U Street NW bar El Ray
A bustling scene at El Rey before the pandemic. Photo courtesy of H2 Collective.

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The brothers and nightlife impresarios behind many bars and restaurants stretching up 14th Street NW and down U Street NW will close seven establishments for the foreseeable future on Halloween.

Eric and Ian Hilton say they fought for six months to keep American Ice Company, The Brixton, Echo Park, El Rey, The Gibson, Marvin, and Players Club running through the COVID-19 pandemic, but ultimately couldn’t.

Each bar had a personality. The Gibson, a candlelit lounge behind an unmarked door on 14th Street NW, helped ignite the District’s craft cocktail culture when it opened in 2009. Next door to The Gibson, Marvin got D.C. dancing and played host to countless Grilled Cheese Socials. Washingtonians loved to hate The Brixton on U Street NW, with its three-deep lines to score a beer on the rooftop. Relative newcomer Players Club in Logan Circle gave people a place to let loose in a space styled to look like a 1970s rec room. 

They’ve all played host to a steady stream of first dates, bachelor and bachelorette parties, milestone birthday celebrations, new job toasts, and drownings of sorrows. Ian says he doesn’t yet have enough information to gauge whether any of the bars could reopen in the more distant future or whether he’ll be turning over the keys for good.

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The establishments that remain operating from the Hilton’s hospitality group, H2 Collective, are more food-focused. They include Cafe Colline in Arlington, Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, Parc de Ville in Northern Virginia’s Mosaic District, The Brighton at The Wharf, and Victura Park at the Kennedy Center. Ian says the future of Chez Billy Sud and The Brighton are also uncertain.

Bars are uniquely disadvantaged by the rules and regulations implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19. Mayor Muriel Bowser closed bars and restaurants to on-premise consumption on March 16. They could only welcome patrons in Phase One of reopening, which kicked off May 29, if they had outdoor seating and found a way to serve food. 

Phase Two of reopening allowed indoor bars to fill their spaces to 50 percent capacity starting on June 22. Patrons couldn’t sit at the bar if a bartender was present, nor could they stand in the bar area and be served. Bar owners were frustrated when they initially had little representation on Bowser’s reopening committee, which left them without a platform to advocate for their needs. 

Meanwhile, most forms of aid that could be utilized to tide bars over until better days has dried up. Bars and restaurants have exhausted their Paycheck Protection Program loans, D.C. already handed out its microgrants, and there’s little indication that more assistance is coming from Capitol Hill before the election in November. 

Ian Hilton says there was no real final straw with his establishments. “With colder weather a few weeks away and no prospects for relief in sight, we think it makes sense to ramp things down and give potentially displaced members of the team time to look at other employment opportunities,” he tells City Paper.

The Hilton brothers provide further context in the statement below.

Today, my brother and I are saddened to announce our decision to close the majority of our hospitality entities in DC after service on Saturday, October 31st for the foreseeable future.

After 6 months of constantly restructuring our operations to comply with the mayor’s orders, we have depleted our resources while fighting a great, yet unsustainable battle to save the jobs of our employees and our businesses.

When the crisis began, we knew this year would be a tremendous challenge. While we have done our very best to meet those challenges, we no longer have the capability to keep that fight going. Day after day, we and our staff are operating at a loss, under duress, and with little relief in sight. 

As life-long Washingtonians, we truly love this city with all of our hearts. We are grateful to be part of its hospitality industry and appreciate all the support our friends and families have given us. This was one of the toughest decisions we’ve had to make, and we believe it’s the right one.

To our fellow friends and colleagues who are fighting this fight. We encourage you to take a realistic look at the current and foreseeable future and determine how sustainable this fight is without meaningful support. 

We know the toll this has taken on you financially and personally. Sometimes, taking a step back is the only way to move forward.

We sincerely hope that in the future, we can all walk into a brighter day together.

The venues affected are American Ice Company, Brixton, Echo Park, El Rey, Gibson, Marvin, and Players Club. 

We love you DC.