It’s been a tough time for everyone, but among the hardest hit were the restaurateurs who rely on notoriously small margins to keep their doors open and food on their customers’ plates.
To keep a restaurant open during the coronavirus pandemic for any span of time has been an accomplishment in and of itself, as owners have continued to step up to the plate amid quickly changing circumstances and protocols to provide the safest experience possible for diners. From no-contact ordering to makeshift outdoor seating areas, no options have remained untried, no proverbial stones unturned. And yet many of the city’s most beloved spaces — some that had remained open for decades — were sadly still forced to shutter.
Last week, thousands of symbolic empty plates were delivered by restaurant workers and owners to the East Lawn of the Capitol building, inscribed with the names of people who lost their jobs and establishments that have closed this year. The powerful demonstration was the latest effort by the close knit local restaurant industry to urge elected officials to pass the RESTAURANTS Act — legislation that would create a much-needed $120 billion grant fund for independent restaurants and bars nationwide. Experts in the industry fear that even more restaurants will have no choice but to close as the weather grows colder and coronavirus cases continue to spike during the holiday season.
For longtime Washingtonians, the news of each independent restaurant closure feels personal, their announcements a cause us to relive the times we’ve dined there, drank there, danced there and made memories there.
So, whiIe it’s always sad to say goodbye, let’s take one last appreciative look at just a handful of the local joints we’ll be missing the most as the year finally draws to a close.
Johnny’s Half Shell
When John Fulchino and Anne Cashion first opened Johnny’s Half Shell back in 1999 in an intimate 35-seat restaurant space in Dupont Circle, there’s no way they could have guessed that it would have still been around 21 years later. Throughout that time, the restaurant has taken over several locations and welcomed countless guests, from politicos on Capitol Hill to the families of Adams Morgan. It’s unsurprising that it was difficult for many to fathom its closing this year, as Fulchino announced the bad news on social media:
“Over the course of almost 22 years we have been blessed with the most mature, hardest working, loving staff,” Fulchino wrote. “Each of them were dedicated, selfless professionals, and they were lots of fun, we are grateful to have been able to work alongside them. Stay clear of this business, it is a brutal way to go, but if you find yourself in it, do it with your best friend. Long may you run, and thank you!”
For those looking to support the pair, Fulchino and Cashion are still operating one location of Taqueria Nacional, in Mount Pleasant.
The Oval Room
Over the course of 26 years, notorious power-dining destination The Oval Room had welcomed many a celebrity and politician into its dining room, where metaphorical tea would be spilled and prix fixe lunches devoured. Back in 2014, owner Ashok Bajaj sprung for a $1 million renovation that included the addition of a grand white marble bar and original paintings by Jennifer Bartlett. After the coronavirus hit the city, Bajaj attempted to adapt with the introduction of a takeout sandwich pop-up in September, but unfortunately was driven to quietly close up shop shortly after.
Longtime fans need not mourn for too long, though, as Bajaj is reportedly holding onto the space, prime real estate just steps from the White House, and plans to introduce a new project there according to Eater. “Stay tuned for the opening of a new restaurant concept in the near future,” the Oval Room’s website reads.
El Centro D.F.
We’re convinced that just as many people fondly remember El Centro’s 14th Street location for the nights spent dancing to Latin music on a Saturday as they do the tacos and enchiladas. That was the multi-tasking magic of the place, and what makes it so very tragic that after a decade-long stint, the three-level taqueria and night club was forced to permanently close this year.
Taco lovers can rejoice about their still-open Georgetown location, but it is still yet to be seen whether owner Richard Sandoval Hospitality will choose to eventually relocate a second location elsewhere in the city. Those missing the tequila-shot side of things will also be happy to learn the hospitality group is moving forward with plans to open a tequila bar underneath a strip club in Mount Vernon Triangle sometime next year.
The closing of Otello strikes a particular chord with your corresponden. The classic red-checkered-tablecloth Italian restaurant was one of the first places I ever ate dinner at after moving to the city to attend college. Its generous portions and affordable prices were already a sight for sore eyes, and its charming mom-and-pop attitude was comforting for any guest seeking comfort and carbs within its walls.
Now, after 30 years in Dupont Circle, it has permanently closed its doors, writing to guests that the restrictions imposed by the pandemic made it impossible to stay in business. “Some other restaurants were able to pivot to pick up and delivery services, but it was determined that this was not a viable option for our little restaurant,” the website reads. “We hope you keep Otello in your memories as a place for good food, good times and cheer.”
18th Street Lounge
While not even technically a restaurant at all, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to recognize the influence of the now-late 18th Street Lounge. In the 25 years that the unmarked lounge occupied an iconic mansion overlooking Connecticut Avenue, it lent a hand in redefining the Washington nightlife scene, bumping different genres of music over the speakers and even playing host to Thievery Corporation as they recorded their first tracks inside ESL’s basement bar back in the 1990s. In recent years, hopeful guests would still line up around the block dressed up to get in, ready for regular themed events like reggae nights every Wednesday and DJ dance parties on Sundays.
It was a shock to many when co-founder and owner Farid Nouri decided to close up shop, citing an inability to come to terms on a five-year lease renewal with the building’s landlords. “The near-future potential for this hospitality business looks pretty dim — especially nightclubs and live show venues, where we rely on density and socialization,” Nouri told The Washington Post.
He also said that he’s “not done with this business,” though, adding that he sees himself “coming back on the other side, with a new version of Eighteenth Street Lounge at a different location — a reincarnation of ESL, continuing the music selection and the vibe and the energy we’ve built so far.”
When celebrity chef David Chang of Momofuku fame first brought CCDC to City Center, it meant more than just the opening of a new restaurant. The arrival of the cult-favorite New York import was indicative of the local dining scene’s quickly rising star, and was one of the first of many New York-based restaurant chains that would soon set their sights on our fair city.
Sure, it meant there was a new place to grab some delicious ramen or perhaps a corn cookie from Milk Bar, but the opening (and now eventual closing) of Momofuku CCDC also showed the nation that eyes were on us, and that DC had now become the kind of place where glitzy restaurateurs wanted to plant a flag.
For those looking for a silver lining after CCDC’s closure, Momofuku alum Peter Serpico has brought his “kinda Korean” Pete’s Place to DC — a delivery-only operation working out of St. Anselm that offers dishes like twice-fried chili-glazed chicken wings and bibimbap.
Mrs. K’s Toll House
One of the most recently added spots to the still-growing list of local restaurant fatalities is unfortunately Mrs. K’s Toll House — one of the oldest restaurants in the DMV. The Silver Spring landmark had been in business for a whopping 90 years before calling it quits a couple weeks ago.
The restaurant first opened back in 1930 in a historic Tudor house, named after its original owner Olive Blanche Kreuzburg, who operated the restaurant with her husband Harvey until around 1950. Comfort food and epic brunch buffets were the name of the game at Mrs. K’s, and a $1 million renovation in 2008 saw the addition of a stone-and-brick wine cellar in the basement.
Any InsideHook readers looking to start their own restaurant might even be interested in the historic space, whose leasing agent told local publication Source of the Spring that “the owners want to take the time to find the right operator to take it to the next level.”
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