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Heavy-hitting restaurateur Stephen Starr pitched plans to take over the vacant and historic Dean & DeLuca space on M Street NW in Georgetown at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting Tuesday night. The Georgetown Metropolitan‘s Topher Mathews first shared the news and Washingtonian followed up with a rendering of the space, which will host an Italian restaurant and market with stations for baked goods, espresso, gelato, and the like.
“Just calling it an Italian restaurant, I don’t think is doing it justice,” Starr said at the meeting. There’s talks of him involving acclaimed chef and baker Nancy Silverton in the venture. “It’s going to be an event. It’s going to be a festival of food.”
Starr, who got his start in Philadelphia, also has restaurants in New York, Florida, and Paris. He’s behind one of D.C.’s highest grossing restaurants, Le Diplomate in Logan Circle, where the president and vice president dined on Memorial Day. St. Anselm near Union Market is also in Starr’s portfolio. Representatives from STARR Restaurants did not respond to requests for comment on why they chose Georgetown for their next big D.C. enterprise or when it might open.
ANC Commissioner Lisa Palmer has been sitting on the secret for at least a month. The building is in her single member district, 2E05. She wishes she could have seen the reactions on people’s faces as they first heard the news at Tuesday’s meeting, but because it was virtual, that wasn’t possible. “I’ve heard from chefs, I’ve heard from market owners, I’ve heard from retailers, plus obviously residents, and everyone is united in delight,” she says.
City Paper spoke with a dozen people with ties to Georgetown to get their reaction to the planned project that might change the neighborhood that’s been in transition since the liquor license moratorium lifted in 2016. Georgetown has set out to compete with newer nightlife hubs and Starr’s restaurant could help.
What was your initial reaction?
“I knew something big was happening, but no one was saying what,” says Beth Aberg. Her businesses, Random Harvest Home Staging, has been in Georgetown for 25 years. “I’m thrilled. Who wouldn’t be? Other than Danny Meyer, I don’t know that you’ve got a restauranteur of that caliber with such a guarantee of success. We have some very good restaurants in Georgetown, but this will be a crown jewel.”
“I’m terribly excited,” says former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. He lived in Georgetown in the summers of 1975 and 1976 and moved to the neighborhood permanently in 1993. “Georgetown had at one time been restaurant central for the metropolitan region.” He ticks off old haunts like Winston’s, Rive Gauche, Crazy Horse, and Pisces Club. “There must have been 50 or 60 places, then we hit a dry spell.”
Chef Johnny Spero is one of the latest chefs to open a fine dining restaurant in Georgetown. He announced plans for Reverie in 2016, and it opened on Grace Street NW in 2018. “We pull a very different demographic, but at the end of the day we can’t exist when there’s only a handful of restaurants in Georgetown,” Spero says. “If I thought that a large restaurant opening up next to mine would shut me down, I shouldn’t be operating a restaurant. It’s such a beautiful space, it deserves an operator that can do something cool and fun with it. I support it. It’s healthy competition.”
Even Italian restaurant competitor Cafe Milano, doesn’t sound threatened. “We are always pleased to see more interest in Georgetown,” representatives from the restaurant that’s popular with politicians tell City Paper. “For the past 29 years we have always believed that Georgetown is the best neighborhood in the D.C. metro area and welcome all that share that feeling.”
“Having the likes of a Stephen Starr join Wolfgang Puck in the neighborhood together with amazing independent small restaurants that we know, it’s going to be a really wonderful balance,” says Aba Kwawu, the founder of TAA Public Relations. Her company is based in Georgetown and Kwawu says she’s lived or worked in the neighborhood for 19 years.
“What I like about Stephen is he has a knack for creating things that still feel ‘neighborhoody,'” Kwawu says. “Look at Le Diplomate and what it’s become. It’s a place where out-of-towners go and hotels send guests, but it’s also for locals.” She hopes the Italian restaurant and market will be something those who live and work in Georgetown “can call their own.”
Ana Claudia Lopez owns Olivia Macaron, located next door to Starr’s new space. The sweet shop launched in 2013 and when Dean & DeLuca closed, it was a blow to sales. “They had an open seating area where people could sit down and they’d see our shop,” she explains. “We’re a little off M Street so when we lost Dean & DeLuca it was devastating for us. The alley got very dark and there weren’t enough reasons to walk by.”
Le Diplomate is one of Lopez’s favorite restaurants. “To know the same team with those amazing concepts is coming to Georgetown, especially in front of us, was amazing,” she says. “It’s a much needed breath of fresh air.”
“We share a landlord with the space,” says Peter Bayne. The restaurateur behind Tin Shop owns Church Hall, a cavernous bar close by. Jamestown is the landlord. “We knew they were looking for someone exciting to come in. Stephen Starr and his group are one of the best in the country,” Bayne says.
