Illustration of the Georgetown neighborhood
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan/file

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The streets of Georgetown have welcomed residents, tourists, and students for centuries, but the neighborhood’s allure, especially its food scene, has evolved drastically over the decades with the commercialization of its dual main drags—M Street NW and Wisconsin Avenue NW. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is poised to once again reshape the Georgetown dining scene. 

As Joe Sternlieb, president of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, recalls, D.C. was a fundamentally different city in the 1980’s and 1990’s. “D.C. was known for many things, but not for restaurants,” he says. “When you talked to people from other cities, they would say there’s no good restaurants in D.C. Interesting, innovative food things were happening in Los Angeles and New York, not here.”

But Georgetown had its draws. “Georgetown was one of the only neighborhoods where people came to be entertained,” Sternlieb continues. “Thirty years ago, we had three movie theatres, several record and book stores, night clubs, and more. It was a date night kind of place, stores would stay open late, and there was a vibe on the street.”

But the noise that accompanied nightlife frustrated Georgetown residents, leading to a ruling in 1989 that put a 27-year moratorium on the number of liquor licenses establishments could obtain in the neighborhood. Within the Georgetown Historic District, there could only be a maximum of six taverns or nightclubs, and a select amount of restaurants that could serve alcohol. This, coupled with the increase in the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1986, impacted Georgetown’s clientele and allure.

With restrictions in place in Georgetown, a dining renaissance began elsewhere in the District. Developers, attracted by cheaper real estate in neighborhoods such as the 14th Street NW corridor, Shaw, H Street NE, and Petworth, began investing heavily in tenant improvements and subsequent restaurant locations.

“There was an explosion in the restaurant industry starting in the 80s and 90s,” says Billy Martin, the fourth-generation owner of Martin’s Tavern. His restaurant opened in Georgetown in 1933. Over the years, Martin says his family has had to work hard to stay relevant. He talks about Georgetown’s transformation. 

“Georgetown once had very quaint stores, such as antique shops or other one-of-a-kind places,” Martin says. “Over the last 15 to 20 years, developers turned Georgetown into a high-end shopping district, which now feels like a big outdoor mall. They wanted to force out mom and pop stores and bring in the Wolfgang Pucks of the world.” 

In order to take advantage of D.C.’s food awakening, the Georgetown BID worked with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission to end the liquor license moratorium for restaurants in 2016. Sternlieb notes the growth of newer food concepts in Georgetown since then. 

Former American restaurant Unum was transformed into a high-end cocktail bar called L’Annexe in October 2019. One month later, Morton’s The Steakhouse reopened as French bistro Brasserie Liberté. Fine dining restaurants including Reverie from Chef Johnny Spero and CUT by Wolfgang Puck joined Fiola Mare, Bourbon Steak, and 1789 as places to be wined and dined. At the same time, Georgetown saw a rise of fast-casual options, such as Falafel Inc., Chaia Tacos, and Bandoola Bowl

Those leading the new wave of restaurant openings chose Georgetown for a variety of reasons spanning from historic value and neighborhood clientele to the university crowd. Sileshi Alifom says he was attracted to the neighborhood because of its future potential. He opened DAS Ethiopian in 2011. “I began looking at Georgetown around 2010, right after the financial crisis,” he says. “Since then, there has been an intent and effort to revitalize Georgetown.”

Others recognized that Georgetown residents have deep pockets. “Georgetown is no longer the nightlife place, but it has a well-heeled clientele in the neighborhood that don’t need to wait for a special occasion to go out and treat themselves,” says Ian Hilton, who opened Chez Billy Sud in 2014. “You could get tourists on M Street, but if you’re tucked in a side street like us, you get people that come for a really good dining experience.”

Bettina Stern, who co-founded Chaia Tacos, saw an underserved group in nearby university students. “There were students from George Washington, Georgetown, and even Marymount, American, and Howard that were looking for healthier options,” she says. “Their parents would say ‘eat your vegetables,’ and we were making those vegetables delicious, so that was a terrific demographic for us.” She calls the neighborhood “historic with a lot of charm” and echoes Hilton’s point about how Georgetown boasts a local demographic that can afford to dine out. 

Sternlieb highlights other underlying factors that have driven the food scene: “What people often forget about the Georgetown commercial district, opposed to the residential, is that it’s one of the most diverse in the city.” He says that if you go for a stroll on a Friday afternoon, you’ll hear myriad language and see a mix of ages and ethnicities. 

But as Georgetown was getting its groove back, Mayor Muriel Bowser closed restaurants and bars down to on-premise consumption on March 16 to stop the spread of COVID-19. The announcement changed the restaurant industry’s mindset from growth to survival. In the months that followed, Georgetown restaurant owners faced tough decisions such as whether to lay off staff, introduce takeout and delivery, or close altogether. “We were preparing for St. Patrick’s Day by buying lots of beer, lamb, and cabbage, but we ended up giving all that inventory away,” Martin explains.

