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Last Friday at 4 p.m., I ducked into a new restaurant, thinking I was in for a quiet beer at an empty boîte. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I snagged the very last stool at the 30-seat bar, which was already crowded by groups at high-top tables. By 6:30 p.m., the place was more full than a frat party, with people spilling from the bar area into the dining room and clogging the hallways to the restrooms in the back. It was the busiest restaurant I’ve been to recently.
But this was not some trendy place on 14th Street. Or in Chinatown. Or Adams Morgan. This was Heavy Seas Alehouse in, of all places, Rosslyn. It’s the second such spot from Baltimore-based Heavy Seas brewery.
The beer-centric spot off Wilson Boulevard isn’t the kind of place critics will fawn over or restaurant lovers will put on their must-try lists, but it’s got one big thing going for it: It’s there. And, well, there isn’t a great selection of decent sit-down restaurants, or places to grab a beer nearby. Since Heavy Seas opened three weeks ago, the demand has surprised even its owners. The restaurant went through 100 kegs in its first seven days. “We knew we would be busy, but we didn’t know we were going to pour that much beer,” says co-owner Vince Cassino.
Rosslyn has long been the ugly duckling of restaurant real estate. Sure, it’s got a lot of things going for it—walking distance to the District, Metro accessibility, lots of office workers—but the neighborhood has struggled to attract the kind of restaurateurs who could help turn it into a dining destination. With a few exceptions, the Arlington suburb has been dominated by fast casual eateries, like Chipotle and Cosi, that primarily cater to the weekday lunch crowd. But is the rush at Heavy Seas a bellwether? A quietly growing residential population and new development on the way suggest Rosslyn’s dining scene could be on the verge of change. For the first time, maybe ever, there’s a glimmer of a possibility that people other than the nearby office workers might actually say “Hey, let’s have dinner in Rosslyn.”
“You go up to Georgetown. You go up to Courthouse and Clarendon, and there’s kind of been this void in the retail map,” says JBG Companies Principal Andrew VanHorn, who’s involved in the forthcoming Central Place mixed-use development in Rosslyn. “There’s a whole generation of people who don’t even think about Rosslyn as a place to go or do anything. Overcoming that perception hurdle is a big one.”
Rosslyn was developed in the 1960s as a federal workplace with some hotels. “It was intended to completely just work as a warehouse for GSA workers and nothing else,” VanHorn says. The buildings weren’t very friendly for restaurants either, VanHorn says, with almost no street-level retail and sky bridges and main entryways on the second floor.
VanHorn also says Rosslyn has taken much longer to redevelop than Clarendon and Ballston because it has a much higher density of “old, somewhat valuable office buildings that were full of people.” Only more recently have developers found incentive to build new spaces or retrofit older ones. One of the biggest additions to the area is Central Place, a huge mixed-use development between North Lynn and North Moore streets that should be complete in about three years. The development will add about 30,000 square feet of new retail, which will include four or five full-service restaurants and bars. Another new office building at 1812 North Moore St. will add an additional 11,000 square feet of street-level retail.
Rosslyn BID President Mary-Claire Burick says developers and property owners recognized several years ago that the area was missing higher-end eating establishments. “They know that we need those restaurants, and so they’ve made it a priority even to the point of being selective about who they’re going to accept into the market,” she says. Meanwhile, the Rosslyn BID has been hosting craft beer and wine tastings as well as pop-up markets and trying to host more food events in the evenings to help rebuild the neighborhood’s reputation.
“Rosslyn is like the misunderstood stepchild,” says restaurant real estate broker John Asadoorian, who’s helped restaurants like Le Diplomate, DGS Delicatessen, and Sweetgreen find locations. “No one takes time to sit down with Rosslyn and ask how it’s feeling and who it is.” If they did, he says, they might find out that the offices and apartments in the neighborhood are fully occupied with a young and affluent population that’s greatly underserved compared to nearby neighborhoods. According to the Rosslyn BID, around 11,000 people live in the area, 41 percent of whom are between the ages of 25 and 34 with an average household income of $105,000.
Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin co-owner Drew Kim says he’s looked at Rosslyn a couple times. “It’s always been a lunchtime crowd over there. I think the nighttime has always been the hard draw,” he says. Plus, rents weren’t any cheaper than they are in the District. “It just wasn’t a home run location for us, but I think maybe now if we had the time or the wherewithal to go, we would probably pick the ball back up again, but I just don’t know. What’s over there?”
On one hand, Kim points out that if there’s nothing around you, you can be the draw. But the Matchbox crew prefers to be in areas where they can build off the energy of other restaurants and retailers. “We didn’t want to be the only pioneer over there.”
But Heavy Seas did. “It’s definitely taken on a new dynamic over at least the last four years,” says co-owner Cassino. “A lot of those surrounding areas have really exploded…Now it’s underserved in terms of a full-service restaurant.” Plus, he points out, there’s nothing like Heavy Seas within a mile radius. The restaurant seems to be proving that there is an evening crowd in the neighborhood: So far, it’s getting an average of 100 to 200 people for lunch and 200 to 250 for dinner each day. On the busiest days, it’s had more than 600 covers.
Ben’s Chili Bowl, which recently opened its first new standalone location in 55 years in Rosslyn, is also anticipating an evening crowd. While it’s only open until 11 p.m. to start, the half-smoke joint plans to eventually extend service to late night.
“First you get one, then you get two, and then it’s sort of like the rush is on,” says the Rosslyn BID’s Burick. She and others involved in the neighborhood’s real estate view Heavy Seas as a major catalyst for the dining scene, although whether that’s true has yet to be seen.
“As you create a destination, you’re actually going to be self-fulfilling,” VanHorn says. You build more roads and highways, people drive on it. People will come to Rosslyn as you create more higher end options.”
But Heavy Seas won’t start a new wave of dining on its own. Over the past year, Asadoorian claims interest in Rosslyn has really picked up in part because of the increased efforts of the Rosslyn BID and developers to sell and educate retailers and restaurants about the area. Among the properties Asadoorian represents is the Colonial Village Shopping Center, where Ben’s Chili Bowl just moved in. “We’ve got more interest than we can shake a stick at. Problem is we only have two spaces that are a certain size, and we have certain constraints as far as what we can do there with parking.”
Asadoorian believes Rosslyn’s trajectory will resemble what’s happened to Ballston. “No one wanted to be in Ballston because it didn’t have any character,” he says. “We had to twist [Neighborhood Restaurant Group owner] Michael Babin’s arm to do Rustico there.” But like Rosslyn, the neighborhood had a lot of residents and workers but not many eating options. Now, Ballston is attracting the likes of Robert Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar & Grille and Mike Isabella’s Kapnos Taverna. “I guarantee you, I stake my reputation on it, Rosslyn will be the same way. It’s just a matter of time,” Asadoorian says.
It’s not just perception, but also lack of space, that’s preventing more upscale eateries from coming to Rosslyn. Many of the properties that are available require substantial construction or reformatting to accommodate dining rooms and kitchens. If there was more space, it would be leased, Asadoorian says.
Still, Rosslyn isn’t trendy, compared to other neighborhoods. “Everyone beats their heads against the wall to go to the hot corridors after everybody’s opened there,” Asadoorian says. Just look at 14th Street. But having brought restaurants to both 14th Street and Rosslyn, Asadoorian now seems to be rooting for the underdog. “If I was a restaurateur, I wouldn’t go to 14th Street. There’s too many restaurants and the pie is not that big, and the rents are high. Go to Rosslyn. There’s no restaurants, and the pie is huge.”
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Photo of Heavy Seas Alehouse by Darrow Montgomery