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The commercial space at 3203 Mount Pleasant St. NW has seen rough times. There’s been a bullet hole in the wall since the mid-’80s, when the location was home to, as current leaseholder Mark Peters calls it, a “redneck bar.” For a short while in the late ’80s, there was a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant in the spot, but it didn’t last long. The Trolley Stop, a Latino restaurant, had a good run at the address, though many neighbors remember it best as the location of the fight that they believe instigated the 1991 Mount Pleasant riots.
Today, the empty space is in the midst of a makeover. New picture windows out front show a restaurant that’s beginning to let in some light. “I want to offer something that this neighborhood has never really had,” says Jo Anna Hawthorne, proprietor of what she hopes, by “June at the latest,” will be Marx Cafe. The cafe’s menu is still largely undetermined, although Hawthorne expects to offer sushi and vegetarian fare, as well as fusion riffs on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Hawthorne envisions the end result as “an American-style bar and grill” that will stand in stark contrast to the neighborhood’s wealth of Latino restaurants and cater to an ethnically diverse audience.
For a restaurant that’s been on the drawing board for as long as Marx has, the concept seems a little vague, but it’s hard to lay all the blame at Hawthorne’s feet. The space has stood empty since former Trolley Stop proprietor Haydee Vanegas pulled up stakes two years ago to open Haydee’s Restaurant at the other end of Mount Pleasant Street. This past summer, all the planets seemed to align in favor of a smooth transition from one restaurant to another: Peters is the space’s leaseholder, and Hawthorne is Peters’ longtime girlfriend, not to mention the mother of the couple’s 9-year-old child.
“I built this restaurant for my family,” says Peters, who’s handling the renovation work for Marx. But, as he explains it, “Jo Anna will be paying me rent just like Haydee paid me rent. It’s as simple as that.”
The problem is that it’s not as simple as that. Turning a commercial property into a viable business is never easy, and the fact that this particular piece of real estate is located in Mount Pleasant—a community where ethnic diversity begets all sorts of cultural frictions, both unsubtle and subtle—hasn’t helped matters any. The red tape surrounding the opening of Marx began tangling last summer and knotted into a full-fledged imbroglio by winter. Today, with said red tape pretty much cut away, the restaurant is still prompting many involved in the scrap to call others involved, well, something naughty.
The neighborhood meetings pertaining to Marx have been intense, to say the least. In a message posted to the Mount Pleasant Forum, an e-mail chat group where many neighborhood residents have been venting their opinions about the new restaurant, former advisory neighborhood commissioner Rob Fleming described one gathering this way: “What we had at the ANC meeting was a mob, lacking only the torches and pitchforks. Shouting, cat-calling, and racist remarks don’t contribute to good decision-making.”
Technically, the issue was the transferral of the restaurant’s liquor license from Vanegas to Hawthorne, which the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance (MPNA) protested. Any concerned party can protest any license before it is sent on to the Alcohol Beverage Control Board for approval. Laurie Collins, president of the MPNA, says that her group protests all licenses that come up for approval or re-approval, thereby ensuring that her 15-member board will have a say in the restrictions placed on the license holders: A license can’t be presented to the ABC Board with an unresolved protest attached to it, and the would-be holder is forced into negotiations with the protester to push the matter along. The document that emerges from such negotiations is called a voluntary agreement, and the agreement forged between the MPNA and Marx lies at the core of the recent controversy.
Peters, who is not Marx’s official proprietor (Hawthorne is), harbors no affection for the licensing process or the MPNA. He calls Collins “a racist” and insists that her organization has a “personal vendetta” against him. To illustrate the latter point, he mentions an early version of the voluntary agreement, in which the MPNA included a stipulation prohibiting Peters from having any involvement with the cafe’s business matters. “Let’s say [Hawthorne] goes into the business and she runs out of money,” Peters, who’s Iranian, half-shouts. “Can [the MPNA] give her a loan?”
The stipulation, which isn’t part of the agreement Hawthorne eventually signed, no doubt stemmed from Peters’ past: In 1987, he was convicted of a felony. (He says that it had to do with an illegal wire transfer and that he served no time.) The businessman’s also not terribly diplomatic. In response to a neighborhood meeting at which he was a prominent topic, Peters fired off a letter to the Mount Pleasant Forum so venomous that Robert Frazier, who runs the forum, decided that it needed to be edited for publication. The toned-down version is still pretty mean; it accuses the MPNA of borrowing its tactics from Joseph McCarthy.
One of the sources of Peters’ ire was the MPNA’s refusal to allow Hawthorne to stage live music at Marx. Collins says that her group, which is composed largely of homeowners, is against live entertainment because it leads to noise and drunkenness. Peters says that the MPNA, via its liquor-license protests, is responsible for stripping Mount Pleasant of performing musicians; he, Hawthorne, and their supporters contend that music is simply a part of urban culture that urban residents should learn to live with.
Collins bristles at being characterized as a bully and meddler, and says that Hawthorne could have taken additional measures in an effort to get her wishes granted; instead, Hawthorne chose to sign the agreement. Collins calls Peters’ charges of racism “ridiculous” and describes the MPNA and its members as “equal-opportunity protesters. We cannot possibly be racists, because we do it to everyone.”
But even if the cries of bigotry are inflammatory, there’s no question that issues of class are hard to escape in areas where gentrification is running its course. Peters, Hawthorne (who’s African-American), and others insist that the MPNA, for all its power, doesn’t fairly represent Mount Pleasant as a whole; Peters calls its members “Westies,” referring to the area west of 17th Street that’s rife with renovated row houses. Collins counters that the MPNA’s vice president is, in fact, black. She says that the MPNA is concerned only with the quality of life of its members. And therein lies the real conflict: By taking exception to a restaurant’s desire to stage live music, Collins is implicitly suggesting that whoever might partake in the entertainment might not be able to handle the privilege, and might therefore endanger the peace of the MPNA and its members.
Hawthorne, who’s considerably more soft-spoken than Peters, doesn’t see how democracy played a role in her ordeal: “What’s disappointing with the whole process is, I can have 100 or 500 supporters, but 10 people or four people can go protest and hold up my license. The way the system is designed, it’s more to deal with people who don’t want you there than with
people who do want you there.”
Peters, for his part, can barely control his rage when the topic of gentrification arises. “When you bought your house,” he cries, referring to Collins and the MPNA as he pounds on a coffee table, “you saw what you were buying. The commercial corridor of Mount Pleasant was not blocked off for you to see.”
Marx Cafe isn’t the only new Mount Pleasant restaurant to fall under the lens of neighborhood scrutiny in recent months. Before Dos Gringos opened its doors, the small cafe’s owners were the subject of plenty of digital ink in the Mount Pleasant Forum. “We meant to be inclusive and cute with the name,” says Kenneth Jacobs, one of the cafe’s owners. “We didn’t mean to insult people.” To judge by the atmosphere inside the sunny cafe, the minor flap didn’t leave behind a cloud. The chicken salad with blue cheese and almonds is delicious, and I challenge anyone with a passing interest in chocolate to resist the brownies stacked by the cash register.
Dos Gringos, 3116 Mount Pleasant St. NW, (202) 462-1159.—Brett Anderson
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