Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

“It was only a matter of time,” Jody Greene of Greene & Associates says. He’s been the landlord of a bevy of buildings, including restaurants and bars, on the 14th Street NW strip since the 1980s. “This particular area was so close to downtown. The street is wide, and it’s a direct shot over the 14th Street Bridge.”

Others who’ve done business in the neighborhood agree it was bound to be a thriving commercial corridor. “It’s a main thoroughfare running from downtown to the upper reaches of D.C. that was way underdeveloped,” says restaurateur Ian Hilton. “Once a couple people saw success over there, it was definitely going to catch on.” 

But few could have predicted that building after building between N Street NW and Florida Avenue NW would transform so rapidly and with such gusto starting in the early 2000s. The area around 14th and U streets NW was one of the centers of the African-American life in the District when six days of riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. rocked the neighborhood. People broke windows, looted stores, and lit fires in response to the killing, but also growing tension over poor living conditions.

“I knew it wouldn’t stay down forever,” says Neal Becton, who owns Som Records at 14th and T streets NW. “It’s too big of an artery not to come back, but I didn’t foresee what it’s become now.”

There are currently more than 75 restaurants, bars, and coffee shops on or immediately off this stretch of 14th Street, attracting bar crawlers, bachelorette parties, adventurous eaters, bitches who brunch, and a convoy of Ubers. How did we get here, and what does the future look like for one of D.C.’s most dynamic hospitality centers?

Several businesses sparked the development domino effect, starting with the 2000 opening of Whole Foods Market on P Street NW. “P Street was red hot,” Greene says. He also tips his hat to Busboys and Poets (2005), Marvin (2007), and Cork Wine Bar (2008), among others, for being pioneers. Studio Theatre (1987) and Black Cat (1993) also brought people to the area.

But if one bar deserves extra credit for catalyzing redevelopment, it’s Cafe Saint- Ex, which opened at 14th and T Streets NW in 2003. “Saint-Ex was one of the first,” says longtime bar industry pro Said Haddad. He’s shaken and stirred in the neighborhood for the better part of 15 years and just accepted the general manager position at Maydan, opening on Florida Avenue NW just off 14th Street later NW this month. “Utopia had great food and Coppi’s Organic Pizza was around, but to add a bar was huge.”

Those who worked and lived in the the neighborhood remember how risky it was to open east of 16th Street NW in the ’90s and 2000s. “I would drive up 14th at midnight and see hookers and pimps and drug dealers and not much else besides liquor stores and check cashing places,” Becton says. He moved to the 14th Street NW corridor in 1988. He was mugged at gunpoint at 15th and U streets NW in the ’90s and he knew bartender Adam Fox, who was shot and killed in the 1900 block of 15th Street NW in 1993.

“The simple fact is that it was dangerous back then,” Haddad says. “It was way cooler, way more edgy, but we lost a lot of good people. Local 16 used to be the line. If you crossed it, you were either up to no good or going to the Black Cat or Utopia.” 

Haddad would store tip money in his boots and stuff about $30 into his pockets before walking home from bartending shifts. In the summer when crime tends to spike, he would take cabs two blocks. “You were doing a lot of defensive measures like that just to be safe.”  

That’s not to say there weren’t some cool haunts around when Cafe Saint-Ex prepared to open. Haddad remembers doing his laundry at Swan Cleaners where Ted’s Bulletin is now. He’d dash across the street to a bodega to pick up half-price cigarettes or get a sandwich at Sparky’s Espresso Cafe, run by skaters and bike messengers. 

Then there was HR-57—a BYOB jazz club that’s had many homes in D.C. and once operated in the current Ghibellina space. “Little places like that don’t exist around here anymore, and that’s what us old-timers miss,” Haddad says.

Mike Benson, the longtime owner of Cafe Saint-Ex who now happens to be running for mayor in Carrboro, North Carolina, embraced the neighborhood’s grittiness in the late ’90s. Ethiopian restaurant Wazzama once occupied the building Cafe Saint-Ex does today. 

“The basement was an unlicensed Ethiopian gambling den for cab drivers,” Benson says. He’d go there and chew khat, a popular stimulant native to the Horn of Africa. The cab drivers also sold him Heineken.

“Once they knew I wasn’t part of the 3rd police district they let me join in,” he continues. “I didn’t pay for a cab in D.C. for many years.” 

Becton and Benson were buds back then and the record store owner had some advice for his friend gearing up to open a bar in an untested location. “Make sure you nail brunch. There’s no place to get brunch around here, no diners, nothing,” Becton said. His crystal ball was in good condition. Washingtonians now fight for Sunday tables at Le Diplomate like football players grappling for the ball after a fumble. 

Benson and Haddad remember the early days at Cafe Saint-Ex fondly. Artists performing at the 9:30 Club and Black Cat, including the occasional celebrity, caught word that it was the place to drink after shows. Bar industry professionals flocked there after shifts. It was fun and blurry and far from politically correct. 

“Saint-Ex was the new thing back then,” Haddad says. He got a position shortly after the bar opened and stayed there and at Saint-Ex’s sister bar, Bar Pilar, for just under six years. “It was in its prime. There were ‘Yellow Fever’ parties happening every other Tuesday,” he recounts. Bad Saint’s Nick Pimentel, musician Rob “Kalani” Tifford, and Toolbox DC’s Brian Liu would DJ downstairs. 

