"86" the Hole in the Wall

Can Arlington’s mom-and-pop eateries survive in an increasingly upscale restaurant landscape?

Vanessa Reisis sits at one of the three worn, wooden tables in Goody’s, the tiny Clarendon pizza parlor whose little blue building—which could easily be mistaken for a Munchkin’s house—is an architectural anomaly at the end of a block of mundane gray storefronts.

In true Greek mother fashion (the Reisis family speaks Greek around the restaurant) she is relentlessly offering me a slice of New York-style pizza.

“We make everything with love,” she says. How to say no to this 60-something, petite but pushy pizzaiola is beyond me.

“The kids all call me Mama Goody,” says Reisis, who named her family-run eatery Goody’s because they have “all the good things: pizza, subs and ice cream.”

They keep it simple. Pizza by the slice is plain or pepperoni. Other toppings cover the extras: mushroom, sausage, black olives. The closest it comes to gourmet is artichokes, or maybe the Greek pie topped with feta, black olives and lamb gyro meat.

But with all the swanky new restaurants cropping up in the neighborhood, Reisis has started to wonder if that love she puts into the food —six days a week, on weekends until at least 3 a.m.—is enough. “When we opened, there weren’t that many food places around,” she says. “Some people want to go where they’ll be seen, the more popular places.”

Arlington Economic Development estimates that 17 new restaurants opened within the borders of Clarendon’s one-third-square-mile area in the past five years, some of them in new space, but many others taking the place of failed Vietnamese restaurants, record stores and coffee shops.

At Goody’s, the price of a slice has been $2.75 since opening day five years ago. Although it’s still a favorite late-night stop for the bar crowd, the homey little space is fast becoming an anomaly in highbrow territory.

Arlington’s mom-and-pops are a rapidly disappearing old guard in an area that is spawning yogurt shops and grass-fed burger joints at a fast and furious pace. Clarendon’s restaurant scene alone has almost completely transformed in the past decade. And while that evolution hasn’t yielded uniformity, the new places are almost uniformly more posh than their predecessors. That’s meant higher real estate costs and steeper menu prices across the board.

Clarendon resident Bill Ryan, who writes the “Clarendon Nights” blog, wonders if the change will leave any of the area’s character intact. “I kind of worry about … some of my favorites not making it,” he says. “The rents get too high for all those little quirky places that give it a little bit of an ambience.”

Since the 30-year-old computer programmer moved here four years ago, he says, “it does seem that there’s more of a demand for those higher upscale places.”

And those upscale places generally have very good food, admits Melissa Rea, a 15-year Arlington resident, as she waits for friends at Pete’s APizza, the New Haven-style pizza shop that opened on Clarendon Boulevard in March. (She loves Pete’s ultra-thin crust, she says.)

“The food at the new places that we’ve been has been awfully good,” Rea says. “But I’m a little more alternative than trendy, and there’s not a whole lot of alternative stuff left.”

Now the same kind of redevelopment is under way in other parts of Arlington, and some restaurants that have been good enough for years may have cause for concern. Are Rosslyn and Ballston the next destinations for D.C.’s copious homegrown chains? Will Columbia Pike’s new image force out its hole-in-the-wall ethnic spots?

Neighborhood Restaurant Group is one of the relative newbies that helped shape Clarendon’s metamorphosis when it introduced the hip, New American dining destination Tallula in the old Whitey’s location in 2004. Its experience could be telling for what’s to come in other places around town.

“The large number of residential and retail projects that were in development in and around Clarendon were about to bring thousands of new residents to the community,” NRG owner Michael Babin says, looking back. “Rents started to spike, and owners were moving away from small, independent shops and talking to bigger regional and national restaurant groups.” Babin’s homegrown company—which owns nine local restaurants, plus a bakery, wine shop and catering business—has carved out a comfortable middle ground between the national chains and local one-offs.

As other restaurateurs saw the success of Tallula and followed suit, “upscale-casual” became the name of the game in the neighborhood.

Babin’s next Arlington project led him to Ballston, where last February he opened a second location of Alexandria’s beer and pizza mecca, Rustico. NRG’s move to the neighborhood, along with fast-casual salad spot Sweetgreen (its seventh D.C.- area location) and the soon-to-open sports bar Green Turtle (which has more than two dozen locations in the greater D.C. region), could portend the next evolutionary phase of Ballston—a home for local chains and restaurant groups.

