Wednesday is the last day Louis’ Restaurantwill serve giant pancakes, all-day breakfast, and cups of chicken gizzards. The Ivy City greasy spoon is closing after 29 years as the go-to spot for the neighborhood’s cops, asphalt layers, government workers, and taxi drivers. But instead of a funeral, charismatic owner Jose Luis Guzman is treating the end of an era like a celebration of life.
He’ll serve free food until they run out to all of their regular customers, including people that overnight at the Catholic Charities homeless shelter for men next door. The men there often perform odd jobs for the restaurant—like sweeping the sidewalk—for a bite to eat. “It’s sad that there are people in trouble, but they need to feel like they earned something,” Guzman says.
Guzman, who is from El Salvador, started working at Louis’ Restaurant in 1993 and bought it in 2004. He’s seen the Northeast D.C. neighborhood go through a series of changes. What was an area founded by African Americans in the late 1800s has been both an industrial park and a struggling, largely overlooked enclave. While others were fleeing in the early 2000s—Guzman weathered the decline.
“Businesses and people were leaving because crime was high,” Guzman says. “It was hard to be in the neighborhood after dark.” He dialed back the diner’s closing hours from 7 p.m. to 5 p.m. but didn’t pick up and leave.
Only now, when Ivy City is experiencing its biggest transition to date, is Guzman walking away. He says his landlord is more than doubling the rent, from $3,000 a month to $7,000 a month (with property taxes and insurance). “They’re playing with me, saying fix the place up, fix the place up,” Guzman says. “That’s not the type of lease I want. I need five more years of affordable rent so I can actually upgrade because it needs to be done.”
The diner hasn’t changed much over the years—its lime green and sky blue walls look like they belong in Miami, and the booths show their age. It’s a time capsule. Guzman offered to buy the building for $1 million, but he says they’re after closer to $2 million.
Sales are also down 25 percent. Guzman says ongoing construction in the neighborhood has turned off customers. “When the building collapsed, they closed Fenwick Street—that hurt business and there was no parking,” Guzman says. “I had to bring food out to people’s cars in order to keep operating.”
He’s referring to an exterior wall of the building that formerly housed Pete Pappas & Sons Inc. that crumbled in May. It caused delays for business owners readying to move into the former tomato factory, like Chef Matt Baker of Gravitas.
This scene is part of a rapidly evolving Ivy City, which is largely in the hands of Douglas Development Corp. headed byDouglas, Norman, and Matthew Jemal. They’re bringing in luxury apartments, restaurants from big-name restaurateurs like Ari Gejdenson of Mindful Restaurant Group, niche shops like a vintage motorcycle store, retailers, gyms, and more. The centerpiece is the Hecht Warehouse with its 330 apartments and 150,000 square feet of retail.
Down the street, Ivy City Partners (Ocean Pro Properties, Stonebridge Carras, and Jarvis Company) is taking over the grounds of the Crummell School. The group of developers won a call for RFPs cast out by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. ProFish will expand into part of the property, but there will also be housing, a community center, gardens, a restaurant, and more.
This story of transformation, development, and gentrification is not unique to Ivy City—it’s happening in pockets across the city. Of course, gentrification is the most loaded term used because it presumes there are winners and losers.
Longtime customers of Louis’ Restaurant aren’t in the winner’s column. “These people, they’re not going to be able to afford a $9, $10 breakfast,” Guzman says. “It’s not reality. But you don’t blame the businesses [coming in] because in order to operate they have to raise prices because rent is expensive.”
Anthony Bush who lays asphalt for Fort Myer Construction Corp. has been coming to Louis’ Restaurant every morning for three years. “The customer service is through the roof, and the food has always been terrific,” Bush says. “I get the same thing every day—the French toast platter and coffee—so when I walk in, it’s already there.”
On Friday, Guzman informed Bush that the diner is closing. “It’s a little heartbreaking,” Bush says. “It’s so convenient for me and my coworkers who go there on a regular basis. They have always been the number one best spot. There’s not even a second best. There won’t be another option.”
Despite the fact that he and his crew pass by a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s on the way to work on South Dakota Avenue, they go out of their way to go to Louis’ Restaurant where they’ve gotten to know Guzman. “He should get a little more leverage—he’s been there before those businesses. It’s crazy,” Bush says.
