City Paper is not for tourists
I have a confession to make: Despite my best efforts, there are some restaurants in the District where I have yet to dine after eight years of living and working here. That’s why, whenever there’s a lull in the gauntlet of new restaurant openings, I pause to take stock of what I’ve missed. It turns out, I’ve long neglected Dupont Circle. Which got me thinking—why is that?
D.C. diners, myself included, have turned our collective attention east—towards the 14th Street Corridor, Shaw, Bloomingdale, and the Atlas District—casting Dupont in the shadows. There, restaurants that have been operating for 10, 20, even 40 years, are hanging on despite myriad factors working against them.
One of the most neglected strips of restaurants is at the north end of the circle on Connecticut Avenue, home to Mourayo, La Tomate, Bistro Bistro, Madrid Restaurant, Bistrot Du Coin, and Alero. “It’s become a forgotten corner,” says Natalina Koropoulos, the owner of both Mourayo and La Tomate, which opened in 2004 and 1987, respectively. She says Dupont, Georgetown, and Cleveland Park have been pummeled the hardest by the competition from other neighborhoods. “Most of the restaurants don’t have anybody at nine o’clock,” she continues. “They say whatever goes down comes up, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen.”
A Friday night visit to Koropoulos’ Mourayo finds one dormant dining room and one full dining room outfitted in faux portholes and Chihuly-like colorful ceramic wall hangings. There isn’t a millennial in sight, gabbing about the new cidery that opened in Truxton Circle or the line at Bad Saint. Rather, groups of older diners pour Greek wine for each other and slice into lamb chops. It’s fun to swipe warm pita triangles in a trilogy of Greek dips, and the butternut squash keftedes also please. Business isn’t booming, but there’s a beat.
Bill McLeod, the executive director of Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets, is pleased to see D.C. revitalizing, but agrees with Koropoulos that Dupont dining is struggling. “The downside is these longtime businesses have kind of been forgotten. They’re not the first choice anymore because people want to go visit what’s new,” McLeod says.
McLeod says Dupont Circle’s “intimate boutique” restaurants have a much smaller footprint than restaurants on 14th Street or in Shaw because they occupy Victorian row homes. In comparison, restaurants like Le Diplomate, Provision No. 14, Espita, and Convivial sprawl. “Big mega restaurants are definitely the trend, but trends come and go,” he says.
Competition from enticing new dining neighborhoods isn’t the only challenge Dupont restaurants face. “Our nights end a lot earlier,” says Scion Restaurant owner Joanne Liu, because fewer people go out in Dupont than they used to. Ever since the craft beer–focused restaurant opened in 2009, Liu’s strategy has been to attract a neighborhood crowd by dangling specials like $6 burgers on Tuesdays. But the neighborhood population is dwindling.
“We’ve lost some [customers] through the years because people only have one- or two-year leases; that actually makes a big difference,” Liu says. “People are starting to not choose Dupont as a place to live.” She says when leases come up for renewal, Dupont denizens are fleeing to trendier neighborhoods. “As much as we love being where we are, unless people visit our area it will be tougher.”
Dupont restaurants also rely on tourists and convention-goers, but those populations are diminishing too, according to Koropoulos. “The trend I’ve seen in the neighborhood since 2009 is that we’ve lost a lot of hotels that used to have conventions,” she says. “We’ve lost them to the Convention Center.”
Since the new Marriott Marquis is next door, conference attendees stay there for convenience instead of fanning out to smaller hotels. Marriott is also behind the Gaylord National Harbor Resort, another conference-hosting behemoth that Koropoulos says is pulling would-be diners away.
The hits keep coming. Sit-down Dupont restaurants are seeing lunch business dwindle. Since 2009, Koropoulos says, “The number of people that come into work has not increased because there are no new buildings, so the pie is becoming bigger and bigger.”
Liu shuts down lunch service at Scion in the summer and notes that across the street, Urbana stopped serving weekday lunch altogether. “A lot of the fast casuals have come in to take advantage of daytime lunch hours,” Liu says. Lunch at Scion “takes an hour, so if you don’t have an hour, it’s easier to grab something quick” by going elsewhere. “Not having that lunch shift hurts.”
