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Robb Hudson commissioner for ANC 1B11, can look into a crystal ball and determine whether a business is likely to succeed on U Street. “Unless you’re mismanaged, a bar on U Street NW will do very well,” he says.
Restaurants, not so much. Save for neighborhood pillars like Ben’s Chili Bowl and Dukem, dining spots have been closing in rapid succession over the past two years, only to be replaced by bars that are drawing crowds and attention.
Ulah Bistro, for example, served sandwiches, pastas, and pizza for seven years before shuttering in July 2015 to make way for sports bar The Prospect.
Then there’s longtime Caribbean food institution The Islander, which served curries, seafood platters, oxtail stew, and roti on U Street since 1994 before closing the same month. It became Archipelago, a tiki bar that earned a nod from Food Network and was named Eater DC’s bar of the year.
The neighborhood also lost Utopia Bar & Grill, which served Moroccan dishes like lamb couscous along with gumbo and jambalaya. The restaurant opened at 1418 U St. NW back in 1990. District Distilling Company—a sprawling bar that makes its own booze—took over the address when it opened in August.
Finally, there’s Bistro on U. The Cajun cafe only operated for a few months after opening in May 2015. It’s now Service Bar DC—a cocktail den from veteran D.C. bartenders turned operators. One of them, Glendon Hartley, is so confident the bar will succeed that he tattooed its logo on his forearm.
There have been others as well. Double-decker Italian restaurants Alphonse D.C. and its fine dining companion Nonna’s Kitchen closed suddenly in September. With its rotating tasting menu, Nonna’s Kitchen was perhaps the most upscale restaurant the street has ever seen.
The BBQ Joint said goodbye after nine months at 14th and U Street NW on Nov. 28. Owner Andrew Evans says he couldn’t make his margins.
“A restaurant only works if you’re able to deliver what customers want, and in that location, barbecue wasn’t what they wanted,” he says. “Just because the street is packed with people at 10 p.m. doesn’t mean they’re coming into your restaurant to eat. They’re going out to drink and to nightclubs.”
Other establishments, like The Brixton, retooled their concepts to come off more bar than restaurant. “Brixton was meant to be more similar to Marvin, where there was a good bar scene sitting on top of a restaurant,” says co-owner Ian Hilton. “We started to see shortly afterwards that it’s difficult.” They quickly cropped their food offerings. “We’re trying to be more of a neighborhood pub rather than a stodgy dining room with a vibrant bar scene on its shoulders.”
Hilton explains that restaurants are concentrating in other areas, such as further down 14th Street near Logan Circle. “To oversimplify, 14th Street has more restaurants, and U Street is for bars.”
But how did we get here? And what will it take to fix it?
The biggest challenge restaurants face is that there’s not enough daytime foot traffic to merit opening for lunch, which they need to make their margins because restaurants are more expensive to operate than bars. They require extra space, staffing, and equipment. Stroll U Street on a Monday at noon, and it feels like an abandoned Western set.
“A lot of restaurants may be having difficulty because they don’t have that lunch rush,” says Mike Bramson, who co-owns The Prospect. “Depending on their rent, you have that break-even point, and lunch would get you there quicker.” His sports bar tried opening for lunch for a couple months, then gave up. “We may bring it back, but it wasn’t enough.”
Hilton has always thought that his restaurants American Ice Company, El Rey, and Satellite Room would make ideal lunch spots. “I look forward to it not being a losing scenario to open for lunch,” he says. “I’m chomping at the bit.”
Hudson agrees, saying the need for daytime foot traffic is desperate. “As much as people want to see the African American [Civil] War Museum, that’s all there is,” the ANC commissioner says. “We’re not getting families coming unless they’ve seen Ben’s on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Let’s open up so we can have restaurants during the day and bars at night.”
That would take some major changes or, as Hilton puts it, “a miracle.” More specifically, it would require offices, a hotel, or significantly more retail, which Hudson is pushing for. “It would be great to have a major corporation move into a huge office space and have all their workers be able to walk out for lunch and then stay after work,” he says.
Paul Carlson, who opened Vinoteca on U Street nearly a decade ago, suggests new condo buildings allocate the first two floors to office space. “That’s the whole New York City model,” he says, specifically citing the JBG Companies residential-retail complex going into 13th and U Street NW.
The property almost became a 250-room boutique hotel from JBG, which business owners wanted. “The hotel would have been game-changing, but residents pushed back on that,” Hudson says. “We’re still on the market for a hotel. It would add dimension.”
Hudson also points to two other buildings that could potentially bring in a daytime work crowd that would translate to lunchtime diners: The Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center on 14th Street NW and the Grimke School on Vermont Avenue. But just this week, a deal that would have transformed the dilapidated school into a cultural center, offices, townhouses, and mixed-use apartments fell through.
Restaurants are also facing skyrocketing rents. Carlson explains that when Vinoteca first opened, it struggled because people didn’t want to go down as far as 11th Street. “The following year in 2008 was Obama’s first election—things started to transform,” he says. “You started to feel this energy in the city, and with it came young professionals who wanted places they could afford, and the neighborhood grew eastward.” That’s when 14th Street and 9th Street started to feel connected.
“The struggle now is that it’s become really popular, and with popularity you’ve seen rents double, triple what they used to be,” Carlson says. He theorizes that restaurant owners entered short-term leases because they didn’t know the neighborhood would experience a boom. “I think that’s what happened with a lot of businesses at 14th and U Street—they couldn’t afford to pay huge rents when leases were up, so they closed up shop.”
That’s not to say there are no restaurants thriving on U Street. The Fainting Goatand Vinoteca do well, but they’re both backed by strong bar programs. Fainting Goat owner Greg Algie says he modeled his restaurant off places in New York that floated between restaurant and bar. “We’re a restaurant first, but there’s the bar component,” he says. “You look around today, and that’s what people are doing.”
Perhaps this one-two punch is a winning combination for other neighborhood restaurants to emulate.