Why is Arlington Losing So Many Popular Restaurants?

Turnover has become a regular occurrence in Arlington's dining landscape. What's going on?

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When Tim Ma opened Water & Wall in Virginia Square in 2013, accolades quickly poured in for his unique style of French-Asian cuisine, as expressed in dishes such as mussels in saffron-coconut broth with Chinese sausage, ginger, lemongrass and chilies; or bourbon-spiked chicken-liver paté with duck prosciutto, sweet green chili relish and orange-vinegar glaze.

Ma garnered “Rising Culinary Star of the Year” nominations three years in a row from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, yet visits to Water & Wall slowed to a trickle. This despite his attempts to generate renewed buzz with seasonal pop-up menus and a creative kids’ menu. The restaurant served its last meal on Valentine’s Day 2017.

Today, Ma’s romance with the suburbs appears to be mostly over. (After selling his first venture, Maple Ave. Restaurant in Vienna, to a staff member back in 2015, his only remaining eatery in Virginia is the sandwich shop Chase the Submarine.) He’s now channeling his energy into two new urban properties: Kyirisan, the restaurant in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood that he owns with his wife, Joey; and Ten Tigers Parlour, a lounge and event space in Petworth (the brainchild of restaurateurs Eric and Ian Hilton) for which Ma created a bar menu of Asian-style street food.

Water & Wall isn’t the only gastronomical loss for Arlington, which in recent years has also seen the shuttering of cherished spots such as Eventide, Tallula/EAT Bar, Willow, Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, P. Brennan’s Irish Pub and the short-lived Sehkraft Brewing. Are we witnessing a normal rate of turnover in a competitive market? Or are the closed doors emblematic of a fundamental shift in Arlington’s dining landscape?

Water & Wall closed in February. Photo by Jonathan Timmes

The answer may be a little bit of both. Attrition occurs naturally in an industry that hinges on the trendy and the new. In the past year alone, the number of independent (nonchain) restaurants in the mid-Atlantic declined by 4 percent, notes local analyst Rick Zambrano, an Arlington native and owner of the trade publication Eatery Pulse News. Nationwide, that trend was a bit higher, at 5 to 6 percent over the past four years, according to the NPD Group, an international market research firm.

Some industry observers have suggested that America’s major metro areas could be seeing a restaurant bubble, whereby the combination of a labor shortage (not enough line cooks and other back-of-house workers), rising real estate prices, oversaturated markets and customer demand for locally sourced and artisanal (read: pricey) ingredients has led to a proliferation of business models that simply aren’t sustainable.

Then again, change has long been a constant in the dining business, and Arlington is no exception. When Joe Corey opened Faccia Luna in Clarendon in 1992, the only neighboring eateries were Hard Times Café and a handful of bare-bones Vietnamese restaurants. “Clarendon was like Petworth is now,” Corey says. “The place where you got the rent deal.”

Back then, he says, “rent was in the teens” per square foot. Today, the average rent in Clarendon is at least triple that amount.

Clarendon changed dramatically in the decade that followed, with the arrival of Whitlow’s on Wilson, Mexicali Blues and Market Common Clarendon, which ushered in national chains such as Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Whole Foods, Cheesecake Factory, and eventually an Apple store. Suddenly, Clarendon had a lot more foot traffic. In 2002, Corey opened Boulevard Woodgrill a couple doors down from Faccia Luna. It had a solid 14-year run before it closed in 2016.

Chef Tim Ma. Photo by Jonathan Timmes

Today, Arlington’s dining scene is still evolving. Susan Lambert, 49, who lives near Nottingham Elementary School with her husband and two teenage sons, says she misses high-end restaurants like Eventide and Willow, though she admits she didn’t visit them often.

“I liked the fact that they were here. [But] we would have one good meal, and then we’d go back and something iffy would happen,” Lambert says, “and we wouldn’t want to splurge a third time.” Now, for special nights out, she’s more apt to go into D.C. to try one of the restaurants on 14th Street or near the Verizon Center. “If we’re going to eat at an Arlington restaurant, there are so many less expensive places that are tried and true,” she says. (Her two favorite spots close to home are Lyon Hall and The Liberty Tavern.)

