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Before they opened Acadiana, Fuego Cocina, Penn Commons, Burger Tap & Shake, or PassionFish, the owners of Passion Food Hospitality had DC Coast. Now, partners Gus DiMillo, David Wizenberg, and chef Jeff Tunks are closing the stalwart seafood restaurant. The 17-year-old business will serve its last dinner at 14th and K streets NW on Dec. 31. DiMillo sat down with Y&H to talk about the restaurant’s pioneering role in the neighborhood and whether the restaurant may reappear someday.
What was this neighborhood like when you first opened DC Coast in 1998?
This was a McDonald’s for over 30 years, and it was a really hardcore McDonald’s: bullet holes in the window and hookers. I mean, you could order a Big Mac and a Coke, go to the bathroom, get yourself done with a hooker, come back, pick up your food, and go. This was a red light area. Franklin Park was pitch black, and you could hear people screaming in there, being mugged, whatever was going on, nobody wanted to know. It was a horrible neighborhood.
But with the Downtown BID, [the Historical Preservation Office]—because this is a historical building—Charlene Jarvis, and Jack Evans, they were all really instrumental in helping to get this all cleaned up… We were one of the first ones here, the pioneers.
What did you see in it at the time?
You could make it work, but you had to have the cooperation of the Downtown BID, the city, and everybody behind you. They were just starting to recapture this area…
It was a struggle the first couple years because it was still trying to get the prostitutes out of the area and trying to get it so that people would come here. This is pre-social media, so there wasn’t Yelp and Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff, so we relied upon food writers. Our big thing was, well, if we get a good review, that will make it. And Phyllis [Richman of the Washington Post] came in and gave us a good review, thank god, people came… The busier it got, the more the bad element disappeared. It helped the city reclaim the area.
This was Passion Food Hospitality’s first restaurant before you were even Passion Food Hospitality, right?
It was our first restaurant, and we wanted to name it PassionFish, but the name was owned by somebody else and they wanted to charge us to use it. So we said, ‘OK, this is what we’ll do: We’ll call our company Passion Food Hospitality, and we’ll call this DC Coast.’ Everything was modeled after Jeff [Tunk]’s cooking, it was all about the food, and Jeff’s background comes from coastal areas. He was in the Chesapeake Bay area, and then he was in the Pacific Rim area in San Diego, then in New Orleans.
But later you did get PassionFish, so how did that come about?
We found out the name was available. They let the [trademark] expire and they never renewed it, so we took it and we used it for Reston and now we have it in Bethesda.
Is there anything on the menu that’s changed as tastes have changed?
We didn’t have any sandwiches on the menu, but we eventually put some sandwiches for lunch. I’m sure there have been some changes, but they’ve been so minute.
How has the clientele changed over the years, if at all?
Of course it changed with the neighborhood and also with the expansion of other restaurants coming down. At one time, it was hard to even get a lunch reservation here, and now, it’s not that hard anymore because there are so many other places to go. The communities around downtown have all been developed…
If you’re working downtown five days a week and driving down here through rush hour traffic in the morning and in the evening to get home, you’re not going to turn around and drive back again to have dinner. You’re going to have dinner at a restaurant that’s in your community because you have that option now. There was a time when I could count the great chefs in this city on one hand. Now, we’ve become a mecca. The food industry, the restaurant industry in the District exploded.
Speaking of that increased competition, is that one of the reasons you’re closing the restaurant? Why are you closing?
The new landlord wanted us to take a lot more space. We have 10,000 square feet. That’s a lot of overhead. And they wanted us to go through those panels and take out the back there. Right now, we have all of our air-condition units and storage, and we would move all that… They want us to expand 4,000 square feet more, and we wanted to take less. So that was our stumbling block.
And you know what? We had a great run here, almost 18 years, so let somebody else try it.
Do you know who’s coming in?
No, I don’t know. We [closed] TenPenh, and four or five years later, they finally found somebody to open up there. But we’re opening up TenPenh now in May because we found another spot for it [in Tysons Corner]. That one wasn’t working any longer, demographic changes. Here, the demographics changed. I still love the spot, but it’s too hard to get here. The traffic is a nightmare come dinnertime. There’s rush hour until 7 o’clock… We’ll just reopen it in another spot. We’ll find another spot. It’s not the end of the world.
So you do plan to reopen DC Coast elsewhere?
I can’t get rid of that mermaid! That’s my baby!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photos by Scott Suchman