Deep inside the Woodner building, Fio’s Italian Restaurant serves its neighborhood clientele traditional Italian fare in all shapes and sizes. But Woodner residents want three squares a day.
Photographs by Charles Steck
Jean Meall has appointed herself guardian of the Woodner apartment building’s regal history. A stylish, petite woman from Savannah, Ga., who’s partial to vibrant pink lipstick, Meall has lived in the upper 16th Street NW building since 1966—except for a brief stint in the Quebec House in Cleveland Park, which she found “lonesome.” From her vantage point in an efficiency apartment on the second floor of the gigantic structure, Meall has watched over the years as the onetime Woodner Hotel has become one of the city’s most diverse apartment buildings.
She keeps copies of old menus from the building’s now-defunct Regency Room, the majestic Woodner hall overlooking Rock Creek Park where she and her husband-to-be danced and courted back in the ’50s to the big-band sounds of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
She keeps the program of the play Gold in the Hills by J. Frank Davis, which made its premiere at the Woodner Little Theatre in 1974, starring Meall as “Lizzie Jones, a housekeeper.” She keeps fond mementos of her neighbor of 20 years, Roberta Smith, who passed away after 31 years as a Woodner telephone operator. And she keeps visiting her buddy Larry Lazzaro, the white-haired beautician at the Beau Monde Coiffures salon in the building’s lobby. He’s been doing Meall’s upswept white ‘do for 25 years now.
Meall can mine nostalgia from just about every corner of this landmark building, with one exception: Fio’s Italian Restaurant, a windowless hive popular with the gentrifying Mount Pleasant crowd.
Meall has been turning up her nose at Fio’s every day since it opened, in 1978. She does not take her grandchildren there for Sunday brunch when they come to visit. She does not stop in for a quick lunch or an afternoon coffee with friends. Meall won’t even drop in for a plate of spaghetti come evening.
For Meall, it all goes back to the cocktail-lounge spat.
“[Fio] closed up the lounge,” she recalls, getting a glint in her eye and a firm set to her mouth at the thought of Fio’s owner, Fiorenzo Vasaio.
The Beverly Cocktail Lounge drew its customers not only from permanent residents like Meall but from the Woodner’s hotel guests—glamorous types who stayed there while performing at the nearby Carter Barron Amphitheatre. The lounge was one of the quirks that had made the half-hotel, half-apartments Woodner “a building of love,” according to a 1979 story in its now-defunct internal newsletter, the Woodner City News & Advertiser. There, Woodner residents drank and flirted and gawked at their temporary neighbors before grabbing one of the building’s elevators to their tiny apartments.
“The waitresses in the cocktail lounge were so glamorous. They wore the little boots and the little short dresses,” recalls Meall fondly of her early visits to the building, when the waitresses wore outfits designed by Patsy Cline. “Oh my goodness, at that time, you had the doormen with the white gloves and the taxis outside.”
But after the civil-rights convulsions of the late ’60s, the Jonathan Woodner Co. had to shut down the hotel, which had become cut off from the downtown area by the unrest. “As Washington has had its ups and downs, there’s no doubt this building has paralleled that exactly,” says Joseph W. Milby Jr., general manager of the Woodner. Instead of the likes of Jayne Mansfield, Harry Belafonte, and Duke Ellington—who all stayed at the Woodner in its heyday—by the late ’70s, the cocktail lounge had started to attract lounge lizards in leisure suits. “It was just kind of seedy—an unsavory site,” says Milby.
Even Meall admits that by then the building “had gone downhill….It was no longer a first-class hotel.” Still, for residents, the lounge remained a central gathering space, a place where they found community along with the occasional after-work martini or screwdriver. “The clientele was no longer as nice, but it was still a nice lounge,” insists Meall, who blames only Vasaio for the lounge’s demise. Today, the Woodner rental office operates out of the former bar.