Dining-wise, Arlington isn’t the novelty it once was. It’s got competition from the nearby Mosaic District, where the options include popular D.C.-based chainlets like Ted’s Bulletin, Matchbox and Cava Mezze, not to mention the decidedly tony Requin, which started as a pop-up concept by chefs Jennifer Carroll and Mike Isabella (essentially a test market for their forthcoming restaurant by the same name in D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront development). Mosaic also has premium boutiques and a high-end movie theater. People who used to drive into Arlington from Fairfax County can now stop at Mosaic instead, notes Marc McCauley, director of real estate development for Arlington Economic Development.

Clarendon in the early ’80s. Photo courtesy of Center For Local History, Arlington Public Library

Squeezing Arlington from the other side is the nation’s capital, which last year was crowned Restaurant City of the Year by Bon Appetit magazine. Now boasting a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants and acclaimed chefs such as Eric Ziebold (Metier, Kinship), Aaron Silverman (Rose’s Luxury, Pineapple and Pearls) and Johnny Monis (Komi, Little Serow), the District has upped its game.

Dining in D.C. is also easier than ever, thanks to car-sharing services like Uber, Lyft and Car2Go. Customers no longer have to worry about finding parking or driving home after a night of drinking. “We see people starting in Arlington and then heading into the city,” says Nick Freshman, a co-owner of Spider Kelly’s in Clarendon.

Clarendon today. Photo courtesy of Arlington Economic Development

Ballston resident Joe Goldfrank, 29, is one of those coveted customers. A government employee, he says he eats dinner and lunch out at least once a week and frequently hits the Friday happy hours after work. But if he plans to spend more than $20 on a meal, he crosses the Potomac. “D.C. has pop-ups and new places that are really interesting,” he says.

McCauley is nevertheless bullish on Arlington. He touts the county as one of the top-10 restaurant markets nationwide in light of its low unemployment rate (2.9 percent), median household income ($110,900) and sizable share of Millennials, who tend to eat out frequently and make up some 27 percent of Arlington residents, according to 2016 county data.

When one restaurant door closes in Arlington, he points out, another almost invariably opens. While the county’s commercial vacancy rate recently hit an all-time high (topping 20 percent), the culprit was largely empty office space. Retail vacancies, as a subset of that number, are at about 3 percent countywide, McCauley says.

The pace of turnover has been fast and furious in Rosslyn, where 15 new restaurants opened in the last three years as the neighborhood increased its share of residential units and shook its reputation as a business district that went dark after 6 p.m. One of the latest newcomers is Quinn’s on the Corner, an Irish-Belgian concept by Reese Gardner, who also owns Copperwood Tavern and the forthcoming Dudley’s Sport and Ale in Shirlington.

County leaders are optimistic that the reinvention of Ballston Common mall—set to reopen in 2018 as Ballston Quarter, a mixed-used, open-air development—will also bring renewed appeal to a neighborhood that’s seen a rash of turnover. Punch Bowl Social, a nationwide chain of gastropubs, has plans to open a 25,000-square-foot restaurant, bar and entertainment concept at Ballston Quarter, complete with vintage video games, shuffleboard, private karaoke rooms, bowling, pingpong, bocce and Skeeball.

The Mosaic District brings a new town center to Merrifield. Courtesy photo.

But that news doesn’t sit well with locals who are wary of a national chain takeover. “It screams flavorless suburb,” Waycroft-Woodlawn resident Mike Kane lamented last year upon hearing that an Applebee’s franchise was opening its doors in Ballston.

In the restaurant game, size matters. These days, smaller may be more manageable. Willow, which closed in 2015 after a 10-year run, clocked in at 7,500 square feet. That’s a lot of rent to carry when you’re not bringing in enough diners to fill the seats, McCauley says. Especially now that rental rates for retail space in Arlington average $50 or $60 per square foot.