“For us, the decision was very simple,” Alifom says. At the beginning of March, before there were formal restrictions in place, the restaurant’s guest count was “dropping like flies.” DAS Ethiopian typically serves up to 155 people on weekends. For two weekends in a row, only 10 people came to dine. “We were fully staffed, but the business was not coming. The fear of the unknown was now dictating the pace, as customers were not comfortable to go out, and so we made the decision to stop and close everything that Sunday.” 

The shutdown in mid-March coincided with college spring break. “Half our employees were leaving for break, thinking they would come back to a job,” says Stern from Chaia. “Luckily, we didn’t have to let anybody go because our students just went home [and didn’t return].” She describes the first few weeks of the pandemic as exhausting because not only were they operating two restaurants with limited staff, but they were also busy applying for grants and loans. “It was an extremely emotional period, and there were a lot of low moments for me.” Luckily, she says, they’ve passed. 

As summer approached, D.C. entered Phases One and Two of reopening. Georgetown restaurants slowly came back to life, but with marked changes. “Now that we can have dining on the patio and partially inside, we’ve done the best we can to make the patio a safe environment, since most people don’t want to use the dining room,” Hilton of Chez Billy Sud says. The restaurant is currently seating customers at around 40 percent capacity. “But even if you walk by a restaurant that’s got a full patio, we’re all still taking a beating.” 

For Stern, the “new normal” has meant promoting her core staff members and finding creative ways to safely serve food. Chaia introduced a carryout enchilada supper club on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as a marketplace offering everything from corn tortillas to margaritas.

DAS Ethiopian introduced new precautions even as they saw revenue plateau. “When a customer comes in, we take your temperature, get your contact [information], and provide you with sanitizer,” Alifom says. “All our waiters wear masks and gloves, and every seat is sanitized properly. We’ve moved to paper products, so we throw everything out after.”  

While reviews of the restaurant suggest that customers appreciate DAS Ethiopian’s outdoor dining area, there hasn’t been a dependable flow of diners. “There’s been a boost on carryout,” Alifom continues. “But will that pay for rent? Absolutely not. The impact is just insurmountable.”

Alifom, and others, are convinced takeout will be the main draw until there’s a vaccine. The sooner, the better. “Our main source of income is tourism, and if that begins to come back, maybe things will be normal again,” he says. 

Where DAS Ethiopian is nine years old, Martin’s Tavern has been around for 87 years. “Martin’s has weathered a lot of storms,” Martin says. “We opened during the Depression, and have seen a lot since then, but this is by far the biggest challenge. I’ve got a great core group of staff, a very loyal following, a great connection with hotel concierges, all to help us do what we do.” 

A few months ago, Martin felt like he was drowning even though he could see the surface of the water. “At this stage, my head is above the water, not very far, but I can breathe,” he says. 

One of the biggest challenges for restaurateurs is making rent payments while experiencing significantly reduced sales. Some Georgetown restaurant owners report having lenient landlords who have been willing to work with them during the pandemic, whether through rent deferrals or forgiveness. 

Chez Billy Sud’s landlord, according to Hilton, recognized that the restaurant wouldn’t survive if he held a hard line. “I was touched because you don’t usually get that,” Hilton says. “He was a perfect gentleman, and I will never be able to thank him enough for that.”

“One of the good yet bad things about Georgetown is that we have the second highest rent in the city, after Penn Quarter,” Sternlieb says. “Restaurants probably can’t pay more than $40 to $60 per square foot, but on M Street they run from $60 to $150 dollars. My sense is that, as we come out of the pandemic and rents go down, restaurants will want to be here.”

Some restaurants didn’t make it. While America Eats Tavern from Chef José Andrés shuttered in late June, the lion’s share of closures have been national brands. Georgetown lost Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, and Peet’s Coffee since the start of the pandemic. 

“A lot of chains are very dependent on kids and tourists,” Sterlieb says. “There are no tourists on the street and there’s relatively few kids around because they closed the university, this is where it’s really hard,” Sternlieb says. Stern adds a prediction that bigger brands will leave D.C. post-pandemic, leaving small independent restaurants to “muscle it out and be there when this whole thing is over.” 

Looking ahead, operators are keenly aware that COVID-19 may drastically alter dining in Georgetown and around the world. “I don’t think Georgetown will go back to what it was like before, with people wanting to come here and party,” Hilton predicts. “It will be a more grown up place with peace and quiet.”

Sternlieb is hopeful Georgetown won’t suffer too many closures and will rebuild as an even better hub for dining and drinking. “Georgetown will have a renaissance, where you will see a lot of energy from people that want to be back here,” he predicts. “You’ll see a music scene and interesting retail. It’s been overlooked for a while, but people will look at Georgetown with fresh eyes.”