by Kriston Capps
Jane Black reported yesterday on the latest thing in DC food since the IFA: the stretch of 14th Street NW between Logan Circle and Florida Avenue. At first glance, the story may strike someone who lives along this corridor (as several IFAers do) as a good year too late to be catching 14th Street on the upswing. The Post’s own Debbi Wilgoren wrote up the area as trendy back in 2004, which was even then a good 3 years after the first storefront white cube gallery had moved in. (Fusebox, you are missed.)
Still, Black makes her case by previewing a number of establishments that have yet to be established, including Birch & Barley (a wood-fired oven pizzeria) and ChurchKey (a lager house featuring 50 drafts and 500 (!) beers), Eatonville (a Zora Neale Hurston–inspired Southern eatery), and Mid-City Cafe (a straightforward and much-needed coffeeshop). When you discount all the luxury furniture and lighting shops, entertainment is certainly the vibrant sector giving 14th its vibe.
A couple things jump out in Black’s survey. One fact unknown to me is that it is still relatively cheap to develop space along 14th: $21 to $45 per square foot, compared to about $60 per square foot in Dupont Circle, according to the reporter. I would have guessed much, much higher. The corridor still has several abandoned storefronts, and even a few larger warehouse-style spaces remain from its prior heyday as the District’s Auto Row. Those warehouses are available elsewhere in the city, but nowhere so safe and walkable and condo accessible.
The other noteworthy point has to do with the way that District restaurateurs talk about their business environment.
Here is Ian Hilton, owner of both Marvin and The Gibson, on the congestion and crowds that persist despite the proliferation of new spaces along 14th:
Do we compete? Yeah. But if it’s busy here, we can send someone down the street. The more things that are here, the better a destination it becomes.
Note that “send[ing] someone down the street,” literally speaking, would land the customer at a space that Hilton also owns. That theme is repeated throughout the article: Many of the dining halls and bars named are sister spaces, second ventures, or collaborations. Sure, so it goes. But at times it feels like there are 12 owners and 20 chefs in all of Washington, D.C. Elsewhere in the city, one freaking dude owns all of H Street NE.
Then there’s Andy Shallal on character:
D.C. doesn’t have a real character to it. . . . They say, ‘This is so New York or New Orleans or San Francisco.’ How many times do you go somewhere and say, ‘This is so D.C.?’
Of course character mostly comes from native regional cuisine, which D.C. lacks. But this is no accident. I would attribute the lack of diversity in both street food and entrepreneurs to how damned hard it is to open something up in the District. The urban planning experts among the IFA can all speak to this issue in ways that I can’t (my knowledge on the subject is at best a poor reflection of theirs), but I love me some character and feel where Shallal is coming from.
In Austin, which is where I’m from, it’s exceedingly easy to take an idea and build it out on a property. That means there are tons of restaurants all over the place. Turnover is very high because competition is extremely intense, and people from all over move to the city to take advantage of both the ease and the audience of the restaurant scene. The city is nowhere near as monied as D.C., so the wares trend toward the casual, but that means that they compete especially hard in other areas, such as atmosphere.
So you get a place like House Wine,
which certainly “looks like Austin.” And as it happens people will line up at night to drink wine at high prices (for Austin) in an almost comically comfortable environment. It’s like a dive wine bar! There are plenty of college students and young people in D.C., and I would bet that they would flock to a brightly lit, colorful establishment that served elegant wines, if only for the contrast it would serve to Cork, Vinoteca, Veritas, proof, and any other chic, formal, cold wine bar in the city you want to name.
Why do all those places look alike? My guess is, well, that I am subject to a severe bias for the casual that other people don’t necessarily share. My second guess is that there is a certain threshold after which experimentation pays off but before which hewing closely to the norm is extremely important. And for all the new spots on 14th NW, D.C.’s restaurant capacity, or whatever, still falls before that threshold, while “character” falls on the other side.