Heart & Soul Cafe owner Jerry Dianis wishes he had closed his restaurant early on the night of Oct. 21. At about 11 p.m., a fight broke out between a couple of patrons, who were summarily bounced by Dianis’ staff. Several hours later, a murder took place three blocks away. Rumors spread quickly among the restaurant’s Capitol Hill neighbors that the killer had spent the evening at Heart & Soul.
Two nights later, Dianis watched as two police officers and an investigator for the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) division marched into the cafe and ordered Dianis to close up shop. Unwilling to let one of his profitable Friday nights go up in smoke, Dianis refused. “I was cool on the outside, but I was livid,” says Dianis, who says he was given no warning. The parties reached a compromise that allowed Dianis to stay open but barred him from serving liquor.
Capitol Hill busybodies marked the raid as a victory for their community. For months, residents had sent e-mails, collected petitions, and otherwise bitched about the restaurant’s late hours and the rowdy crowd it attracted. After the murder near the club, concerned neighbors printed up an e-mail “Heart & Soul murder” flier and circulated it to houses close to the restaurant.
Activities such as those have convinced the club’s owners that they’re being targeted for one reason: their race. “If this was a white establishment,” says Dianis, “[the police] would have at least called.”
Heart & Soul has little in common with establishments like the Ibex and D’Cachet, violent go-go clubs shut down by District authorities in recent years. Targeting the District’s black middle class, the cafe specializes in Southern and creole cuisine and occasionally hosts events for the city’s political establishment. National celebs, from Patrick Ewing to Harrison Ford, drop in for the spicy fare. The restaurant was even recently featured in the black bourgeoisie manual Upscale as one of the best black-owned restaurants on the East Coast. “We have excellent food,” says Dianis. “We’re in the middle of Capitol Hill, and we’ve got a great reputation.”
“Everybody likes [Heart & Soul],” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who led the charge against the restaurant. “The food is good.”
But the kind words end with the culinary compliments. While Capitol Hill locals may drool over Heart & Soul’s menu, they don’t like what happens there after the dinner hour. Once the last dish of cobbler is served, the restaurant morphs into a haven for a buppie crowd that grooves to second-generation go-go beats, which are usually provided by Maiesha and the Hip Huggers. “When they first started out, we didn’t have that problem. It’s when they started getting a larger group,” says Capitol Hill advisory neighborhood commissioner Leonard Hacker.
That “larger group” descends on the club on Saturday nights for private partiesa ritual that littered the streets with undesirables, according to locals. “The clientele of the Heart & Soul Cafe is unruly, noisy, occasionally violent and constantly depositing debris on the lawns of nearby residents,” wrote Ambrose in an e-mail to Capitol Hill residents. Ambrose also noted in an interview that her office had received complaints about Heart & Soul all summer.
Dianis says he also had received complaints about the noisiness of some of his customers, but says he hired a security company to escort all of his patrons out of the restaurant at the end of the night. The next time Dianis says he heard a complaint was when the police came into Heart & Soul at 12 midnight and ordered him to shut down.
Dianis doesn’t buy into the theories about the link between the murder and Heart & Soul. No suspect, he notes, has been apprehended, and the crime took place blocks away from his establishment. “The police said they were called to the scene and it was their understanding that the people [involved in the crime] were in the restaurant,” says Ambrose. Dianis sees it differently. “It’s racist,” he asserts, noting that the e-mails were sent by whites and that before his license was suspended his club had no violations. “These white joints have liquor violations all the time,” says Dianis. “We had zero liquor violations.”
Dianis isn’t without his supporters, many of whom are white. “Whenever I see a group of white people complain about a black establishment, it sets off bells, because I’ve seen this happen before on 8th street,” says Capitol Hill activist Bryce Suderow. Capitol Hill resident Jim Meyers sees the same dynamic behind the backlash. “I don’t always trust my fellow white folk to have the right reaction when they see a crowd of black folks coming out of a night club,” says Meyers.
Opponents of the club deny any racial motivations, framing the club’s presence as a quality-of-life problem. “I’ve heard that recently, but I don’t think it’s true,” says Scott Sanger, executive director for the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals. “They don’t care what race the patrons are.”
Locals have confused the club’s following with the young crowd that once packed the Ibex and other D.C. go-go venues, Heart & Soul defenders say. Maiesha and the Hip Huggers, however, are a few years removed from the go-go bands that typically perform in the District’s nightclubs. The group’s performance covers mostly ’70s funk hits, and appeals to the District’s older crowd. Ambrose is unswayed, however, arguing that locals have the right to decide what type of crowd is welcome in their community. “It’s a matter of what’s appropriate for a predominantly residential community,” says Ambrose. “A residential community doesn’t want a night club that attracts young people.”
Heart & Soul’s license was recently reinstated after it had been fined and prohibited from serving liquor for four straight Wednesdays, when Maiesha and the Hip Huggers perform. But the restaurant has temporarily been banned by the ABC board from holding live entertainment. “This is about responsible exercising of an ABC license,” says Ambrose. “If they want to be a night club, they’ll have to discuss it with the ABC board.”CP