But perhaps Cafe Saint-Ex’s biggest move was hiring Chef Barton Seaver in 2005 to man the kitchen. “He’d hit the ceiling with José Andrés [at Jaleo], so we gave him an opportunity,” Benson says. Seaver was named Esquire’s “Chef of the Year” in 2009 for his work at a different restaurant and is best known for being an early adopter of sustainable sourcing. “All of the sudden we had farmers coming in from Virginia, dropping things off,” Benson remembers. 

By the late aughts, the neighborhood took off once again. Culinary hotspots like Birch & Barley and Masa 14 opened in 2009 and Estadio followed in 2010. Greene credits the 1600 block with “making it all go.” Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, Barcelona Wine Bar, Le Diplomate, and Ghibellina all opened on that stretch between 2011 and 2013. “When those came into play that was really huge,” he says. 

The influx of restaurants from bigger players signified growing confidence in the potential of the street. Le Diplomate was from Philadelphia-based mega restaurateur Stephen Starr and Pearl Dive was from major local restaurateur Jeff Black.

“Blocks would move every five years then all of the sudden they started moving every two or three years and then it got down to a year and now it’s happening all over,” Greene continues. 

Hilton, who owns Marvin, The Gibson, The Brixton, and other spots nearby with his brother Eric Hilton agrees. “Change was gradual at first in 2007 and 2008,” he says. “Then from 2009 to 2012 it just got ridiculous … I haven’t seen it happen any quicker.” 

Initially there was competition, but the speed of growth quickly nurtured a “We’re all in this together” mantra. As Haddad explains, “When the Hilton brothers opened Marvin I was still at Saint-Ex, and the question was, ‘Do you think they’re going to take all of your customers?’ Now there are so many people to go around. These streets are turning into New York on the weekend. You can barely walk. It’s aggressive walking.” 

Haddad says bartenders send each other boomerangs (neatly packaged to-go shots) and patronize each other’s bars. “Those nights when it’s four deep at the bar and the streets are the way they are, seeing a friendly face that understands what you’re going through is a spectacular thing.”

In his early days behind the bar, Haddad was a no frills bartender who attracted a gaggle of regular customers to whichever bar was currently paying his bills because of his knack for hospitality. But in recent years he’s had to adapt to the demands of new crowds coming to 14th Street NW expecting craft cocktails.

“I used to be the guy where you order a martini and I would give you a shot of Jameson and tell you to fuck off,” he jokes. “I had to learn it and it made me a better person at what I do now. I can pair a cocktail with food now.” Haddad says customers are looking for experiences today. “They don’t want stuff they can make for themselves at home.” 

Generally Haddad and others embrace the change, but they also appreciate the past and acknowledge that with revitalization and gentrification there are always going to be winners and losers. “You can’t hate watching a neighborhood thrive,” he says. “A lot of people working here are making money that they wouldn’t have back then. And it’s a lot safer to walk around.”

“For a long time I was like, ‘Boy, this is great,’” Benson chimes in. “But then you started to see what happened to all of the black people on T Street and in my old neighborhoods. A lot were retired and on fixed incomes. They said, ‘Everything is too expensive, we’re being pushed out, we can’t afford the taxes.’” Eventually unscrupulous developers came in to flip the rowhouses that flank 14th Street. “A house you could buy in 1996 for $175,000 is now selling for $800,000,” he says.

It’s not just residential real estate prices that are climbing. So are the prices per square foot at bars, restaurants, and other businesses on 14th Street NW. “I thought it would do well, but no where close to where it is today,” Greene admits. “So it got me. I’ve been around this stuff a long time.”

The landlord says he’s seeing prices jump to $80–$100 per square foot. “I don’t like it getting that high-end when they’re charging so much money. Although I’m a landlord, I’d rather see the restaurants and commercial pieces work. I don’t want to strangle them.” 

Hilton says Greene isn’t willing to take a few extra bucks to sign something that doesn’t jive with the neighborhood. “Other companies are sitting there with institutional money. They can change the look of the place. But there are enough building owners who are sensitive to that and don’t want it to become one national chain after another.”

Chains and restaurants from operators in other cities have started to pop-up on the street. Philadelphia’s Pizzeria Vetri opened in 2016. Shake Shack opened in March. Peet’s Coffee opened in May. California-based JINYA Ramen Bar and Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams opened in September. Smoothie King will soon take over the Maki Shop space. 

“The people that moved to 14th Street had this ideal village, a hipster community with independently owned restaurants and bars and little festivals in mind,” Benson says. “All of those things start to turn more generic and big box guys come in. The small independently owned operators are the guys just hanging on.” 

That said, Rose Previte feels confident enough about the street’s future and profitability as an independent, local operator that she’s willing to double down on the neighborhood. Previte opened Compass Rose on T Street NW in 2014. 

The forthcoming Maydan, which will feature Old World cuisine cooked over an open hearth in a boisterous atmosphere that should feel like a public square, is located down an alley off Florida Avenue NW. Previte has lived on and just off 14th Street several times throughout her career.

“It’s my neighborhood and I like to build neighborhood gathering places,” she says. “14th Street is home to an amazingly diverse group of people who are very proud to live here … Maydan will fit right in because it’s unique, a little bit sleek, but still a little bit gritty.”

“This street is where a lot of great restaurant ideas and concepts were born over a drunken pint and late night conversation,” Haddad adds. “This street has been reborn alongside the restaurant trade in this town and it will always be associated with it.”