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All that’s left of Laval’s is the sign. Red and white and direct, affixed above a strip mall along Alabama Avenue SE, it still advertises a rare promise for the neighborhood.
“LAVAL’S GOOD FOOD TO GO
Below, there is only a gray, ashy shell of a storefront. Inside, workers squat over electrical wires and bang away at the floors and walls; the place smells like dust. There is nothing left of Laval Sanks’ soul-food restaurant. Nothing of the $90,000 he sunk into the place. No custom green-marble-laminate tables. No birch-wood trim. No signed African art on the walls.
Unlike on his sign, Sanks’ eat-in restaurant didn’t get second billing inside. When he opened in January 2003, his tables had top-of-the-line amenities: glass, china, silver, linen napkins. The surrounding neighborhood, he says, which includes the new Henson Ridge town-home development, embraced him. Former Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen became a regular.
But fine dining wasn’t enough to buffer the effects of Hurricane Isabel, which killed the restaurant’s electricity for a week. Nor could the restaurant withstand hits to its catering contracts or a dispute with the landlord over the water bill and unexpected infrastructure costs.
“In order to survive in the restaurant business anywhere, you need more than just the neighborhood people,” Sanks says. “Southeast is Southeast. That’s all it is. There was nothing wrong with the restaurant.”
Laval’s closed in February 2005. It has since joined a landscape spooked with the ghosts of long-dead sit-down restaurants—parking lots abandoned, bathrooms padlocked, windows covered in plywood.
People don’t power-lunch in Ward 8. For the most part, people who eat out communicate over Styrofoam trays at bus stops, on stoops, in cars—inevitably lukewarm, fried, and hurried. Some may sit and have breakfast at Cole’s Cafe or lunch at Player’s, but the community’s bigwigs don’t count those as sit-down restaurants. When they think of sit-downs, they’re thinking of chains that have long stacked the suburbs. “I count sit-down as Outback, Applebee’s,” says James Bunn of the Ward 8 Business Council. “I want to go to someplace where I really enjoy—Red Lobster, Applebee’s. My cultural restaurants.”
Ward 8’s culinary culture right now is the carryout. Carryouts occupy the ruins of sit-downs like squatters, taking up only as much room as it takes to sell a jumbo cheeseburger through a slab of bulletproof glass. The rest of the space the owners leave alone—the expanse of graying tiles, the bathroom doors painted over to blend in with the walls, the rooms for seating darkened and gated.
The door to Sunny’s Carry-Out, at the corner of 13th Street and Good Hope Road SE, is kept open by two wire hangers tied to a latch on the wall. The interior gives way to a large empty front room where a previous owner had set up tables and chairs. Now the room is kept cold and bare. The owner’s 7-year-old son has made only one addition to the vast space: a plastic Fisher-Price basketball hoop. In the evenings, grown men and women use the space as a bus stop. They huddle in the far corner, drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and wait for the P2 or P6.
Across town, at Barnaby Street and Wheeler Road SE, a sub shop has converted a fast-food restaurant, turning the sit-down area into a stockroom for sodas and Styrofoam. Farther south, in the middle of an old lot, sits China Southern in what used to be another fast-food place. No one is sure which chain. Now it’s a carryout with the rest of the space covered in painted-over boards. Mike Cheung, who used to own the place and still pitches in, says beyond those boards is “nothing right now.”
“Nothing right now” is the easy way out. A carryout is a simple cash machine. All you have to do is know how to fry wings and make a decent jumbo sub, and you’ll make money. Add seats, and you risk failure. You are telling patrons to expect more.
An empty restaurant is a lot more empty than a carryout. And a lot more expensive—more health-code standards and more upkeep. With its lease of $3,300 per month, Laval’s closed because it couldn’t sustain the cost of those seats; the building’s landlord says its replacement will be “like a dollar store.”
None of the complications of seating come up when politicians make their perennial pitch for sit-down fare in Ward 8. When Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. gave his state-of-the-ward address recently, he bemoaned the lack of sit-down restaurants and tablecloth dining for his constituents. He repeated this gripe at a Ward 8 Business Council meeting on March 21, then made a typical promise.
