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In Old Town, size matters.
You can’t swing a pimentón-scented Spanish sausage in the District without hitting some restaurant serving small plates. It’s apparently a whole ’nother story in Old Town Alexandria, where even the restaurants seem to embrace the district’s historic, old-school status. It’s an apps-and-entrees kind of spot. At least that’s the message the Lebanese Taverna Group has received.
LTG opened 100 King in December, but less than a year into its existence, the restaurant has overhauled its menu to de-emphasize the Mediterranean meze that was its calling card. Chef Denis Soriano, last seen at the Willard Room, has added five new main courses and pumped up the volume on a number of meze dishes in order to move them over to the entrée side of the menu, whose choices are now evenly divided between small and large plates.
“We thought if we put more larger plates [on the menu], it will attract more guests to our restaurant, because not everybody is a fan of the small plates,” says general manager Rita Ghattas. “I think Old Town is more conservative, and they like traditional stuff. Maybe they don’t like to try new things.”
Ghattas says the change is not related to a slump in sales but to a need to “grow” the business. I’ve been to 100 King on four different occasions—granted, each visit was during off-peak hours—and it was practically a ghost town in there every time. I have to conclude there is something else rotting in the state of 100 King. While Soriano’s kitchen has its off moments (calamari left in the fryer too long, a flavorless zucchini cake), I don’t believe the problem lies with the menu. It’s the space: a cool, concrete environment with all the warmth of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. I feel like I need a parka when I dine there. The ambience doesn’t exactly jibe with the warm, earthy flavors of Mediterranean cuisine.
Should It Stay or Should It Go?
The Washingtonian’s Todd Kliman says Palena is moving “within the next year” to the Blaine Mansion, the historic brick structure just off Dupont Circle. The Post’s Tom Sietsema quotes Palena chef and co-owner Frank Ruta, who says the move is “news to me.” Who to believe?
Here’s the situation: Ruta would like to move, even though he still has five years left on his lease at Palena’s Cleveland Park location. His current spot has problems, but he says he’s only willing to move to the right place. Ruta hasn’t even inspected the potential space at Blaine Mansion, for good reason: The proposed location is actually behind the mansion, in a series of storefronts that houses a florist, a hardware store, and a bike shop. All three will be moving out soon, likely in November, so Blaine owner John R. Phillips (a Palena investor) can begin renovating the space. Transforming the retail spots into a restaurant, however, would take some serious work and some serious cash, none of which has been raised yet. Or even talked about.
But the biggest hurdle is a little thing called the West Dupont Circle Moratorium Zone, which the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board agreed to extend in 2005 for another five years. The moratorium caps the number of retail liquor licenses in West Dupont at 30. All of them are currently issued, says Maria Delaney, director of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. The only way for Ruta then to secure a license in West Dupont is to convince an existing restaurant to sell its license, wait for a current holder to cancel (or not renew) a license, or see if a license gets revoked. No restaurant licenses are currently under protest in the area, Delaney adds.
“There’s a lot to think about. That’s why I say it could be two or three years down the road, maybe five,” Ruta says. “It’s so premature. It’s not like [Phillips] said, ‘OK, get ready to pack up.’”
The High Price of Parking
The parking lot at the Eden Center is always packed on the weekends, to the point where visitors often can’t find a space. To the owner of the Vietnamese shopping center, the crowded lot is a sign of health. To the Lai family, owners of the most-recognized restaurant at Eden, it’s one reason to leave.
As reported in last week’s story (“Exit From Eden,” 8/25), the owners of Huong Que/Four Sisters have signed a contract to move the restaurant next fall to a location at the corner of Gallows Road and Lee Highway in Falls Church. The Lai family has its reasons for splitting: The building is aging; the kitchen is too small; parking’s a constant problem. Then there’s the issue of rent, which retailers throughout Eden complain is too high. “Yes, the rent is very high,” says Huong Que manager Le Lai. At the new location, the family will pay a lower rent—and get more for its money.
Alan Frank, vice president with Capital Commercial Properties, the privately held Boca Raton, Fla., company that owns the Eden Center, says he’s personally upset to see Huong Que go, but its absence won’t hurt the shopping mall. “The center’s so strong, it won’t impact it,” says Frank. “We don’t want to see them go. They’re very, very good tenants, and I consider them friends.”
Frank deflects all criticism about rents. “There’s a waiting list of people, likely tenants at Eden Center. I think if the rents were too high, then that wouldn’t be the situation,” he says. Besides, rents are high for a reason, he adds, “especially at Eden Center. It’s so successful, and it is the place for a Vietnamese business. You can’t park there, it’s so full. I think that speaks for itself.”—Tim Carman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x466.