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As soon as the bricks were added, giving flesh to the skeleton of what in July will be the new Lauriol Plaza, people started talking. How could they not? The building casts a shadow, to say the least. Folks drinking in the bar at nearby Mediterranean Blue say it looks like a gymnasium, or, citing its peculiarly long front windows, like the kind of structure that might house a university swimming pool. Brad Haransky, who lives nearby, thinks that the building would “look great in a suburban parking lot.” A colleague I run into out front one day asks, without my prompting, “Don’t you think the new Lauriol Plaza looks like a post office?”
It’s curious how no one mentions that the new Lauriol Plaza looks like a restaurant, given that that’s what it is. The reason may be that it doesn’t really look like a restaurant—at least not one you’d expect to see in Dupont Circle. In the context of the row-house-lined streets that surround it, the building’s a colossus: two stories of brick with an outgrowth of metal protruding from the rear and an expanse of roof-level seating that, all together, will accommodate more than 300 patrons at once—easily the biggest restaurant in an area that prides itself on its cozy, neighborhood-friendly eateries.
The original Lauriol Plaza, a bistrolike Mexican-Spanish restaurant located just a block away from the new site, has been, by almost all accounts, a beloved presence for more than 16 years. But the scale of the new Lauriol has turned what’s long been a neighborhood institution into something more like a neighborhood obsession. Kevin Sheridan, owner of the Dupont Market, a deli and grocery that sits between the two Lauriols, says his customers are either so passionate in their support or vehement in their loathing of the new restaurant that he’s had to take a neutral stance. “If I support one side, then I have to answer to the other,” he explains. “And since my customers are pretty much split, I just stay out of it.” (Lauriol owner Raul Sanchez did not return calls to comment.)
Many Lauriol proponents see the new building as a positive sign of gentrification. Mary Tycz, a Virginia resident who owns a rental property two houses away from the new restaurant’s rear parking lot, says she’d much rather have Lauriol Plaza for a neighbor than the ramshackle liquor store that it’s replacing. But Haransky, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner in the area who sat in on early planning meetings addressing the restaurant’s construction, notes that neighborhood cleansing has its costs:
“It’s a twofold thing. Is [the new Lauriol] better than what was there? Yeah. But is it going to take away from the neighborhood in time? Hell yeah. You can’t fool yourself and think not.”
At this stage, much of the criticism of the new restaurant, which is nearly completed but still patronless, stems from its design. The structure, with its swooping metal awning and a second-story mezzanine that doubles as a backside car-canopy, is bold but not necessarily smart. It’s an architectural departure, and an awkward one: The Victorian surroundings refuse to accept the newcomer’s supposed hipness in a way that makes the overblown edifice look almost insecure.
“Great design is one thing; planning a neighborhood is another,” argues Haransky. “That’s a location that’s going to now have that building for years to come, and it’s a community where the town homes are going to look this way forever. I don’t see a good blend.”
“Frankly,” quips another neighborhood activist, “I’m amazed that the thing ever got approved.”
The sheer size of the new restaurant creates both aesthetic and practical dilemmas. The Adams Morgan area, a few blocks up 18th Street NW, greets new eateries on an almost bimonthly basis, but when a new business opens, it generally follows the departure of another. The new Lauriol, on the other hand, is a wholly new behemoth, one that will add considerable traffic to a largely residential area of Dupont Circle already choked with people and their cars. In fact, the idea was floated (and shelved) during early planning stages to build a parking garage underneath the new site—a testament both to the restaurant’s scale and the traffic problems that go along with it. Lauriol’s owners have bought the old Exxon station at 18th and California Streets and plan to turn it into a parking lot, but that annexation alone won’t solve the problem of congestion. “That’s great for them,” says Mediterranean Blue owner Sam Farron, who already has problems ditching his own car when he comes into work. “They can afford to provide parking. Most of us can’t.”
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the new Lauriol Plaza is that the fabulous success of the original was less a result of its food than of its prime location. The cuisine isn’t special enough to warrant the above-average prices (the peppery, peerless salsa is an exception—but it’s free), yet on any given night you can find scores of people gleefully loitering on the sidewalk for more than an hour as they wait to be wedged into a seat on the tight little patio or in the equally cramped dining room. Even people who stand to be adversely affected by the new Lauriol Plaza wax wistful about the old one.
“Let me preface this whole discussion by saying that most of us, myself included, think that it’s wonderful to have Lauriol Plaza in the neighborhood,” gushes Iris Molotsky, a T Street resident who sits on the Dupont Circle Conservancy, a committee that tried—unsuccessfully—to get the owners to alter the design of the new restaurant. “My husband and I frequent it at least once a week, and we like it. We’re certainly not opposed to the restaurant.”
The restaurant thrives because it’s Dupont’s quintessential neighborhood haunt. Patrons waiting outside casually sip Coronas and lean on cars without any worry of being hassled. The closeness of the tables breeds camaraderie. Dining on the tree- and umbrella-shaded patio, which wraps around the corner building, offers a taste of what D.C. might have been like when it was still just a sleepy Southern town. Sometime in July, that magic will be gone. “People say they really hate the new building,” a Lauriol waiter tells us on a recent Sunday night. “I think it’s mostly because they just really love this corner.”
Lauriol Plaza, 1835 18th St. NW, (202) 387-0035.
Thai Peppers proves that it’s possible to be too cute. The town house where it’s located, unlike the new Lauriol Plaza building, practically screams quaint. So does the music: It sounds as if someone plugged a Muzak-spewing music box into a guitar amp—which makes conversation, much less ordering, next to impossible. Someone finds a volume knob only after we discover that overamplified sweetness is a restaurantwide problem. Sweet and sour pork should not taste like dessert.
Thai Peppers, 2018 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria (703) 739-7627.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.