“We don’t patronize [Fio’s]. None of us do. He’s never been friendly,” says Meall, speaking for her resident friends. “Outsiders. That’s who he caters to. People from outside the building. I’ve never known Fio. He was never friendly enough to know. He just didn’t like the building residents. But he’s lasted all these years because outsiders came in.”
Meall’s comments are a telling reflection of the Woodner’s old-timer feel: Although Vasaio has been around for 24 years, he still represents the building’s new guard.
Meall moved in during the building’s posher days, when she could put on her white organza ball gown with rhinestone straps and dance the night away. She and her husband would relax over cocktails at “the Wonderful Woodner Hotel” to the tinkling sounds of the in-house pianist.
When the hotel shut down and its rooms were converted into apartments, Meall and the other residents of the apartment half of the Woodner lost their hotel-related perks along with their claim to one of the more impressive addresses in the city. They lost their room service. Mail was no longer delivered directly to their doors and slipped though slots. The Regency Room’s restaurant on the fourth floor was gone. The Top-of-the-Park dining room on the 12th floor was shuttered.
And what they eventually got in exchange was Fio’s, which—after a brief, failed experiment serving three meals a day—served only dinner.
At the end of February, Meall will no longer have to come face to face with Fio’s every day. The restaurant is shutting down.
“What we want is a restaurant that will serve the building,” Milby says of the building’s hopes to attract a new full-service eatery to its off-the-beaten-track locale, right near where upper 16th Street spans the Piney Branch Parkway in an overpass unofficially known as the “Lion Bridge.” “Most of Fio’s clients come from outside.”
And therein lies the paradox of this gentrification tale. The commercial landscapes of resurging D.C. neighborhoods have generally bent to accommodate rich, white newcomers. Fresh Fields found its target demographic in Logan Circle. And high-priced condo developments are no longer news on the once-dicey fringes of Capitol Hill and Columbia Heights.
Fio’s end, though, marks a rare defeat for D.C.’s new tax base. A place loved by neighbors in Mount Pleasant, whose reputation draws deep-pocketed diners from as far away as Silver Spring and Alexandria, is closing down to make way for a more middlebrow restaurant that can serve the whole diverse population of the Woodner—from janitors and policemen to Ethiopian immigrants and students. And, of course, the elderly.
“I’m not sad at all,” says Meall.
When Vasaio takes a break from the steamy kitchen in his restaurant and leaves it in the capable hands of his assistant of 22 years, Arturo Rubio, he steps into an atrium like no other in town.
The bottom floor of the Woodner runs along the basic principles of an Italian city-state. The front lobby/lounge area functions as its plaza and town square. It is where the elderly residents of the building come to sit and chat during the day.
Some of the old folks draw the resentment of their contemporaries. “Some of these old people, they need to be in a nursing home. They peepee on the sofas. It’s embarrassing. We can’t have people over. They sit out there all day in the lobby, like a nursing home,” says Meall.
If there were pigeons, the geriatric set would feed the pigeons. But there are no pigeons, so they drift back and forth all day, from the front window to the side ones overlooking Rock Creek Park and the outdoor pool, stopping to chat with Lazzaro at Beau Monde after a cut and curl, or meeting up with old friends making a trip to the building’s grocery store. Toward evening, many of these older residents retire to their rooms. After dinner, young lovers come out to cuddle on the couch, engaging in the sort of public courtship common in plazas throughout Mexico and Spain.
The Woodner is so big that it’s hard to wrap your head around it—let alone get from its front door to your apartment on a broken hip. When it was built, in 1952, the Woodner was the largest air-conditioned building in the world. And it remains, to this day, the largest single-structure apartment building in Washington.
Only two of its six wings are visible from the street. It goes back, and back, and back again. It has two elevator banks, eight elevators, 1,089 apartments, and somewhere between 2,200 and 2,500 residents, according to Milby. Drive into the underground parking garage with its 24-hour attendants and you feel as if you’ve arrived at National Airport. Giant concrete columns with yellow markings soar to the roof. And don’t you dare try to park where you want—the attendant will assign you your spot, then charge you an hourly, daily, or monthly rate, depending on how long you stay. Oh, and Vasaio can validate your parking ticket before you leave, if you eat at his place.