Standing before a conference room packed with community developers and activists, Barry mentioned that he’s had talks with Denny’s after declaring: “We still don’t have a sit-down restaurant….We might have one in 60 to 90 days—white tablecloth.”
The white tablecloth is the holy grail for Ward 8 pols. Every local leader plays the restaurant issue, explains Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a neighborhood gadfly himself. “It’s an indicator that our quality of life is not where it’s supposed to be,” he says, echoing the sentiments of years’ worth of councilmembers and community activists.
But in the past few years, the ward’s fledgling restaurateurs have taken baby steps toward a sit-down revival. They’ve added plastic chairs here, a bench there, a donated table here. And despite Barry’s claims, there is even a tablecloth.
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These low-rent sit-downs haven’t brought out the old fanfare. No politician has seized the opportunity to declare the dawning of a new day in Ward 8.
But no one needs another new day. Just a place to sit and eat.
The Pizza Place, 2910 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE
Inside her pizza joint, Janet Manning used to have a big, round, hard-plastic table. An employee—an “Italian guy,” she says—wanted to get it out of his house, so he positioned the table against the restaurant’s front window. Napkins and newspapers made up a centerpiece. There were white plastic chairs that went with the plastic table. If you were skinny enough or persistent enough, you could wedge yourself into a seat and pretend that the shop’s small entrance was a decent dining room.
“It was pretty good,” Manning says. “It served a purpose. People could sit. They could lay their bags on the [table].”
But Manning, 51, noticed that it took up too much space. Customers had a hard time just getting to the slit in her bulletproof glass to order their pizza slices. And Manning says people tended to linger. “Our aim is really for people to get your food and get out,” she explains.
A few months ago, Manning got rid of the table and replaced it with an orange plastic laminate two-seater with a connected table. She had purchased a handful of these sets for $1,000 from a Baltimore supply store in the hopes of expanding. The rest have been put in storage.
Below the hanging pots of fake flowers and bright Monet prints of picnic and sailing scenes, Manning has posted a flier that reads: “DEAR CUSTOMERS: THIS BENCH IS PLACED HERE FOR SENORS AND YOU AS A COURTESY WHILE WAITING TO BE SERVED. ACCORDING TO THE LICENSING BOARD, YOU MUST NOT SIT HERE TO EAT. YOUR CORPORATION IS NEEDED. THANKS SO MUCH.”
The two-seater all but assures compliance. It can barely fit one person, a sub, an orange soda, and spicy fries. Napkins are nowhere to be found. If you ask politely, the old man behind the cash register will make a big ceremony about your request, jerking open the security gate with a piece of rope tied to the lock and letting out a sigh before handing over the napkins. Reading material consists of a stack of Avon catalogs. Manning says only one customer regularly eats at the two-seater—Francis Stewart, 47.
On a recent weekday evening, Stewart hovers over his table at Pizza Place. There is a lot of fidgeting with his ratty windbreaker pockets and adjusting his worn jeans before he finally feels OK enough to slide his tall, skinny frame into a seat. On the table, he’s laid out his food in a neat row—a half-wrapped piece of yellow cake, a napkin, and a small square of aluminum foil containing the last bites of a beef patty.
The chair setup goes a long way toward easing the stress of Stewart’s unstable living arrangements, which at the time was a shelter in St. Elizabeths. He says what he likes most about the two-seater is that he can leave his mail and plastic-bagged belongings there while he runs his errands.
Still, Stewart mourns the loss of the larger table. That table was the center of his world. “It was wonderful,” he explains. “It would be nice. Everyone could come in here, six, seven of us. Sit here. Have some fun. This table is so small you can’t get your arms around it.”
The little table means fewer people hanging out. Middle-aged men now stand outside the Pizza Place to talk and smoke cigarettes. Stewart will sit alone in a doorway of the adjacent abandoned storefront. When that doesn’t catch any courtesy hellos, he’ll walk back inside the empty restaurant. He says he’s lobbied Manning’s husband to bring back the big table.
“I’m pretty sure he’s given some thought to getting a nice round table,” Stewart says. And “if we could pee, it would be nice.”
Chick’ N Trout, 3933 South Capitol Street SW
Along the right wall of this all-purpose carryout joint on South Capitol Street SW, patrons have a variety of seating options: a trio of high-backed dining room chairs, three iron lawn chairs with foam padding taped to their backs, and two forlorn wooden office chairs.