Sehkraft Brewing, an ambitious spin-off of the popular (but considerably more diminutive) Westover Beer Garden & Haus, included a 200-seat restaurant, on-site brewery, live music stage and adjacent butcher shop—all of which added up to a whopping 9,500 square feet. Sehkraft was open less than a year. (It’s now being replaced by The Board Room, a bar and board-game concept that started in D.C.)

Smaller restaurants, by contrast, have several advantages, including lower overhead and the impression that the place is always crowded, which generates buzz.

Celebrity chef Mike Isabella has made deft use of three small restaurant spaces in Ballston, notes Kevin Shooshan of the Shooshan Co., whose Liberty Center development houses an Isabella trifecta. At 4,700 square feet, Kapnos Taverna, a spinoff of Isabella’s acclaimed Greek restaurant in D.C., is the largest of the three. Yona, an upscale ramen bar, is 1,400 square feet, and Pepita, a Mexican cantina emphasizing craft cocktails, is a mere 1,200 square feet (not including its patio, which adds nearly 70 seats in good weather without adding to the rent).

Isabella isn’t the only restaurateur eyeing the suburbs as prime territory for the expansion of his brand. Robert Wiedmaier has found success with a satellite location of Mussel Bar in Ballston; Ivan Iricanin’s Clarendon outpost of Ambar (which also has locations in Belgrade and on Capitol Hill, plus another one on the way in Georgetown) received immediate applause when it opened in October; and Michael Schlow recently introduced a fourth incarnation of Alta Strada (which has locations in D.C., Boston and Foxwoods, Connecticut) in the Mosaic District.

Once a haven for scrappy young chefs looking to put themselves on the map, Arlington has changed. Today it’s the darling of restaurateurs seeking to expand dining concepts that have proven successful elsewhere.

Occupying 7,500 square feet, the former Willow space on North Fairfax Drive remains vacant. Photo by Liz Lynch

Some 60 percent of restaurants fail in their first year, and 80 percent fall short of the five-year mark, according to an oft-cited 2005 Ohio University study. But there are those that manage to beat the odds.

Take the quartet of neighborhood spots owned by Vintage Restaurants partners Wilson Whitney, Chis Lefbom and Adam Lubar, all of which enjoy a healthy share of regulars. Rhodeside Grill opened in 1997 in Rosslyn. Next came Ragime in Courthouse; Dogwood Tavern in Falls Church City; and William Jeffrey’s Tavern on Columbia Pike.

“We try to accommodate everyone,” says Lefbom. “Whether it’s for a business lunch, dinner with friends, a private event, weekend brunch, live acoustic music, a big game on TV…we want to be a place that customers would consider seven days a week. We recently added a two-level patio at Dogwood…and some accordion-style windows at Ragtime so we can open the restaurant up on nice days.”

Pepita’s intimate 1,200-square-foot space is often packed. Photo by Greg Powers.

In April, The Liberty Tavern celebrated its 10th anniversary in Clarendon—a milestone that co-owner Stephen Fedorchak attributes, in part, to a stable and cohesive ownership group and staff. “Our general manager and our most recognized bartender have been with Liberty Tavern from the beginning,” says Fedorchak, who also owns Lyon Hall and Northside Social in partnership with brother Mark Fedorchak and local builder Brian Normile.

It helps that the group’s restaurants are housed in restored historic properties. Each enjoys a quirky, homespun vibe that would be harder to pull off on the ground floor of a generic mixed-use building. Fedorchak and his partners are now taking that model to Falls Church City, where they plan to open a coffee shop similar to Northside Social in a vintage building on Park Avenue. They’re also taking over the Famous Dave’s barbecue space on West Broad Street, just a couple blocks down from an area that’s soon to be redeveloped into a public town plaza.

Mike Cordero’s MACNAC Group owns A-Town Bar & Grill, Barley Mac, Don Tito and the soon-to-open G.O.A.T. sports bar. Courtesy photo.