When Vasaio leaves his restaurant, he enters the Woodner’s commercial corridor. He’ll visit the Woodner Grocery to the left of his restaurant, if he likes. But he probably won’t stop in there for a bottle of $3.99 wine—”wine to soak your feet in,” he calls it—or any of the many kinds of pork rinds sold by the place. He won’t pick up a movie at Woodner Video, to the right of his restaurant, a place that specializes in big-budget action flicks and children’s movies and is run by a sister-and-brother team of Ethiopian immigrants. Vasaio and his wife, Jean Vasaio, have no children.
Maybe Vasaio will stop by Beau Monde at the end of the hall, but he won’t be getting a manicure or haircut. Instead, he’ll talk to Lazzaro, another Italian immigrant and a friend of Vasaio’s for nearly a quarter of a century.
Or maybe he’ll go over and say hi to Edward Carrera, an Ecuadorean immigrant who’s lived in the Woodner for 29 years and who parks his wheelchair each night across the hall from the video store, near the lobby’s lounge area, where he can pay his regards to all the passers-by.
But Vasaio won’t wander much farther than that. Beyond the overstuffed chairs and sofa of the lounge lies distant territory: the Resident Services Office and a set of hallways, which lead to some of the Woodner’s other businesses. There are 21 of them, in all, including such improbable firms as the District headquarters of Avon Products Inc.; a day-care center run by Monica Guyot, wife of former Mayor Marion S. Barry’s buddy Lawrence Guyot; and the rented “Reading Room” for Eckankar, a New Age religion, filled with white plastic chairs set up as if for church.
Over by the lobby’s front desk, a wheelchair sits in the window, where it is one of the first things you see when you enter the building from the street. The wheelchair hasn’t been left there by a tenant by accident, though. It belongs to the building.
“Basically, we have a number of residents residing here, and most of them are very healthy,” a security guard for the building, a contract employee with Argenbright Security Inc., explains. “However, some of them are not so healthy, mostly because they are elderly. So sometimes, when they’re hospitalized and they return, they’re weak and they need a way to get from the front lobby to their apartment. The Woodner folks purchased a wheelchair for people who need a little assistance until they are strong.”
The Woodner goes about its business on one of the city’s most diverse blocks. According to Herb Bixhorn of the D.C. State Data Center, in April 2000, the Woodner’s vicinity housed 653 whites, 805 blacks, 147 Asians, 533 Hispanics, and 203 people of mixed racial background. Hang out in the Woodner lobby and you’ll hear voices conversing in Spanish, French, French Creole, English, and Amharic.
Despite the polyglot population, gossip manages to spread among all groups. “It’s like a small town,” says Milby.
And, as in any small town worth its salt, petty grudges link residents together in one snarling way or another. Vasaio, for example, requires little nudging to bad-mouth the old guard.
“I call them the Lobbyists,” says Vasaio. “They’re old, they’re bitter—maybe they’re at the end. They reminisce—’I should have done this. I should have done that.’ They have a void in their lives.”
Even Meall can’t stand some of the folks in her age group. “The management is wonderful and [the building’s] well-kept and clean, but the people have no class,” she says.
On a recent weekday afternoon, one bewigged elderly Woodner resident sits inelegantly in a lobby chair, her lips thrust forward in her collapsing face and a brown cane wedged between her legs. A middle-aged man maneuvers his mechanical wheelchair to a stop in the hall overlooking the pool, then spends hours staring out the window. And a bathrobe-clad man shuffles his walker from one end of the vast lobby to the other, finally sitting on the little bench near the front door—a vantage point from which he can watch people arrive and leave, busy with life.
