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On a recent Tuesday evening, the 36-seat Uniontown Bar & Grill is standing room only. It’s karaoke night. The vibe is revelatory and loud. And, just like in the heady days after it became Anacostia’s first real sit-down restaurant in recent memory, no one is talking about the eatery’s latest turn in the media.
Patrons clutch pint glasses of colorful cocktails and pick at baskets of saucy chicken wings that emit a rather enticing aroma. On the menu, they’re described as “Louisiana wings.” But, on the nose, it’s all Vermont: sweet, sticky, amber waves of maple tree goo. Or, at least the Midwestern-manufactured high fructose corn syrup equivalent.
For a newcomer, ordering these tasty finger-foods can be tricky. Simply asking for wings isn’t specific enough, it seems. The pile of dry fried bones that I received on my first attempt looked and smelled nothing like the delectable things that everyone else was picking apart and licking off their fingers.
Later I learned that you need to know the right lingo. Just say “sweet ’n’ spicy” to get the good stuff. The menu says nothing about this. But that’s the way it works.
Tangy, ultra-sweet, and packing some pretty palpable heat, the wings—whipped up with simple pancake syrup, Buffalo-style cayenne pepper sauce, and plain white sugar, a cook tells me—are a popular topic of conversation tonight at Uniontown. “For me, it’s too sweet,” the bartender says. “But they’re very popular.”
Others have the opposite reaction: “It’s not bad but, whew!” says a woman seated next to me, fanning herself. “Oh my God, that is hot.” She turns to the cook, “Can you make ’em sweet and not spicy?”
Outside the restaurant, no one is talking about the wings, or any of the soups, salads, sandwiches, or other finger-foods. There is a whole of lot chatter, however, about the owner of the restaurant, Natasha Dasher, who now stands accused of dealing in more lucrative and illicit substances—and about whether her beloved Uniontown could soon be history as a result.
* * *
Dasher, 36, was charged in two federal courts on Nov. 1 with separate counts of conspiracy and possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute. Acting on a tip from a confidential informant, agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had tracked a tractor-trailer carrying some 65 kilograms of the white powdery substance in its fuel tank from Laredo, Texas, to Dasher’s office in Fort Washington, Md., according to court papers. Inside the suite on Livingston Road, authorities said, they also recovered duffel bags containing approximately $1.5 million.
It took a few weeks for the news of her arrest to make the papers. But once it broke, it upended the storybook narrative surrounding Dasher’s pioneering restaurant—and it seemed to put the rebirth of an entire community in jeopardy.
In Anacostia, the lack of a nice sit-down restaurant has been a complaint dating back years. The arrival of Uniontown, which opened in February, had been hailed as a symbol of the neighborhood’s resurgence. Finally, there was a place that was neat and pristine, complete with fancy cocktails, fashionable culinary ethics (antibiotic-free meats!), and a contemporary design that wouldn’t look out of place along the city’s yuppie corridors. Perhaps more importantly, the owner, Dasher, was a local, a fifth-generation Washingtonian now returning to her hometown bearing the gift of a shiny new long-sought amenity. She fit the role of fairy godmother to a tee, right down to hiring about a third of her workforce from Ward 8, the area with the highest unemployment rate in the country.
A glowing Washington Post article on the new restaurant portrayed Dasher as a benevolent businesswoman: “Indeed, on a recent afternoon, a woman wandered in asking for help getting to a city homeless shelter. Dasher had something more in mind than just a handout. ‘Would you like a meal?’ she asked….As the woman waited, Dasher slipped her some money.”
Dasher certainly embraced her status as a neighborhood catalyst. A framed copy of that Post article is displayed prominently inside the restaurant, alongside old photos of the surrounding streetscape dating back to the 1930s.
The paper’s subsequent report on her arrest has yet to receive the same careful curation. Dasher did not respond to calls for comment.
The consequences of a conviction could be catastrophic for Uniontown. Dasher is listed as the sole proprietor on the restaurant’s liquor license, meaning that the future of the neighborhood gathering place rests entirely on how her criminal prosecution plays out. “If she’s found guilty of a felony, then she can’t hold a license in D.C.,” says Cynthia Simms, spokesperson for the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration.
A guilty verdict would not automatically negate her current license, but it would trigger a regulatory process of hearings to revoke the license under D.C. law and grant the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board full powers to do so. Even if Dasher pleads down to a misdemeanor, she could still lose the license. “Then it goes before the ABC Board and it would be at their discretion,” Simms says.
And no amount of maple-syrup wings would likely make up for the loss of lucrative booze sales.
Dasher’s landlord, developer Stan Voudrie, has said that he hopes to keep some type of bar or restaurant in the Uniontown space, be it under the current management or an entirely new operator. But transitioning to a new proprietor wouldn’t be seamless. Transferring the existing license would also require ABC Board approval, not to mention money for the business, its lease, and other assets. If the license is yanked, the new boss would need to start the whole licensing process from scratch. That could take months.
And who knows whether another operator would even make the same gamble? Sure, the area is drastically underserved. And, anecdotally, at least, the business seems busy enough. But is it actually making money? That’s unclear. The question of whether proceeds from food and drink sales alone are enough to keep such a good-looking business afloat will likely be pondered by criminal investigators if the case against Dasher proceeds.
According to ABRA, Uniontown failed to submit its required quarterly statement— a mandatory report outlining food and alcohol sales that is designed to demonstrate whether a licensed restaurant is on the up and up.
* * *
If the Uniontown storyline sounds familiar—D.C.restaurateur implicated in an interstate cocaine-smuggling operation—that’s because it’s happened before. Back in 2000, Phyllis Webster, operator of Petworth’s MidCity Café, was indicted in connection with an alleged cocaine-smuggling operation running between D.C. and Miami.
If Webster’s case is any indication of what could happen at Uniontown, then supporters of the Anacostia restaurant have reason to worry.
According to court documents, Webster eventually became the government’s key witness in its prosecution of accused drug-ring leader Cornelius Singleton. (Court papers filed in Dasher’s case indicate that authorities have been conducting “negotiations” with her, as well.)
Webster’s cooperation likely spared her some prison time. Court records show that she received a reduced sentence of 54 months in prison. But her restaurant on Georgia Avenue NW is no more.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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