There are few sentences I hate more than this: It’s just business. A whole lot of shitty behavior has been justified by uttering this inanity. “I’m sorry we looted the 401K accounts and chewed the legs off your baby. It’s just business.”
I mention this by way of prelude. Two D.C. institutions—-A.V. Ristorante Italiano on New York Avenue NW and Wingmaster’s Grill in Union Station’s food court—-have recently been swept away by the bloodless hand of big business.
Developer Douglas Jemal brought A.V.’s building to make way for—-control yourself now—-an office building. But at least A.V.’s owners had a say in the transaction and apparently walked away with a multi-million-dollar nest egg after years of hard work. By contrast, the Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which controls the retail space in Union Station, merely booted Wingmaster’s on a minor lease violation, leaving the husband-and-wife team who own the place with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
I decided to stop by each place on its last day to pay my respects.
Tuesday afternoon at Wingmaster’s was not as sad as I had expected. Earlier in the day, customers had waited in long lines for one last chance to sample cook and co-owner Chong Kook Kim‘s simple, mouthwatering comfort food. They also came to say goodbye to Kim and her husband, Jong Kwon Kim, who have run Wingmaster’s for 18 years in the food court.
Long-time customer Bob Beasley brought the Kims a card. The owner of the nearby Great Steak & Fry Co. outlet stopped by and offered to cook the couple dinner. David Wall (pictured, with Mrs. Kim), the man who first told me about the Wingmaster ordeal, gave his favorite cook a single flower and a hug. Dozens and dozens of customers wrote down their contact information so that the Kims could e-mail them when, or if, they open another restaurant.
It all reduced Mrs. Kim to tears. “I’ve been so happy,” she told me over a plate of her fiery buffalo wings. She was happy that people, finally, understood her and could “see in my heart.”
The Kims’ children apparently have been lobbying their parents to quit the restaurant business and enjoy their golden years. But Mrs. Kim says it’s not in her to retire. Nor do her loyal customers want her to retire. The Kims apparently have been fielding offers to relocate Wingmaster’s elsewhere. Even the Kims’ staff is betting that the couple will rise from the ashes. None apparently have taken new jobs. “We’re willing to wait for her,” says Geidy Ramirez, a cashier. “She’s like a mother to us.”
How long will they wait? “Two to three months,” says Ana Maria Venture, a Wingmaster’s employee for 13 years.
When four of us stopped at A.V. at 5:45 p.m. on Saturday, we were surprised to see no line—-and an apparent open table right in front. This was an illusion. When the hostess arrived to mark down our party, there were already three pages of names ahead of us. Not to worry, the hostess said, everyone on the list will get seated. It may take two hours or more, she assured us, but you’ll eventually get a table.
We walked to the back bar, which was packed with waiting diners, some clearly unhappy. I muscled my way to the front—-near a dude in a LeBron James jersey bitching about his dirty martini to an overworked bartender—-and ordered a bottle of Chianti. An obvious choice, yes, but appropriate, we thought. But when she handed me the bottle, it was a Cycles Gladiator cab. I debated whether I wanted to be as big a dick as the dude in the LeBron jersey.
I opted to be a dick and ask the bartender for the Chianti, as ordered. She was sweet about it and gladly handed us the Chianti Classico Solco from Piccini. “You got the last one,” she said.
We took the bottle to the outdoor patio, to a table near the fountain of Neptune, and toasted the closing of A.V. We finished the bottle, then left. It seemed enough of a tribute to a place that I liked—-for its character and history, mostly—-but never really loved.