“You don’t want to talk to him. He just moved here from the Roosevelt,” 80-year-old Alice Banks whispers to me when I ask her about him. She’s lived in the Woodner since 1967 but spends most of her time outside the building, thanks to her time-consuming volunteer position as the vice chair of the D.C. Republican Committee. “I don’t like to sit in the lobby,” she says, worrying that I might lump her in with the Lobbyists because of her age. “I don’t even know half these people’s names.”
Somewhere between the Lobbyists and those who look down on them sits Carrera—neat, clean, and wearing the same vest and slippers nearly every day. He jangles his keys, flirts with the young women, and kisses the little children. Everyone seems happy to see him, and to earn a “Que pase bien” or “How are you, my dear?” before disappearing into the elevator.
Vasaio calls him “the mayor of the Woodner.” The title seems appropriate—Carrera has mastered the civic-pitchman schtick.
“Here, it’s like being in a mall, a minimall. You see all kinds of people, even people from outside. Any conventional building, you come in the front door, you walk to the elevator a few feet, you don’t see anything,” he says. “Here, you got everything here, especially when the weather is bad.”
In late November, news of Fio’s impending shutdown leaked to the restaurant’s fan base. Among the first to learn was Mount Pleasant resident Jacquie Jackson, who found out through Vasaio himself while dining at his restaurant one night. In between cooking for other regulars and bringing plates of ceci e castigni (chickpeas and chestnuts, simmered in wine with herbs and served as an appetizer) out from the kitchen, he told her snippets of the tale.
Scandalized, Jackson wrote an e-mail to the Mount Pleasant Forum, an electronic mailing list, on Dec. 2 headlined: “FIO’S BEING FORCED OUT.”
Jackson’s bulletin contained all the knee-jerk impulses of activist outrage:
“For those of you that do not know, Fio’s is being forced out of business by the Woodner apartment building management,” Jackson wrote. “This restaurant is an icon in Mount Pleasant….The Woodner has decided to triple or quadruple Fio’s rent. Therefore, Fio will be forced to close by the end of February 2002. I, for one, am completely outraged by this. This is an obvious attempt to get rid of Fio for some reason, as I cannot imagine another restaurant surviving in his space…Fio’s survives only because he has built up a reputation over the years, and people drive in to go there. I encourage everyone to support Fio and show Joe Milby at the Woodner that Fio is important to our community and his loss would be felt by many.”
As e-mails tend to do, the missive made its way into the hands of the people identified as villains: the owners of the building, at the Jonathan Woodner Co. in New York. Sisters Andrea and Dian Woodner were disturbed by the charges against them, according to Milby. (The Woodner sisters declined to comment for this article. “It is a very sensitive time within our company,” Milby later explained in a letter.)
Vasaio says that he didn’t see the e-mail until mid-January, at which time he called up Jackson to give her a piece of his mind. The real story, Vasaio said, was that he had kept good relations with management going back to the days when the building was run by the Woodner sisters’ brother, Jonathan, who died in a plane crash in 1988.
Jonathan Woodner was the young prince of the Woodner city-state—dashing, handsome, and loaded. He raced Formula 5000 race cars that he and three British mechanics would work on in a special garage under the Woodner. He built kit planes and mingled with minor European royalty. And he always had time for Vasaio, going so far as to help him take apart and fix a broken garbage disposal late one Friday night. Vasaio considered him a friend—and considered the time when he was alive to be the building’s best years. “It was like a mini-Camelot,” Vasaio says. “He was moltosympatica. A beautiful person. Everything changed when he died.”
Vasaio still keeps Woodner’s Washington Post obituary—April 26, 1988—in the kitchen. And a picture of Woodner hangs at Fio’s, placed prominently above the photos of friends and family—and a signed Dana Delany headshot—that decorate one wall.
Vasaio didn’t want all those good memories ruined on account of some stupid e-mail. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” says Vasaio of Jackson.
Jackson has started to back away from her accusations. “Fio is upset with me because he doesn’t want to create any kind of ruckus. There are rumors that he put me up to it—which is completely untrue,” she says. “I’m just a neighbor and a customer.”
“I had no idea that this was going to happen,” Jackson adds. “I sent an e-mail that was 10 lines long, and the next thing, the shit hit the fan. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. Basically, the Woodner has every right to charge whatever they want, but Fio’s is like an icon. It’s been there so long and it has such a history. It was more like, an icon is being displaced.”
Mount Pleasant Forum moderator Robert Frazier says the e-mail got people in the neighborhood talking about the restaurant’s demise. And the prospect of a full-service restaurant targeted solely toward Woodner residents doesn’t particularly excite them.
“It would be cool if they had a Saturday/ Sunday-brunch kind of place, both for the residents and the neighborhood,” says Frazier. “I’m afraid it’s going to be some low-end restaurant that’s not going to be really popular with anybody. They should probably reassess how many lunches and breakfasts they really will serve there, given that you’ve got your own little kitchens upstairs. I mean, why pay $3.50 for scrambled eggs when you can cook them upstairs for yourself for 75 cents?”
“It’s going to take a very special place to move into an off-street, off-axis location like that,” adds Frazier, who grew up in Washington and first visited the Woodner before Fio’s even moved in. “It’s sad to lose a wonderful restaurant and good food. It’s a nice little family-run restaurant.”
Jackson and Frazier’s loyalty to Fio is not unusual. Whereas Meall finds Vasaio hard to know, people who actually eat at his restaurant find him hard to forget. He strides around the restaurant with a seemingly bottomless cup of decaf coffee, paying his regards to the regulars and telling the newcomers the best ways to eat whatever it is he’s serving that night. Fried calamari should be served “with lemon, to cut the oil,” he tells a middle-aged couple who expected marinara sauce. “Whatsa matter? That’s garlic. They’re sweet. They’re sweet when they’re cooked,” he says to Scott Wales, urging the regular to eat the soft cloves of garlic he’s left at the bottom of his lentil-soup bowl.
Tips like those come straight from the homeland. Born 61 years ago in Pescara, in Italy’s Abruzza region, Vasaio is part of a family that has been a major force for half a century in D.C.’s Italian community.
In 1949, Vasaio’s aunt and uncle opened A.V. Ristorante Italiano on New York Avenue near Mt. Vernon Square. Augusto and Assunta (Sue) Vasaio named the place after themselves, and Vasaio’s father, Franco Vasaio, worked there as the chef for 28 years before retiring to help his son in the kitchen at the new place uptown.
Fio Vasaio didn’t come to America until a few years after his father arrived. But when he did, at age 14 in 1954, he and his sister Maria began to train at A.V. It’s where they learned to cook and to regard customers as family. And just like A.V., Fio’s pours wine in juice glasses, bakes chewy bread, and serves better specials than regular dishes.
With that kind of lineage, Fio’s was an icon of a vanished world from the moment it opened. In 1979, Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman called Fio’s “a kind of breathing museum that has ensconced the old chef of the A.V. in the vast old coffeeshop of the Woodner.” The restaurant had a now-vanished pink Formica bar, a reproduction Wurlitzer jukebox, and ’50s-style tchotchkes decorating the walls.
Although job descriptions are nonexistent at Fio’s, Jean Vasaio does just about everything except peel potatoes. A plain-spoken, practical woman from Erie County, Pa., she manages to be both brusque—”I have two tables ahead of you”—and impeccably well-mannered. For the last quarter-century, she’s dashed around the restaurant six days a week, serving customers. These days, she wears a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses that always threaten to slip off her nose.
“Anywhere in here. Seat yourself,” she’ll tell diners when they come in. If you want to know what’s good, don’t ask Fio Vasaio—who’ll just shrug his shoulders—ask Jean. She knows which specials have worked out best and which traditional dishes will please less adventuresome palates. Just don’t ask her about herself. “You don’t want to talk to me,” she’ll say with good-humored abruptness. “Talk to Fio.”
