When the 18th & U Duplex Diner opened last summer, Eric Hirshfield exhaled. The first four nights were the kind that restaurateurs hope will extend to infinity, beginning in the early evening with crowds waiting for dinner tables and bleeding into the early morning, when elbow-to-elbow night owls need to be reminded of bar time. “I had this big smile across my face,” recalls Hirshfield, the diner’s majority owner. “I thought, ‘This is easy.’”
Given his experiences leading up to the business’s launch, the 29-year-old entrepreneur was entitled to feel a little smug. Hirshfield’s previous restaurant experience consisted of a short spell at Coppi’s Vigorellia gig he took only after he’d quit his job as a civil engineer and set his sights on opening a restaurant and bar, in a space he walked by daily on his way to work. Since ambition was his most notable asset, the first-time business owner had to look under every rug to find capital. Hirshfield, who describes himself as “Jewish kid from New Jersey,” eventually put together a hodgepodge list of lenders that included the Latino Economic Development Corp., Results the Gym, and the Washington Gas Co.
Today, as he sits facing Duplex’s front window, Hirshfield waves knowingly at what seems like every 10th person who walks by. He can rattle off the names of numerous Adams Morgan entrepreneurs whose stories he says are similar to his, and he credits the neighborhood camaraderie for much of the success he’s had. Hirshfield is happy to be a part of what he calls “a very tight-knit, no-reservations-about-helping-out-the-next-guy-type neighborhood.”
Adams Morgan is also the type of neighborhood where a guy like Hirshfield can plausibly existit’s an inexperienced restaurateur’s best bet in the District. Along with Duplex, Tryst and Pearl also count among the several food-and-beverage-type businesses opened by first-timers in Adams Morgan this year, and they’re the rule rather than the exception.
When Alan Popovsky, the owner of Felix, was looking to open his own place three-and-a-half years ago, he says he chose his spot on 18th Street “because I liked the locationand I could get it. I couldn’t go downtown. When you’re a first-time restaurateur, it’s hard to find spaces. You tell [a landlord], ‘Oh, I’m a first-time restaurateur,’ [and] they’re like, ‘Bye.’ They want a track record. To make it in this business you need experience.”
Locals like to compare Adams Morgan to the Village in New York, and in terms of its restaurant trade, there are similarities. People don’t flock to Adams Morgan for any one particular restaurant. The neighborhood’s draw is that it’s Adams Morgan, and, in theory, even hacks can bank on the built-in audience once they open shop. And despite its allure as the locus of D.C. nightlife, Adams Morgan remains largely uncorrupted by big-business concerns: Last year, CVS and Boston Market each closed up Adams Morgan locations, and both Hirshfield and Tryst owner Constantine Stavropoulos admit that they didn’t have to elbow aside any bigwigs on their way to signing their respective leases.
There’s always a chance that a chain like McCormick & Schmick’s or Rock Bottom Brewery will drop into Adams Morgan and destroy its owner-operated business climate, but the danger is remote. All urban business communities have to fight to lure suburbanites, and when it comes to attracting corporate chains, Adams Morgan kicks up more than its share of red flags: Tryst has gotten solid midday crowds, but for the most part, neighborhood lunch business is erratic at best; parking’s a joke.
“In general, where the city has poured money into, say, the Pennsylvania Quarter, we’ve had to fight tooth and nail just to get our own people to clean the streets and get trash receptacles emptied on a timely basis,” says Cashion’s Eat Place’s John Fulchino, who, like partner Ann Cashion, is a first-time business owner but has considerable restaurant experience. “Plus, people from the ‘burbs tend to look at this neighborhood as unsafe.”
Tom Meyer, vice president of restaurant development for the locally based Clyde’s Restaurant Group, says his company opens a new restaurant only once every three or four years. Clyde’s restaurants generally require 10,000 square feet of space, Meyer says, and when a new one opens, it’s generally as part of a larger project in which some developer kicks in cash to help defray costs that range from $4 million to $8 million. Adams Morgan isn’t exactly flush with that kind of space or that kind of landlord. Hirshfield says that when he finally located his landlord in New Jersey, it became clear that she hadn’t been to D.C. in ages. “I said to her, ‘One day you ought to come down and see Adams Morgan.’ She said, ‘Who’s he?’”
The idiosyncrasies that make Adams Morgan unattractive to big chains also contribute to some of its shortcomings as a dining destination; to make up for the lack of lunch business, for example, most of the area’s restaurants have to double as nightclubswhich, in many cases, pushes food down on the list of priorities. But the lack of chains allows character to remain at a premium, and mediocre food is by no means a given. Duplex serves good, simple fare, as does Tryst, which doubles as the District’s best coffee lounge. Felix can be great, and Pearl boasts one of the neighborhood’s more talented chefs in Tess Mosley, formerly of Pesce.
Competing with fellow first-timers hardly makes running a restaurant in Adams Morgan easier than running one anywhere else. Being unfamiliar with the fundamentals isn’t an excuse to ignore them, and Hirshfield knows firsthand that honeymoons are short. “I was so happy,” he says of his fourth night in business. “Then I realized I hadn’t re-ordered inventory. I hadn’t told the staff when they were coming in again. People on the staff were telling me they wanted to switch shifts. I didn’t have a policy….”
He does now.Brett Anderson
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