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On a warm September evening last year, Jill Kitcharoen was pushing papers in her office at Georgetown’s Bangkok Bistro when one of her employees asked her to come to the rear patio area. As Kitcharoen made her way through the restaurant, she caught wind of a noxious smell that had begun to disturb the restaurant’s customers. After Kitcharoen and her employees had poked around for a while, they determined that the smell was filtering in from the alley, and fast.
Several disgusted patrons fled the premises, and others opted for tables sheltered from the stench. Kitcharoen’s employees began complaining of dizziness and headaches; one went home and puked. Clutching a Tylenol bottle, Kitcharoen called her landlord, Robert Elliott.
When Elliott arrived on the scene, he discovered that the foulness was no accident. Scaling the patio wall, Elliott found an ice cube tray filled with chemicals and a couple of wet rags hanging above a small fan facing the restaurant. He took photographs and sealed the chemicals in a plastic baggie. With his hands sticky from the noxious ferment, Elliott was walking back to his nearby office when he spotted an elderly man strutting by the restaurant, pointing to the commotion and chuckling.
Elliott identified the man as Edward Emes, a 68-year-old Georgetown resident whose house shares the alley with Bangkok Bistro’s rear patio. About a week before the stink-up, Emes had requested a hearing before the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board to contest the legality of Bangkok Bistro’s patio. But after Elliott found the rags and fan, he secured a temporary restraining order barring Emes from the restaurant and its perimeter. In turn, Emes sought a restraining order against Elliott, which the court rejected. In the midst of it all, Elliott filed a civil suit against Emes, and Emes responded by suing Elliott.
Any high-school lit teacher will tell you that there are four conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. environment, and man vs. self. But for District residentsespecially Georgetownersthere is a fifth: man vs. restaurant. While most activists vet conflict with troublesome watering holes in the D.C. bureaucracy and the courts, Emes takes to the alley.
Standing in the back of her restaurant on a slow Tuesday evening, Kitcharoen reluctantly recalls the origins of her diry little war with Emes. “‘You could hear silverware,’ Emes said,” says Kitcharoen. “That was his biggest complaint.” Emes claimed that the din of utensils from the restaurant’s patio disturbed his residential peace, even though his house stands some 70 feet awayfarther than the homes of other neighbors. “You can barely see the top of it,” she says of Emes’ stately white house.
Kitcharoen launched her business career in south Florida, where she bought and managed several successful restaurants. Over the past four years, however, she has sold all her Florida joints and started scouting locations in the D.C. area, where she lived off and on for 20 years. After a year of kicking around, she landed on Prospect Street alongside Cafe Milano and Morton’s and a half block from Wisconsin Avenue. It never dawned on her that she was even closer than that to the District’s leading guerrilla NIMBYite.
Kitcharoen and Emes had first met when construction of the restaurant started. She spotted Emes watching the work with keen interest and played the gracious neighbor, inviting Emes to come by and inspect the place at his leisure. When the bistro opened this past May, she even served Emes a few free meals. And when the restaurant hosted a loud birthday party on the patio one evening, Kitcharoen called Emes to apologize. “Like a fool I just kept apologizing,” she says. “Maybe I shouldn’t have.”
Soon thereafter, inspectors from every corner of the D.C. government showed up at the bistro, following up on tips from Emes. Sanitation inspectors came equipped with photos furnished by Emes but found nothing scandalous. The bistro was never fined for sanitation or health violations; Kitcharoen minds the shop so meticulously that she waxes the bar top once a week.
Whatever grudge Emes held toward Bangkok Bistro intensified as the restaurant’s first summer in business wore on. Emes claims that his daughter and “household helper” found dead rats in his backyard pool and blamed Kitcharoen for creating a rodent-friendly environment. Then he said the restaurant had killed his dog.
In a court document, Emes stated that he and his wife had found “their beloved pet dog, Ditto, in serious distress” in the back yard. They had rushed Ditto to the veterinarian, “but nothing could be done to save her, and she died that morning.” According to the court brief, “The Emes’ dog died either from deliberate poisoning or as a result of the negligent use of rat poison by Bangkok Bistro.” Emes gives more credence to the deliberate poisoning theory.
Bistro workers first detected a pesticidelike stench about a week after Ditto succumbed, according to the affidavits of several restaurant employees. “I saw a misting of something that smelled like pesticide and/or insecticide falling onto customers dining near the wall,” testified waiter Jakkaphan Potatham. “One of my customers asked me what the spray was but assumed it was water from the overhanging tree. ‘Is this water from God?’ he asked me.”
Restaurant employees say they encountered the same spray three more times before the night Elliott found the fan. One night, Kitcharoen called the police, who went to Emes’ house and told him to stop the alleged harrassment. Emes denies having sprayed the restaurant and calls the charges “bogus.”
However, Emes doesn’t deny having installed a motion-triggered spotlight on his property aimed directly at the bistro’s patioa development that coincided with the issuance of the restraining order against Emes. Kitcharoen says that the light is powerful enough that people moving inside the restaurant can set off a spasm of blinking that blinds her customers. Kitcharoen has dished out complimentary desserts to apologize for the annoyance.
While Kitcharoen bemoans her NIMBY problems, Emes claims to be the real victim. Bangkok Bistro, he says, is violating a 1987 agreement to keep the patio idle signed by Elliott and a handwritten pledge from Elliott giving Emes “absolute” authority over the use of the patio. “There are only two kinds of absolutes: one you drink and the other one,” says Emes. He also notes that bistro officials checked “no” on an official form inquiring whether they would provide outdoor service at the restaurant.
But Emes’ legal gripes ring as hollow as his canine conspiracy theories. Paul Waters, an official with the ABC Board, says “summer garden service” is an ambiguous term for regulatory purposes. The bistro’s floor plan, says Waters, included space for patio service. “As far as the ABC is concerned, they would be using the patio,” Waters explains. “Up to this point, it would not be an issue.” Emes has requested an ABC Board hearing on the patio’s legality but has yet to receive a response. His day in court can’t come too soon. “I just welcome these people to be under oath,” Emes boasts.
No amount of legal jostling, though, will end Emes’ campagin against Elliott. The feud dates back about two decades, when Georgetown Prospect Place, the development headed by Elliott that now houses the bistro, was under construction. Emes claims that the pounding of construction equipment caused $35,000 of damage to his pool. And the incessant noise, he says, disrupted a reception following his daughter’s christening. “We felt raped,” Emes sniffs, nearly two decades after the trauma. “We felt totally violated. I remember…I got fever blisters.”
Emes fingers Elliott for a pattern of deceptionproposals followed by failed promises followed by some sort of unlawful act. For example, Emes insists that Elliott promised to increase security by raising the abutting wall and quieting the noise with an enclosure. Elliott, in turn, denies promising anything; Emes is the crazy one, he says.
To prove the point, Elliott cites a spat in the mid-’80s, when Emes accused his tenants of stealing a chaise lounge. “This is chickenshit stuff,” Elliott says. “You would think there’s a big fencing operation for lawn furniture. It’s all B.S.” Elliott says Emes will always fabricate a flap to keep himself busy, noting that Emes never complained about the patio before the bistro moved in.
Just don’t expect either guy to back down. Bill Cochran, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, believes the patio, the bistro, and Ditto are part of an eternal personality conflict.
“[Emes and Elliott] are made for each other,” Cochran explains. “One’s as wacky as the other. They will go to their graves getting at each other.” He adds, “They are both victims, they are both poor, they are both litigious peopleso let the papers fly.”CP