At the same time, Arlington may be witnessing the rise of a new guard. It includes restaurateur Mike Cordero, whose MACNAC Group owns A-Town Bar & Grill in Ballston, Don Tito in Clarendon and Barley Mac in Rosslyn. This summer MACNAC will open G.O.A.T., a sprawling, 9,000-square-foot sports bar, in the former Hard Times Café space across from the Clarendon Metro station.

Reinvention, Cordero says, is one key to his company’s success. It started in 2012 when he joined forces with his son, Nick, and partner Scott Parker to convert Caribbean Breeze—a Latin restaurant he owned that had grown stale after nine years—into the sports bar that is now A-Town. Since then, he says, sales at the property have doubled.

“The weak are going to be weeded out, and the strong are going to stay,” Cordero says. His model is decidedly different from white-tablecloth spots like Willow, whose quiet dining room and artisanal menu made it a popular choice for business dinners and romantic special occasions. Instead, A-Town and Don Tito (whose tagline is “Tacos, Tequila and Beer”) have cultivated a following among Millennials with specials like extended happy hours, half-price menu items, live entertainment, DJ giveaways and a direct-to-table bottle service that allows patrons to avoid standing in line at the bar.

Barley Mac, which opened in April 2016, kicks things up a notch with dishes like Wagyu beef meatballs, truffle fries and squid-ink linguine, but it also has a lively atmosphere and a dedicated football menu that’s available in the bar and patio areas during games.

Molly Wolford, 25, an advertising research analyst who works in Rockville, Maryland, and lives in Clarendon, notes that small, tactical moves have given places like A-Town and Don Tito a leg up, and it’s not about house-made charcuterie or sustainably farmed arugula. Rather, the restaurants run their happy hours from 3 to 8 p.m. instead of the typical 4 to 7 p.m. “I get off work at 6 p.m. in Rockville,” Wolford says, “so it’s hard to make it to happy hour by 7 p.m., but 8 p.m. works.”

Is Arlington’s restaurant landscape oversaturated? It depends on who you ask. Some chefs and owners whose concepts have fizzled would say yes. But Javier Candon, a co-proprietor of SER in Ballston (which he owns with chef Josu Zubikarai) sees strength in numbers. He says he’s hopeful that the redevelopment of Ballston Common will make the neighborhood more of a dining destination akin to 14th Street in D.C., where you might grab a cocktail in one place, go out for dinner somewhere else and then finish with a night cap at yet another establishment.

 

Mike Bramson is making a play with Pamplona, Bar Bao and The Lot, a new beer garden. Courtesy photo.

Mike Bramson, co-owner of Social Restaurant Group, which owns Provision No. 14 and The Prospect in D.C., is of a similar mindset. A Clarendon resident, he’s recently made a play in his own neighborhood, starting with Pamplona, the trendy Basque restaurant that opened in the former SoBe Bar & Bistro location. Next up: Bar Bao, which promises Asian-style buns and a full bar in the recently vacated Mad Rose Tavern space. The two restaurants will share a courtyard patio that’s set back from Clarendon Boulevard.

“We hope to create a little corner that will attract people to that side of the block,” Bramson says.

That’s not all. Social Restaurant Group is also converting a former used-car lot at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and 10th Street into an 18,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor beer garden, with a setup akin to the Fairgrounds outside Nationals Park in the District. With the arrival of The Lot, Bramson says he’s hoping to capture the clientele that frequented Sehkraft and CarPool, which at press time was slated to close in April.

He’s betting that Arlington’s sweet spot is that middle ground—a locally owned venture that’s bigger and more capitalized than a mom-and-pop but smaller and more personal than a corporate chain.

“I hope people will go to dinner at Pamplona, grab a drink afterward at Bar Bao and then end the night at the beer garden,” Bramson says. “If you give people a reason to stay in Arlington, they will.”

Arlington freelance journalist Lisa Rabasca Roepe has written for Fast Company, Quartz, The Week, CityLab and Good. She is also a Forbes contributor.

Associate editor Lisa Lednicer also contributed to this story.

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