Nor does Fio’s management adhere to modern notions on the line between clients and friends. Last year, for instance, Jackson got laid off from her dot-com job and found a safety net of sorts at Fio’s, where she waited tables. “I’ve helped him out from time to time. I work for food and recipes,” she says. Fio Vasaio, she says, taught her how to cook.
“His mother back in Italy taught him to cook, and Fio’s is the only place in this area that’s, like, real Italian,” says Jackson. “I’ll never forget one of the first times I went to Fio’s: I love gnocchi. I ordered gnocchi with a tomato sauce. He came out of the kitchen. He said: ‘I’m making this with a butter- or oil-and-garlic-based sauce.’ He said: ‘You’re eating it this way, or you’re not eating it.’ My boyfriend at the time said, ‘This is so typical of Italy.’”
Lectures from management are unavailable at most other family-style Italian haunts in D.C., like the corporate kitschfest Buca di Beppo in Dupont Circle or the identity-challenged Bella Roma Italian Restaurant on Mount Pleasant Street. The tablecloths at Bella Roma, for instance, are made of white linen, and the silverware is heavy and new—yet the menu offers burgers as well as linguine with clam sauce.
On the other hand, the Fio’s silverware looks as if you could have bought it at Goodwill. The wall decorations have more meaning to Vasaio than to customers; the pictures are of his friends and their children. The tables come with green vinyl coverings and brown aluminum-and-vinyl chairs unchanged since the late ’70s. Jean Vasaio doesn’t bother to light the candles on each table until about five minutes after you’ve sat down, when she brings you your bread—which, of course, her husband has baked himself. He also hand-cuts linguine from homemade sheets of pasta fresh as it’s ordered and personally whips up other Fio’s staples: sausages, cannoli shells, and Italian ices.
It’s a labor-intensive proposition. But with complete control over the process comes a certain freedom. “Going into a kitchen is like going into a lab,” says Fio Vasaio. “You decide what you want to do that day.”
About 10 years ago, the Vasaios, who live in Silver Spring, bought a second house on the shores of Lake Erie. It’s not very far from where Jean grew up. “Every time we’re running out of room, [and] I got to take something to the house up in Pennsylvania, she’s happy,” says Fio of his wife. It’s one step closer to the day they move everything up there.
“She wants to retire,” he explains.
“As Jean explained it to me,” says Frazier, who considers Jean Vasaio a friend after dining in her restaurant for 15 years, “she’s been on her feet six nights a week 50 weeks a year for 24 years. I think she wants to put her feet up, and I don’t blame her.”
Retirement has crossed Fio Vasaio’s mind, as well. “I’m 61 years old, and it’s not like I’m going to do this the rest of my life,” he says.
Don’t let Vasaio fool you. It’s not about retirement. The issue is in fact more serious: It’s sandwiches.
“Basically, I don’t want to pursue sandwiches,” he says when asked why he is shutting down after 24 years of profitable business.
In the new Woodner, management is looking for an around-the-clock restaurant. And you can’t serve lunch without sandwiches.
At Fio’s, the menu carefully avoids anything approximating meat slapped between two pieces of bread. You can order handmade mezzaluna stuffed with porcini mushrooms in a delicate, creamy sauce. You can nosh on the thick, homemade bread while waiting for your carne—maybe a thin breaded veal cutlet or a nicely seasoned shank of lamb. You can order a simple, inexpensive pasta dish and read a book while you eat, or you can splurge with friends and have appetizers, secondi, wine, dessert, and grappa—all for only about $35 per person. Sometimes, you can have periwinkles. Or rabbit stew. Or even the tripe, if you dare.
People who know Vasaio just can’t imagine him ever going Wall Street Deli with his menu.
“It doesn’t fit with the persimmon sorbet,” laughs the now-retired Richman, who has sampled many meals at Fio’s over the years, upon hearing about the sandwich issue. “There were always surprises there, but sandwiches would be too great a surprise.”
