clarendon over the past two years will be applied to up-and-coming nightlife destinations like Ballston and Crystal City.

“Years before the liaison unit was created, there was no guidance,” Mastoras says. “The ABC is stressed for resources and can’t be down here on a daily basis the way we can. My phone rings off the hook everyday all day and all night … Everyone has my number.” 

The creation of the unit also means that officers covering other parts of Arlington won’t be pulled away to handle the high volume of calls in Clarendon. Mastoras says between 5,500 and 6,500 people come through on Friday and Saturday nights in the summer. With those numbers in an entertainment district, there’s bound to be regular police activity. 

Mastoras has had to convince owners that a high number of police calls isn’t a blemish on a restaurant’s reputation. “They were worried about how it reflected on the business, but the inordinate number of contacts isn’t negative,” he says.  “It’s hard to measure community policing, and this is community policing 101.” Despite the increase in calls for service, the department is seeing arrest numbers drop each year.

Pamplona and Bar Bao co-owner Mike Bramson has found that the police are helpful. “Our staff is trained to identify when situations are escalating and know that there is an open line of communication between them and the special unit to ensure the safety of the guests and the restaurant staff,” he says. “The expectations have been set on both sides and it’s nice knowing we can call them at anytime for help.” 

Having a dedicated nightlife detail and a police policy that urges owners to call the cops early and often could be why Don Tito sees so much police activity. The same team owns A-Town Bar & Grill in Ballston where there is no such detail. Police were called to A-Town 66 times in 2017, compared to Don Tito’s 146 calls. Only 30 percent of calls were for disputes, disorderly conduct, fights, assaults, and other alcohol-related issues. The majority had to do with loud music, parking, or a panic alarm going off at nearby residences. 

Arlington police are also involved in preventative measures, including “Conversations with a Cop” happy hours where officers dressed in plain clothes interview patrons in a casual setting about bar security and the area’s heightened police presence.

“Police are part of the fabric now,” Mastoras says. “People walk up to us and ask to take photos. They want a high five, they get a high five. They want a selfie, they get a selfie … We don’t have to all be robots out there. We’ve been accepted in the Clarendon neighborhood.” 

The police also step up their outreach and preventative measures before and during major drinking days such as St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. The department has a partnership with the Washington Regional Alcohol Program to offer free rides home via ride-sharing services. The fire department and Virginia Hospital Center partner with the police to put on CPR classes.

The Arlington Police  Department also rewards the restaurants who identify and confiscate the most fake IDs in Clarendon. Mastoras says restaurants turned in 1,600 over the past two years, though the seizures almost never lead to arrests. “We can get more done through voluntary action rather than coming in with the hammer,” he says. “There were only five or six [related] arrests over that two year period.” 

Locals like Bill Ryan hear the sirens and note a palpable change in the area. The 37-year-old started the blog Clarendon Nights in 2008, one year after he moved to the neighborhood. He has referred to the area near Don Tito’s where there is a high concentration of bars as “the gauntlet.” 

“You have so many drunk people,” he says. “People very quickly drink a lot before last call and walk out into the street. I’ve seen it walking late at night. Especially after 2 a.m. It doesn’t feel safe.” 

Some of his favorite places to hang out include The Board Room, Ambar, BABA, and Ms. Peacock’s Champagne Lounge. “I know I’ll be called a bro, but I really like The G.O.A.T.,” he adds. “I thought I wouldn’t like it, but during the weekdays they have a great happy hour and the food is really good.” 

Still, Ryan says he’s disappointed that some of Clarendon’s original character is slipping away. 

“We’ve been losing the ‘keep Clarendon weird’ places and more mainstream places are coming in,” he says. One of his favorite spots, the bar and music venue, IOTA Club & Cafe, closed in September 2017. “Most places are going toward DJs or mainstream music to attract that clientele.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.