Pesce, on the same strip of P Street NW, does stay open during lunch. Régine Palladin owns the veteran restaurant of more than 20 years. If you recognize that name, it’s because she’s the widow of famed French Chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who opened Jean-Louis at the Watergate nearly 40 years ago.
A Friday lunch reveals a full, sunny front dining room but an empty bar and back dining room. A shame given what’s coming out of the kitchen: a textbook sear on butterfish that perhaps only Eric Ripert could best at Le Bernardin; tuna tartare with all the right accents; and a gourmand take on popcorn shrimp. Pesce’s fish arrives daily, which is why they use chalkboards instead of menus and sometimes run out of menu items.
Pesce fights on, but the influx of fast casual eateries like Cava Grill, Beefsteak, The Little Beet, and Little Sesame is another blow to more formal dining establishments because they attract time-strapped diners with speed without sacrificing quality.
While quick bite eateries are du moment, Dupont’s also lacking the kind of flashy new restaurants that draw critics and the accompanying foot traffic—save for a stretch of 17th Street that’s home to tastemakers like Little Serow, Komi, and Sushi Taro. On that street sits Floriana, a 40-year-old Italian bistro known for its family-recipe lasagna that got its start on Wisconsin Avenue before settling into its location off Dupont Circle.
The last review Floriana received from the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema was in November 2011, but general manager James Branda says the restaurants they share the block with attract enough of a crowd to put Floriana on the map. “The most common thing we hear is ‘I’ve been walking past this place for years, why didn’t I come sooner?’”
The atmosphere was jubilant during a Wednesday evening meal—the patio was full of girlfriends and couples glugging half-price rosé and twirling pasta. The caprese salad featured the summer’s best tomatoes and two pasta dishes—short rib ravioli and blobby gnocchi studded with sausage, chorizo, and corn—satisfied. The restaurant’s namesake, Floriana Nestore, may have retired to Mexico after selling the restaurant to her son, but she would be proud of the service provided by experienced waiter Marco Miletti.
Branda says Miletti goes above and beyond for guests. “There’s a guy who came in every Monday and Tuesday, he tells Marco what he wants for dinner that night and [Marco will] go to Whole Foods to get the ingredients for whatever he wants,” Branda explains.
That’s the magic of Dupont Circle’s under-the-radar restaurants—they put the customer first, positioning themselves to cultivate a loyal following while new-restaurant-checklist-diners are busy ticking off the latest and greatest “chef-driven” concepts. “Our controlling principle is we’re here for you, not the other way around,” Branda says. It’s a mantra he repeats at pre-shift meetings. “As long as your staff remembers that, you’ll be fine.”
Consistency in terms of service, price, and cuisine are key. Bistrot Du Coin co-owner Michel Verdon has found success by keeping prices low and food consistent, despite rising rent costs. “After 16 years, we still fill up every night,” he says. “If you give good food at a fair price and try to be in the middle—not at the top, not at the bottom—diners will come back for consistency.”
The French bistro’s dining room is full of people merrily clinking glasses of inexpensive bubbly during a Tuesday night dinner. At a neighboring table, two twenty-somethings take their seats and are enamored before a server even touches their table. “I love the feel of this. The vibe is very good,” says a woman with a ring in her nose. “I’m going to come back here already.”
Is Bistrot Du Coin perfect? No. There are a few abandoned seafood shells on the floor; there’s no sear on a greyish steak; and the dining room feels eerie because dim yellow lights cast a filter that looks like iPhone night mode. But the mussels are divine, the twice-fried frites are addictive, and the restaurant’s earnest fight to keep costs down is appreciated. “Our pour is almost six ounces,” boasts the bargain wines-by-the-glass list.
About the competition, Verdon says, “There’s room for everybody, that’s one of the reasons I came to D.C.” Maybe, he theorizes, 14th Street’s boom is a blessing in disguise. “It’s going to take some businesses out, but c’est la vie, you have to make yourselves better and make everybody happy.” CP
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