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It’s a 50-degree spring Friday the weekend before Memorial Day. Empty streets and unanswered phone calls show how many people skipped town for a long weekend, and Congress has just departed for a nine-day recess. How hard could it possibly be to get a table for two?
As an experiment, I walk up and down 14th Street NW between 7 and 8 p.m. to see where I could eat without a reservation.
The Pig: An hour wait.
Birch & Barley: 45 minutes to an hour.
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: 45 minutes.
Estadio: 1 to 1.5 hours.
B Too: 1.5 hours.
Le Diplomate: Fully booked for the entire night inside, with some tables on the outside patio for those willing to brave the cold.
And this is a slow day.
Within the past month, eight new restaurants have opened on 14th Street NW—double the total number that opened there in all of 2012. Meanwhile, H Street NE has seen three new spots within the past 30 days. Other highly anticipated openings elsewhere in the city this spring: Nopa Kitchen+Bar, Del Campo, Azur, GBD, The Red Hen, and more. It doesn’t look like things will be slowing down anytime soon.
So why is it still so damn hard to get a table?
The conundrum seems to defy the laws of supply and demand. There are only so many people. Shouldn’t they disperse? Doesn’t something have to give?
The explanation most cited by restaurateurs is a population boom. Sure, there are more restaurants, but there are also more foodies to feed. Indeed, the District added more than 13,000 residents between July 2011 and July 2012, making it the 12th fastest-growing city in the country. That’s more than 1,000 people moving here per month, and apparently, the first thing many of them did upon arrival was put their name on the list for a seat at the restaurant you were headed to.
Tourism is up, too. Washington saw an increase of a million visitors last year, bringing the total number of out-of-towners to a record 18.9 million, according to the most recent data from tourism bureau Destination D.C. Visitor spending on food and beverage went up about 5 percent to a total of $1.7 billion.
Beyond the influx of people, there’s another theory behind the apparent shortage of tables, one which could actually make things even worse for reservation-seekers: The more restaurants there are within close proximity, the more the neighborhood becomes a destination where diners quickly fill seats and crowd bar stools.
“A lot of people complain when there’s a new restaurant opening next door or across the street because they’re afraid it’s going to hurt business,” says Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin co-owner Drew Kim. “But when you look at it as a whole, it actually brings more people to the neighborhood. In theory, it should help increase business.” Even with all the new restaurants in Chinatown in recent years, Kim says Matchbox still maintains the same hour to hour-and-a-half waits it had when it opened there in 2003. He says the same has been true for Matchbox locations in other neighborhoods.
Granville Moore’s owner Teddy Folkman says he’s counted about 25 new bars and restaurants on H Street NE since his restaurant opened six years ago. But he claims he doesn’t begrudge it; he welcomes it. The new additions have brought a new set of people to the neighborhood, who might not otherwise know about or stop into Granville Moore’s. The way Folkman sees it, H Street businesses aren’t competing with each other as much as the neighborhood is competing with other parts of the city and region for diners and drinkers.
In fact, clustering is a marketing strategy employed by many restaurant groups. That’s why Starbucks is often across the street from Starbucks. You see it on U Street NW, too: Restaurateurs Eric and Ian Hilton have six establishments—The Gibson, Marvin, The Brixton, Hanoi House, American Ice Company, Satellite Room—all within five blocks. In theory, the restaurants would benefit from a recently proposed liquor license moratorium, which would keep future alcohol-serving businesses from coming in and make their existing licenses worth a small fortune. But the restaurant group’s spokesperson, Sheldon Scott, has instead been an outspoken moratorium opponent, saying that the vibrancy created by those would-be competitors is what makes the entire neighborhood relevant.
Similarly, Black Restaurant Group owner Jeff Black says there’s a “good solid energy” between Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and new competition from Etto, Ghibellina, and Le Diplomate within a one-block radius. “I do know that there are people who are bouncing between Le Diplomate and me,” Black says. “Clustering is good. When you become known as a culinary destination, it feeds itself.”
But Black believes there is a point of oversaturation, and he says Bethesda is a prime example. “There are more restaurants in Bethesda than Denver, Colorado,” he says (though that’s a bit of an exaggeration). “And Denver has a football team.” Black has operated Black’s Bar & Kitchen there since 2006. “Every year there’s a rack of new restaurants, and I see my business dip down a little bit because everybody goes to check them out. But I tell my staff, ‘Don’t worry about them. Let’s worry about what’s inside our four walls…Once they’ve checked out the competition, they’ll come back.’ And they do.” (Higher rents may mean 14th Street never hits that same saturation point, Black thinks.)
And the truth is while all the restaurants may seem packed, they’re not. You just have to look beyond the shiny new destinations and media darlings. “There’s a lot of restaurants that are struggling,” says Black. “But they’re not necessarily on anybody’s radar, so people aren’t paying attention to it.”
If a restaurant has tons of vacant tables and no one is around to see it, is it really empty?
While by no means deserted, there were plenty of restaurants during my experiment last Friday on 14th Street that had room to seat my party right away. Great Wall Szechuan House, Teakwood, Posto, Masa 14, El Centro D.F., Eatonville, and others had crowds, but weren’t full.
And just because a restaurant is packed on a Friday night doesn’t mean the demand hasn’t waned. Folkman says his numbers at Granville Moore’s have remained steady since it opened in 2007, with about 200 to 220 covers on Fridays and 275 to 300 on Saturdays. But instead of the two-hour waits the restaurant saw on weekends in its early days, Folkman says 45 minutes is now the average. “The waitlists have gone down, just because there are more options on the street now,” he says.
Marvin experienced something similar since it opened on 14th and U streets NW in 2007. “For the first few years there, it was madness,” Scott says. “We probably accommodated 65 percent of the people who had intentions to eat with us.” There are still waits on weekends, but they’re not nearly as long. The difference now is that if you can’t get into one place, there are a dozen others within a few blocks. “It used to be back in the day that you had to go to another neighborhood,” Scott says.
The restaurants that are staying busy no matter what other options diners have are the ones that are staying relevant. One way to do that is to win widespread acclaim: That’s why you have to make reservations at Rasika, which is in every top restaurant ranking, a month in advance no matter how many new restaurants there are in Penn Quarter, and why you’ll be hard pressed to get a seat at Little Serow from James Beard Award winner Johnny Monis if you don’t line up at least half an hour before it opens. The quest for relevance is also why Black says he introduced the QR codes on his menus that let diners trace where their food comes from or why his Pearl Dive is always hosting crawfish boils, oyster festivals, and other parties and events.
Black is also getting more tech-savvy about those waits. Pearl Dive is one of a handful of area restaurants using a program called NoWait that not only texts diners when their table is ready, but tracks their place in line in real time from their phones.
“We do things to stay fresh in people’s minds because you have to. There’s a lot of new restaurants coming in. It’s pretty insane,” Black says. “And it doesn’t seem like it’s letting up.”
CORRECTION: This post originally contained two reporting errors. It originally stated that Little Serow is a James Beard Award winner. Its chef Johnny Monis received a James Beard Award this year, but it was for his work at sister restaurant Komi. Also, it originally reported that Granville Moore’s opened in 2005. It opened in 2007.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery