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On the corner of 1st and T streets NW, tucked just a few feet back from the busy speedway of Rhode Island Avenue, a cream-colored building sat vacant for two years, drawing curious glances from passersby. In the last couple of months, it’s come to life, with construction noises emanating from the inside, and recently, wafts of baking dough and spices. At 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, a few young people sit at the bar chatting with the bartender, a football game playing silently on TV; what sounds like a Jack Johnson Pandora station plays overhead. Soon after 6 o’clock, customers start trickling in—couples, groups, families with strollers, until every one of the dozen or so tables are full, with a waiting list.
Welcome, residents of Bloomingdale, to your first neighborhood bar.
It doesn’t have a sign outside yet, and the patio sits empty (that takes one more permit). But Rustik Tavern is already a revolution of sorts. It started serving a couple weeks ago, with a jam-packed soft opening, and has had standing-room only some weekend nights since. To celebrate the occasion, North Capitol Main Street, Inc., is throwing a party at the restaurant this Thursday with Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr.; all 200 tickets were claimed within a day of the announcement.
“We’ve been waiting seven years to find a place to get a pizza,” says Tim Breen, finishing off a crispy Neapolitan-style crust with his wife and young daughter. That’s how long they’ve been living in the neighborhood.
Rustik’s opening was something of an anticlimax after all the neighborhood acrimony that surrounded Big Bear Café’s application for a liquor license, which first came before the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission last winter. Over the course of several months, Stu Davenport’s aspirations to stay open late and serve cocktails would pit mostly black, longer-term residents against the Big Bear’s mostly white, mostly recent transplant supporters. The ugly public debate burst back onto the surface most recently at last week’s hearing before the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration board, where all the worries about parking, trash, and noise were trotted out again.
Even some of the most vociferous opponents of the Big Bear’s license have nothing but good things to say about the new restaurant, though.
“I think it’s great!” gushes Barrie Daneker, an ANC commissioner who harshly criticized Davenport’s application. “Finally a nice place to sit inside or outside; enjoy a bit of nosh and have a wine or beer. It’s been a long time waiting, but worth it.”
Rustik’s liquor license, though, never came before the ANC—and who knows what trouble they would have given owner Diton Pashaj if he were the first, instead of Davenport. The developing Bloomingdale bar scene is a laboratory for what it takes to bring something new (especially something new with alcohol, and the attendant D.C. licenses, involved) to a neighborhood that desperately wants development, but has qualms about the side effects. In that context, success is composed of one part strategy, one part money, and a tall glass of luck.
To the not-especially-plugged-in resident of Bloomingdale, it appeared as if Rustik just popped up fully formed, ready to start dishing out pizzas. To Pashaj, it was a long, silent struggle. Which, more often than not, is the story behind new bars and restaurants—months and months of planning, and just about as much paperwork, goes into each opening.
Pashaj, 29, came to the U.S. from Albania when he was 17, and arrived in D.C. five years ago looking for a “regular, normal, career job.” Not finding one, he settled for a gig as a server in lefty restaurateur Andy Shallal’s Luna Grill. From there, Pashaj quickly rose through the ranks, helping to open Busboys and Poets’ Shirlington location before moving on to U Street NW wine bar Vinoteca.
Three years ago, Pashaj started moving forward with plans to open his own place, writing a business plan for a cozy neighborhood bar with financial backing from his two siblings (sister Ejonta, a project manager for international development company, and brother Auron, who runs a market research company). He started scouting for space in Columbia Heights, and set his sights on a hole in the wall on 11th Street NW north of Park Road, but lost it to another company.
From there, Pashaj decided to shift neighborhoods. He lived in Bloomingdale, and Davenport had talked up the friendliness of the community, the need for something like Vinoteca to give residents the option of getting a drink with friends. That brought Pashaj to prospective location number two: 116 Rhode Island Ave. NW, the site of the former Sylvan Theater. Pashaj worked with the landlord for two months and was ready to sign a lease, but “lost it on a technicality.”
Back to the drawing board. Location No. 3 was a green storefront on 1st Street NW between Seaton Place and T Street, where Pashaj signed a 10-year lease, and sank $3,000 into plans for the build-out. Those plans, in accordance with regulations, included the addition of a bathroom—which the landlord rejected, unless Pashaj paid more to compensate for the bathroom’s eventual removal. Pashaj said no, and the landlord broke the lease.
“See your reaction?” says Pashaj, when my face curdles. “That was my reaction times about a hundred.”
Finally, Pashaj ran into some luck. Across the street, Aleks Duni, owner of Veranda in Shaw and Mount Pleasant’s Marx Café and Heller’s Bakery, had been trying to open a Greek place called Baraki. Duni had locked down the necessary permits back in 2008—making him the first restaurateur in Bloomingdale to get a tavern-class liquor license—but he couldn’t find the loans, in a post-financial-collapse universe, needed to get Baraki off the ground. Pashaj saw an opening, and approached Duni—a fellow Albanian—about taking over his lease and inheriting his liquor license, which only required that he agree to all the terms of the voluntary agreement that Duni had already signed with the neighbors.
Bam, Rustik had an address. But not without taking years off Pashaj’s life.
“For me, this was the last spot in Bloomingdale,” he says. “I was thinking about crashing the idea of a bar. After [the bathroom incident], I thought, ‘Let’s just go invest the money in real estate.’ I was depressed. Trust me, I was depressed every day.”
The process, of course, wasn’t over yet. Pashaj found a chef, luring Seth Brady over from Vinoteca. Then he had to choose a pizza oven, which required multiple trips to a manufacturer in New York City—and putting up three guys in his house while they installed it. His contractor, who said he would take 30 days to finish build-out, actually took four months; Pashaj’s parents, who came to D.C. for two months as the restaurant got close to opening, had to leave before Rustik was finally ready.
And all along, Pashaj tried not to generate too much interest—Bloomingdale’s hopes had been dashed too many times to raise them even further. He was already deluged with e-mails and tweets from people desperate for information about when the place would open, what it would serve, how they could help. And any time Rustik popped up on a blog, something went wrong.
“Not to say that I am superstitious. I’m not. I’m so not superstitious. But it happened four times in a row,” he says. “I mainly wanted to get the work done, and then be more like, here it is, surprise. Enough talk, there’s been so much talk for years now.”
Rustik was the first bar to open in Bloomingdale, but it won’t be the last. Others are watching closely to see how the canary in the coal mine fares.
Like Davenport and Pashaj, Colin McDonough and Gareth Croke first decided to open a bar in Bloomingdale because they wanted a place to get a beer within walking distance of home. They have plenty of experience in the industry, at least as employees: Croke and his brother Matt, originally from England, had been raised in the hotel industry and spent their lives doing various jobs in the restaurant business. Croke met McDonough at Adams Morgan’s Tom Tom—not a model for their own place, they promise!—while McDonough was bartending and Croke was working at the now-shuttered Biddy Mulligan’s in Dupont Circle.
Starting their own establishment, christened Boundary Stone, was a more daunting endeavor. If they knew one thing, it was that they had to win over the neighbors, and lock down a liquor license as soon as possible. So after securing a space—they chose the Sylvan Theater on Rhode Island Avenue, many months after Pashaj had lost it—they put in their ABRA application in the spring, and right before their red placards went up announcing the pending application, posted fliers around the whole neighborhood inviting people to an open house. About 130 people showed up.
“It had been pretty much drilled into us that we’d have to deal with it, and it would be a struggle, and so we tried to get out in front of it as much as possible,” says Croke, munching a sandwich at the Big Bear before he and McDonough headed off to work at Fado in Chinatown.
Next came a presentation before the Bloomingdale Civic Association. New restaurants don’t have to ask the approval of community organizations and ANCs, but it’s wise, since either one can protest a license (and ANCs have considerable statutory influence on the ABRA board’s decision). Bloomingdale has it easy relative to neighborhoods like Georgetown, where moratoria on liquor licenses have forced would-be bar owners to buy a license from someone else, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars. But neighborhood opposition can kill a license just as effectively, so the trio met with Thomas, the local councilmember—support in high places never hurts.
“We were just looking for help in breaking down any combative forces that may or may not be in the neighborhood,” Croke says. In the end, residents did ask for a so-called “voluntary agreement,” which became part of the terms of the liquor license. But they didn’t try to confine the Boundary Stone’s hours, which are the most crucial part of the rules attached to a license, and often the most contested. If the bar couldn’t stay open until 3:00 a.m. on weekends, the legal last call, it wouldn’t make it. (The voluntary agreement Rustik inherited from Baraki means the bar must close by 1:00 a.m. on weekends—Pashaj would stand to benefit considerably by extending those hours, but won’t touch the question of whether he’ll ask to do so).
Now, the Boundary Stone guys are lining up their contractors, and doing what they can to help Davenport finally secure what they got with relative ease. Croke testified on the Big Bear’s behalf at last week’s ABRA board hearing, telling of the crack dealers that used to inhabit the corner of 1st and R Streets before the café started. Davenport, McDonough says, ran into resistance from people who already harbored resentments against the Big Bear and what it represented to a changing neighborhood.
“People already have things that they would love to get out there about this business. And now you give them a platform,” McDonough says. “Whatever angle you wanted, you had that angle.”
Rustik, meanwhile, has taken the pressure off other establishments to open—it’s “taken the air out of the balloon,” as McDonough puts it. McDonough and the Crokes often stop by Rustik, taking note of the lines outside.
Croke smiles, his blue eyes wide. “And we’re like, ‘Awesome.’”
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- Back to the Future: Inside D.C.’s First New Breweries in Decades
- Casking for It: An Old-Time Beer-Delivery System Makes a Comeback
- Tap Lessons: Advice for the Brickskeller’s New Owners