Not that the hungry take much notice. “I don’t be here that long, so I never think about the seats,” explains one customer choosing one of the dining room chairs while waiting on an order on a Tuesday afternoon. Some people will eat in those seats, but that rarely happens. A lot of people ignore them altogether, giving their orders and then walking outside to hang out front.
That same afternoon, two other customers wait out their orders in the office and dining-room seats, staring straight ahead at the menus advertising incredibly cheap specials and at the griddle, with its sizzling mounds of shredded steak. The seats aren’t arranged for conversation.
“I want people to feel comfortable,” the Chick’ N Trout boss explains. She refuses to give her name. “Better than standing. I feel comfortable. They feel comfortable. Both.”
But talking about the chairs is, well, not comfortable. When I ask about the origins of the chairs, the Chick’ N Trout woman narrows her eyes and steps back a bit. “I feel uncomfortable,” she says, shaking her head.
“Why you talk about chairs?” she asks. “What is very important?”
Younis’ Pizzeria, 1243 Good Hope Road SE
Along the wall and in the front entrance of his pizzeria, Mustafa Younis has arranged a set of white plastic deck chairs, red-white-and-green-painted benches, and tables topped with vinyl. One table is wedged against an unused refrigerated display case. The case comes up against the broken front window bearing a painted cartooonlike rendering of the owner and signs boasting the “Best….Gyros in town” and the unexplained “DIAL-A-SPECIAL.” The rest of the tables are placed in one long row along the right wall as if Younis is anticipating a party of 10 to arrive at any moment.
It’s an optimistic setup for the Italian eatery’s tight storefront. Younis, 59, has had some kind of seating arrangement since he opened the day after Thanksgiving weekend in 1988. He says he expected the strip to become the next Adams Morgan; the tables and chairs represent Younis’ attempt to meet the impending rush of customers. But that hasn’t happened yet. The owner estimates that about three to seven people will eat inside his restaurant per day. The rest of the joint’s activity comes from sporadic carryout customers, delivery calls, and the owner’s eager attempts at small talk with anybody who wanders inside.
From behind the counter, Younis looks dismissively at his plastic chairs, a relatively new and cheap addition. A patron has to rearrange jammed tables and chairs before choosing a seat. “It could be better,” he says.
“I have a dining room upstairs,” Younis adds. But it’s gone unused, he says, because he couldn’t get a liquor license. “You can’t have a dining room with Italian food without liquors.”
“The place can look much better,” Younis says.
It is late in the afternoon, a Tuesday. After a long dead spell, two women enter the restaurant. They’ve come from Mount Rainier, Md., for Younis’ homemade iced tea. “It has all these natural things in it,” one explains. “You think over here, you going to get ghetto juice.”
Younis makes his iced tea with ginger, honey, cinnamon, and herbs—a Middle Eastern variation on sweet tea. The women stand and drink their beverages. Younis offers them each free refills.
The women, though, don’t stay long enough to lounge in the plastic chairs. “Maybe we’ll sit down in the summertime,” one says.
“It could look much better than this,” Younis says after the two women leave.
Hong Kong Delite, 3123 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE
The bench is bad news. Most of Hong Kong Delite’s teenage customers choose to avoid it—better to be walking to and from the counter, back to the sidewalk, along the fence, anywhere but trapped on that bench inside. Even if it means enduring the boys outside, who’ve sparked a joint, its smoke wafting back into the small room.
Customers start lining up inside the carryout just after 3 p.m. Fish and chips. Three wings with mambo sauce.
“It’s hot as shit,” says one girl, strutting out the door, unable to wait for her food inside. “It’s like a slave boat or something.”
Eight dudes are outside with a basketball, chanting “What’s up?” to every girl who walks past their gaze.
Inside it’s quiet. And then it’s not. Eleven girls walk in at once, all talking to one another or yapping on shiny silver cell phones. The place is known as “Ballou’s carryout” for a reason.
Two girls take a seat on the bench inside. It is the only place to sit. Sitting is not a good idea.
