Laura Hayes

A new report from the D.C. Policy Center draws several conclusions based on restaurant openings and closings over the past several years. The biggest? The lion’s share of the city’s nightlife boom may be in the rearview mirror. According to the study, the city granted 165 new liquor licenses to restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in 2010. But by 2016, just under half of those same businesses remained. 

Many have written about D.C.’s restaurant industry bubble and whether or not it has burst. Researcher Kate Rabinowitz sought to answer that question by reviewing data obtained from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). She writes:

Roughly 10 percent of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs exit each business year, but openings and survival rates seem highly cyclical: 2011 saw many new openings (198), but nearly 15 percent of those businesses didn’t survive the first year. The following two years had markedly lower new liquor licenses, suggesting an unsustainable boom in 2010-2011 followed by an initial higher closure rate and a shift to more conservative expansion with fewer closings. There is another peak in 2014, with the highest number of new liquor licenses across the period. However, a large uptick in closings across the board in 2015-2016 potentially signals oversaturation of the market, suggesting that the District’s nightlife and restaurant boom could be coming to an end. 

The study also looks at nightlife openings and closings across neighborhoods. Rabinowitz finds that Dupont and the K Street corridor, as well as downtown and Chinatown, experienced the highest “churn rates.” She also notes that there has been a spike in closure rates in other neighborhoods in 2016, including Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Shaw. 

The data is compelling, however it still feels like restaurant openings will outpace closings, especially as fall approaches. The neighborhood poised to see the most growth is District Wharf in Southwest, where more than a dozen restaurants are slated to open (some in October, others later on). Whether or not these restaurants will be able to fill thousands of seats with diners is yet unknown, but hardly any of the concepts slated for the Wharf are from first time restaurateurs.