Bayne predicts Church Hall will see an influx of customers who come for a drink before or after dinner at Starr’s spot and he says he’s hoping the restaurant’s many employees will visit when they get off work. He’s also pumped on a personal level: “My weakness in life is prosciutto. I’m ecstatic to see the cured meat selection.”
How do you think the restaurant will impact or change Georgetown?
Bayne believes Georgetown, with its empty storefronts, is in need of a boost. “Everything closed during the pandemic,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a real shot in the arm. I think he’s going to bring other tenants into the area.”
Kwawu agrees. “Typically when something like this comes into the neighborhood, it inspires others to come too, be it hospitality or not,” she says. “When Intermix moved into Georgetown, you saw a whole bunch of cool retailers follow.”
So does Jamie Scott, the director of planning and economic development for the Georgetown Business Improvement District. “I’m really happy Jamestown was able to find a partner that brings new energy and new life into the building that has so much history and has evolved in its use over time,” he says. “What it does is signal to other restaurants that they can invest in Georgetown with confidence.”
A new restaurant with significant pull could mean changes to transportation and parking, but Scott isn’t too worried. “There are 3,200 garage and lot spaces in Georgetown,” he says. He also points out that in 2019, ride-share drivers made 1.5 million trips to and from Georgetown. “One of the things we’ve been trying to do with the sidewalk extension is create more spaces for pick-up and drop-off. Potomac Street is right there, so that’s a place to pull over. This is going to be such a big activity generator that if there’s a need for changing the curbside space, that’s something we can help do.”
“Georgetown has always had parking issues, and they will continue as long as DDOT keeps taking parking spots away from visitors and customers, especially in the vicinity of small businesses, who are already having a hard time surviving,” notes Bassam al-Kahouaji from Bacchus Wine Cellar. That said, al-Kahouaji is fan of Starr:”I must say that I am excited to learn that Georgetown could possibly be a location for such an outstanding pillar of our D.C. community.”
“Georgetown residents are still adjusting to the BID’s sidewalk widening pilot project and its impacts on traffic circulation and parking,” says Citizens Association of Georgetown Tara Sakraida Parker. “While the project details have not yet been reviewed by CAG, we are enthusiastic about welcoming a celebrated chef and restaurateur to Georgetown.”
“It’ll change some traffic patterns back to M Street,” says commercial real estate broker Ezra Glass of Thyme Real Estate Holdings. Three tenants under his purview recently opened in Georgetown—Green Almond Pantry, Apero, and High Road Cycling. “It’s been a little dead recently. … Having good restaurants helps everyone in Georgetown.”
“With everything that’s happening at the waterfront, the canal reopening, and the boat coming back, it’s going to be an interesting dynamic,” Aberg says. “To have someone like Starr choose Georgetown reinforces where we’re headed.”
What do you hope the restaurant group keeps in mind during the build-out and when it eventually opens in terms of being a good neighbor?
“What I’ve heard so far from them about how they’re treating the building is that they’re really honoring the space itself,” Scott says. “The intention is to retain that character. They’re planning to use outdoor seating on the plaza side, that will create more activity and bring more people there.”
“I would like to see them utilize the outdoor space there,” Glass echoes. “I love invigorating outdoor public spaces in Georgetown. That’s what makes it special. I hope they give that some attention.”
Palmer points out that Georgetown is lacking when it comes to grocers (the neighborhood’s Safeway is located about a mile north of M Street NW on Wisconsin Avenue NW). The ANC commissioner hopes some of her constituents can pick up last minute items to round out home-cooked meals. She also talks about some of the pain points of new hospitality businesses.
“In general with new restaurants and bars, we think about trash disposal and noise,” Palmer says. “Fortunately this building has been here for 200 years and some of that is already solved.” She says she believes Jamestown is working on a way to improve upon the previous trash disposal system.
“I’m not particularly worried about noise, although we’ll certainly learn more when they have more details on their operations,” Palmer continues. “We’ll work together on noise mitigation. There are residents who live quite close, but in preliminary conversations I feel it’s going in a good direction.”
During the build-out, Evans hopes the restaurant group assigns a contact person that neighbors and others can contact with any issues. It’s a strategy he says worked during Georgetown’s “little dig,” when the city spent millions of dollars fixing sidewalks, modernizing utility lines, cleaning up parks, and more. “There was a booth where people could come with concerns they had.”
Evans is already ready for a taste test. “When they do soft openings, they should get people in the neighborhood to come,” he advises. “They give free dinners for testers. I did that at Le Diplomate. I’m a good guinea pig. I don’t care if my food is cold or late.”