Why are there no decent restaurants east of the Anacostia River?
Some restaurateurs might tell you that average household income isn’t as high as it is elsewhere, or that there’s not enough daytime traffic or density. But the biggest factor? East of the river has an image problem. “Brokers or property owners sell the hype,” says restaurant broker John Asadoorian of Asadoorian Retail Solutions, who’s helped find locations for restaurants like Dolcezza, Pete’s Apizza, DGS Delicatessen, and Le Diplomate. But Anacostia or Congress Heights or Benning? Not a lot of hype. “If you step off a plane at Reagan [National] Airport, chances are you’ve heard of 14th Street. But if you step off a plane at National Airport and somebody says to you, ‘Hey, there’s this new shopping center being built over by Skyland.’ They’ll be like, ‘Where?’” Asadoorian sells his clients on 14th Street NW, because, well, everybody’s talking about it.
But aside from “hot streets,” brokers also direct restaurateurs to underserved areas. “There is opportunity,” Asadoorian says of Anacostia. “But there are other areas where the opportunity is greater, and people are more focused on that.” Plus, developers and real estate brokers aren’t selling east of the river neighborhoods the way they market Barracks Row, Shaw, Bloomingdale, Capitol Riverfront, H Street NE, U Street NW, or the Union Market area. “I, for one, don’t get any flyers or information. No one’s selling me a story,” Asadoorian says. “I don’t know of any availabilities. I don’t have anybody telling me why I should bring my clients over there.” As a result, Asadoorian says east of the river locations don’t even come up when he meets with his clients about potential locations. “That’s why 14th Street is so saturated. There’s so many people selling the story.”
Domku owner Kera Carpenter is one restaurateur who is venturing east of the river. In the coming weeks, she plans to open Nurish Food + Drink inside the Anacostia Arts Center. In addition to selling sandwiches and salads, the cafe will operate a training program for high school students and recent graduates in Anacostia who are interested in becoming food entrepreneurs. She agrees that there’s a perception problem where restaurateurs feel the area lacks the income levels they’d need to support their business, or that they wouldn’t be able to draw patrons from the rest of the region. “There are a lot of uncertainties, including stereotypes of the populations that live on that side of the river,” Carpenter says. But she believes many of the perceptions are inaccurate. “People east of the river want the same things that people west of the river want. They want to have access to good restaurants, to good coffee shops, to good retail, to culture, to a variety of options close by. Why wouldn’t somebody in Anacostia want to be able to get a decent cup of coffee or have dinner with wine in their own neighborhood? And the answer to that is, they do.”
Carpenter isn’t the only one trying to make a change to the dining scene east of the river. Uniontown Bar & Grill, one of the few full-service restaurants, reopened under new ownership this summer, and Andy Shallal has long talked about opening a Busboys & Poets there (though there’s no lease yet). Most recently, longtime gay bar DC Eagle revealed plans to open a restaurant and dance bar with capacity for 800 people on Benning Road NE. And as residents of Dupont and Logan Circle may tell you, today’s gayborhood is tomorrow’s development hotspot.