Laura Hayes

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Grand Duchess has all the makings of a neighborhood hang. You can get a $7 Old Fashioned to pair with a $5 gourmet grilled cheese sandwich in a relaxed setting. The problem is, owners Vinnie Rotondaro and Rory Adair are having to turn away more people than Bad Saint.

On Friday night, a sign with some sort of frowning creature was placed in front of the entryway of the Adams Morgan bar. “Sorry we’re working through an occupancy issue,” it read. Inside, Rotondaro was turning away parties at the door despite a handful of empty tables. His face was pinched with a bit of pain, knowing the first impression his new bar was making on potential customers. 

According to Rotondaro, until Grand Duchess builds a second restroom, they cannot have more than 15 people inside the bar. “We bought the place knowing we had to put in a second bathroom,” he says. Pharmacy Bar, which occupied the address before, had the same limitation. “But I guess no one ever made a fuss about it.”

The owners thought they too could skate by until it came time to renovate, but then they got busted after someone called in a noise complaint after Christmas. “It was befuddling,” Rotondaro says. “We don’t make much noise at all. Whoever called said to ‘check out their occupancy.’”

Now Grand Duchess is enforcing the policy until they temporarily close in about a month. “We don’t have a huge budget,” Rotondaro says. “We’re just two guys who opened up a bar. We can’t risk the fines or violating the settlement agreement with the neighborhood.” 

Chapter 4 of the 2012 International Plumbing Code, which the city follows, stipulates that the number of bathroom fixtures required is based on the number of seats in a restaurant. Furthermore, the maximum number of seats (including patrons and employees) at a restaurant with one bathroom is 15. More information can be found in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs “Guidelines for Building Permits.”

A representative from the Alcohol Beverage and Control Board explains that on their end, operators have to seek Board approval before reducing the number of restrooms.

Given the incredibly slim profit margins in the bar and restaurant industry, it’s a miracle that Grand Duchess can make rent off of $5 sandwiches and boilermakers. “It’s not good,” Rotondaro says. “All of the money we’re losing affects our renovation budget … We’re just trying to stay positive.”

In addition to adding a second bathroom, the renovation will include adding a bigger bar and some booth seating. 

Grand Duchess is currently open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to late. When they re-open with two toilets, they hope to be open seven nights a week. You can currently rent the whole bar out for $400 a night, plus whatever you spend on food and drink. The capacity limit applies.

Grand Duchess, 2337 18th St. NW; (202) 299-1006; grandduchessdc.com