One girl, standing in line, starts to make fun of a girl on the bench, namely for the fact that the seated girl’s complexion is not as light as her own and that it’s making the carryout too hot: “You know black people get in here—all hot as shit. Got to be black.” The heckler and the heckled both leave.
A shrimp basket. Fries. Egg roll. Jumbo cheeseburger combo. Pepsi.
The remaining girl sitting on the bench is there for a reason—she’s trying to cadge a dollar from her peers. A boy stares at her, a sly smile creasing his face, and makes like he’s inspecting her. “That’s how my face looks,” the girl snaps back. The boy laughs and turns away.
Some kids have sat long enough to carve names into the bench (“Lil Trouble”) or peel away some of the brown paint. Or stab a fork into a pile of fries. But they never sit long enough to eat a full meal. A few days earlier, a boy started into his steak-and-cheese standing up, eating at the small shelf lining the Plexiglas. Two kids, playing tag, decided that touching any wall meant you were safe from being tagged “it”; the only place they agreed was not safe was the bench. Today, a girl chooses to eat her fried shrimp standing up next to the cash register.
The bench is for losers.
Like me. After taking a seat for maybe 30 seconds, I am greeted by a boy who looks about 9 years old. He walks up to my side. He extends his right hand and quietly asks if I’m OK.
Secrets of Nature, 3923 South Capitol St. SW
On March 4, Coy Dunston introduced the only cloth-covered table in Ward 8. The table, situated against a pair of windows in the health-food-store owner’s new dining room, represents what Dunston hopes will be an opulent setting for guest lectures and community meetings. And a way to induce more residents to try his chef’s mock-meat specialties.
Dunston purchased two small chairs—a size comfortable for only schoolchildren—for $25 from a wholesale liquidator. Those chairs were then given purple-and-black-floral seat cushions and mini pillows. The small faux-marble table that accompanies them was topped with a light-gold tablecloth and a centerpiece made of a yellow plate, scattered pale-purple glass chips, and a glass bowl, inside of which rests a teardrop-shaped orb and an erect stick of incense. The inaugural tablecloth, purchased from Pier 1 Imports, cost $8.
The setup was created by friend and former ANC Commissioner Richard T. Clark. “I tried to stay on the natural side,” Clark explains of his design decisions. “We’re trying to keep all natural colors.”
The table is positioned against the front wall of the dining room adjacent to Dunston’s health-food store and kitchen. He opened the room late last fall, filling it with donated tables and chairs. Its ambience is still being worked out. There is the competing hum of a freezer and the feel of a too-bright stockroom, with its clutch of unloaded crates of vegetables, a metal rack of sweatshirts, a dead TV on the floor, a framed world map propped against a wall, and stacks of dusty VHS tapes marked “Sudanese Embassy,” “Kauai Lagoons Hawaii Memories,” and “Gifted Hands.”
Dunston, 58, is constantly feeding the VCR an endless loop of these tapes for lunchtime patrons to watch on the big television situated next to the clothes rack. The customers take seats at small, bare tables and chairs in the center of the room near the screen. The new gold table looks ceremonial.
“Gold is an indicator of luxury, of pleasure,” Dunston explains. “The purple is the indication of royalty. We wanted to convey the feeling of power and richness and worthiness to the customer.”
Six days after the table made its debut, Dunston admits, no customer has ventured to sit at it. “We haven’t opened it yet,” he bullshits. “That’s for VIPs when they come.”
After a moment of hyping the dining room’s future additions of porcelain and fine china, Dunston realizes I’m not buying his reasons for why the golden table is being ignored by his faithful.
“They’re not used to anything being that nice yet,” he says. “Most people want to sit and watch the videos. They like to sit a little close to the TV. It takes getting used to. It takes awhile to change.”
Within the following week, customers begin to migrate to Dunston’s marquee table. But he’s decided to hold off on adding more tablecloths. Dunston went to Barry’s state-of-the-ward address and listened to the councilmember announce a multimillion-dollar plan to raze the 3900 block of South Capitol Street—Dunston’s block. His storefront and the rest of the humble strip could potentially be replaced with new retail and affordable housing.
“I don’t know what to do,” Dunston says. “I’m not going to put money in if he plans to tear it down. It’s very shocking to me….I’ve invested my life here.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.