John Rorapaugh, the sustainable director of ProFish,has known Guzman for 15 years. When Guzman was just a cook at Louis’ Restaurant he picked up work from the seafood wholesaler, making delivery runs in the afternoons.
Since ProFish is feet away, Rorapaugh’s been a regular. “That was my main diet for a long time—I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” he says. Rorapaugh bought a spice vial of togarashi at Honeycomb in Union Market, which the cooks at Louis’ Restaurant happily sprinkle on his order of fried rice, over-easy eggs, and soy sauce.
Rorapaugh expects some former Louis’ Restaurant regulars to frequent the Ivy City Smokehouse Tavern next door where you can find $12 chicken wings and sandwiches ($12-$16). He also predicts they’ll eat at the diner Gejdenson is opening in the Hecht Warehouse. “There’s not the same answer for sure,” Rorapaugh says. “Ari’s price point will obviously be a little higher, but it’s a diner so it can’t be too much higher.”
Prices are one thing, but it will be hard to re-create the communal feel at Louis’ Restaurant. “Maybe five years ago he put up some TVs, started to put old boxing matches—Sugar Ray [Leonard] fights, it was almost a gathering place. It got people talking. I don’t know if he meant for that, but they’d watch the fight and then go on into politics.”
Guzman knows that closing his restaurant is a loss for many, but he has an upbeat attitude. “They’re sad that it’s happening, but embrace the change. Change is beautiful,” he says. “This is a special place. Now change is coming, and it’s coming alive. For a while it was pretty rough, but thank god that it’s coming in and for good reason.”
A 41-year-old father of two, Guzman plans to take a year off before making any career decisions, but he hasn’t ruled out coming back to Ivy City. “I hope that down the line, I’ll be part of it somehow,” he says. He’d also consider other neighborhoods. “When you manage to make it in a place like this, you can make it anywhere.”
Guzman does have one wish. He believes nothing is more “beautiful” than a neighborhood that mixes the old with the new. “Whoever decides to build, either the developer, the city, whoever is in power, should have some kind of regulations that say we need to make sure we can preserve some stuff, keep some businesses in place,” he says. “The city should really pay attention to these big guys coming in, Douglas, whoever, to at least mention and say, ‘Will you be able to keep me, a little business in there?’ That would be nice, for the city to get a little more involved.”
On preserving the old, Matthew Jemal of Douglas Development says, “We haven’t knocked down any of the buildings that we bought there. We’ve renovated what was there. We took a vacant warehouse and put in 330 apartments, so that’s probably 800 people living in the building. We brought really good retailers and bars to the neighborhood.”
Guzman hoped Louis’ Restaurant would one of the businesses that told the story of old Ivy City. Now that responsibility falls to others. Omar Hakeem, the design director of buildingcommunityWORKSHOPis trying to help. The Texas-based nonprofit seeks “design justice through community engagement.” He calls community meetings in neighborhoods undergoing transitions where participants use art as a mechanism for uncovering issues.
The most recent meeting on Nov. 7 attracted 250 people. “We created a large neighborhood sign that I just installed on Tuesday that’s all about galvanizing the identity of that place—recognizing it’s a place that’s eclectic, a mixed place, but you just can’t separate out the fact that it’s historically a modest, African-American community,” Hakeem says.
Guzman has been involved. “We started working with a few people that are really invested in the neighborhood, and Jose Luis is one of them,” Hakeem says. “I was really sad to hear about the restaurant closing, not just because of it being his livelihood, but because of what that means for the neighborhood.”
Hakeem continues to say what’s happening in Ivy City is a microcosm of what’s happening throughout District. “We have to ask ourselves, what is the District going to look like in next 10 years, who are we building this place for?” he says. “You look at the demographics of the types of places being put in Ivy City and they don’t match the demographics of the people who have lived there for many years.”
He thinks Louis’ Restaurant customers will drive to the gas station located where Mt. Olivet Road NE meets West Virginia Avenue NE to find cheap food. “Louis’ Restaurant is the last place you can get breakfast for $4.95,” he says. “And, I just think it’s a really fitting example of what’s happening across the city.”