When Fio’s 10-year lease came up for renewal this year, the Jonathan Woodner Co. raised the rent from less than $1,000—a steal, by any standard—to something closer to market rate—about $4,000, according to Vasaio—for a restaurant embedded in the innards of an apartment building that’s lacking in the critical location, location, location department and gets almost no foot traffic from the street.
But the deal-breaker wasn’t the rent increase. “It’s not about the money,” says Vasaio. “The rent is not the issue. As far as the rent, I wasn’t paying anything….I don’t want to do sandwiches. They want lunches and sandwiches and more services in the building. And I know what that is. They said, ‘Are you interested?’ And I said: ‘No.’”
“Cooking: It’s like—who’s the artist? who throws paints?—it’s an expression of what pleases you and what you like,” says Vasaio. And what pleases him is serving home-style Southern Italian dinners to a small but steady stream of dedicated customers who have sought out his obscure restaurant.
“It’s the last of an era,” says Richman of the place. “There aren’t that many restaurants of that kind of quirkiness left.”
Vasaio knows his restaurant mainly serves outsiders, instead of the building’s residents. “I eat at home a lot,” explains 23-year old Woodner resident Katie Eisenbarth. When she and her fellow American University graduates get home at night, they turn, like many young people in the building, to their own kitchens, not to Fio’s.
Vasaio himself estimates that Eisenbarth’s culinary leanings represent those of about 95 percent of the Woodner resident population. And that’s just fine. “I had to make a decision,” he says.
In addition to recent college graduates and the elderly, the Woodner is home to a large and diverse immigrant population. “A lot of people here are foreigners,” notes Wales, who lives across the lobby hall from Fio’s, of his fellow residents. And that helps provide some explanation for Fio’s almost all-white clientele: “It’s not their cuisine. That’s just my guess. I don’t see many of the Ethiopians or Hispanics [from the building]—not that they wouldn’t enjoy it.”
Sit in Fio’s for a week and you’ll see it’s true. Wales may pop in for a plate of linguine with salmon after coming home from work. And fellow resident Axel Rantane may swing by for a takeout order on his way home from the office, also located in the Woodner, before heading up to the apartment where he’s lived for half a decade. But on a night when 30 people come for dinner, Wales and Rantane may make up two-thirds or even all of the two or three guests from inside the building.
“It’s a cult,” says Wales. “Fio’s has a cult following.”
The Woodner is still looking for its new tenant. It took bids from three restaurants for the space and has narrowed the choice down to two. The building even sent residents a survey to evaluate their preferences for the new full-service facility.
“It was very thoughtful of them,” says Andrea Georgiou, a secretary who has lived in the building for eight months and thinks the world of the management. “They polled us about what we wanted.”
But her experience with Fio’s doesn’t bode well for whatever new place Milby and the Jonathan Woodner Co. end up selecting. “I’ve never used the restaurant,” Georgiou concedes. “I cook my own food.”
Milby and Sheila Whitehead, the Woodner resident services manager, say they’re sad to see Fio’s go. But they’re also excited to see the building moving into the 21st century. And so are many of the residents. “That’s what we need here, breakfast and lunch,” says Carrera. “All the people who work here, who live here, they need breakfast and lunch.”
Meanwhile, D.C. Councilmember Adrian Fenty sees an opportunity in the Fio’s departure to bring his Ward 4 constituents something they need: a family-style, sit-down restaurant serving dinner.
“I have some friends and constituents who swear by the place,” says Fenty, who has only eaten at Fio’s once. “We got a call he was closing—’We have to bring him to our area!’” So the fresh-faced councilmember contacted Vasaio and invited him on a tour of possible Ward 4 sites to which he might relocate.
“We looked on 14th Street, at a couple of places on Georgia Avenue, even some in the Takoma area,” says Fenty. “Based on what I know about the ward, it’s a great time to open a family restaurant.”
Vasaio, however, is still weighing his options. “[Fenty] was very nice. He left a message, and he called and he showed me different portions of his ward,” says Vasaio. “But I don’t know what I want to do….I don’t know if I really want to look. I need some time to decide what to do.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.