“We felt like Ballston had developed a great deal of density without really developing a great mix of quality restaurants,” Babin says. “It had sort of skipped that period … and jumped right to P.F. Chang’s territory.”

The prevalence of the upgraded restaurant experience has forced change, in the form of both failed businesses and adjustments by neighborhood stalwarts. The Quarterdeck, the three-decades-old crab shack near Fort Myer, recently introduced a craft beer program. Owner Lou Gatti, who took over the ’Deck in the 1990s, when a bushel of crabs cost $40—they now go for up to $150—openly admits to craft beer skepticism: “Me, I was always, ‘If it isn’t Budweiser, if it isn’t Miller, I don’t need it.’”

But as Gatti prepares to retire at the end of this year, his successor, manager Patrick Morrogh, has other ideas. “He’s bringing in some of these designer beers in house, and they’ve been very popular,” Gatti says. Menu additions, including house-smoked ribs, are also in the Quarterdeck’s future.

At the same time, Gatti thinks patrons will continue to crave the mom-and-pop experience in Arlington, even as housing becomes more expensive and residents skew more-affluent. “They can have fun here,” he says. “We’re not going to be the Cheesecake Factory. This building is 100 years old. But we have a lot more ambience.”

Falls Church legend JV’s Restaurant—motto: “Ageless charm without yuppie bastardization”—is banking on customers’ desire for that unfussy experience. The venerable bar and restaurant in an Arlington Boulevard strip mall has live music every night and has sold 60 tons of meatloaf since it opened in 1947, says owner Lorraine Campbell.
“We’ve done a few little face-lifts over the years, but people don’t really want it to change,” she says. (And for the record, the place doesn’t actually have anything against yuppies, she adds. The motto has more to do with the influx of cookie-cutter chains in Falls Church.)

“You don’t find very many small neighborhood places anymore; they’re a dying breed in the area,” she says. “Now there’s Applebee’s, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday’s. But we’re our own little unique-type thing going on.”

Even JV’s has adjusted somewhat, however. Its menu is being revamped. The famous meatloaf isn’t going anywhere, but the restaurant has been slowly adding more vegetarian options to serve its clientele. Add to that a host of Greek menu options on the way, to pay homage to her family’s background, Campbell says.

If the Quarterdeck and JV’s stand as examples of how to stay current without sacrificing authenticity, businesses on Columbia Pike might want to take notice. Gentrification, and the “new versus old” battle that goes along with it, is just beginning on the Pike, and the next few years will be a test of whether new, fancy restaurants and mom-and-pops can coexist.

 

New development and clientele have already attracted the first-ever wine bar, Twisted Vines, to Columbia Pike and enticed some regional favorites to open branches there. Among them: P. Brennan’s, the Irish pub from the owners of McGinty’s in Silver Spring, Md., and Lost Dog Café, a spin-off  of the original gourmet pizza deli in Westover. More settlers are on the way, including Taqueria Poblano (the taco spot on Lee Highway in Arlington and in Del Ray, Alexandria); a new American-style concept from Rosslyn’s Rhodeside Grill owners; and the second location of Eamonn’s, chef Cathal Armstrong’s wildly popular Alexandria fish-and-chips joint.

NRG’s Babin acknowledges that he’s been looking at the Pike for a while, too. “I really like Columbia Pike,” he says. “It definitely has the potential to get more dense and more interesting.”

“Everybody [venturing onto Columbia Pike] right now is the first risk taker,” says Takis Karantonis, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO), a publicly funded group that’s working to shape development on the corridor according to the county’s long-term plans.

Lost Dog Café was one such risk taker. “It’s really worked out kind of perfectly,” says Jim Barnes, one of the franchise’s four owners, “with all the new buildings, and the energy they’re bringing into the area. We kind of fit right in and can take advantage of that.” With its 200-plus beer selection and large, brightly painted canvases on otherwise spare walls, the restaurant is targeting just the demographic that is expected to flock to the Pike in future years.

So what of the takeout Thai places, Chinese restaurants and rotisserie chicken shops that may offer a dynamite local dish but don’t cater to a white-tablecloth crowd? CPRO is counting on them to stick around and make the area Arlington’s go-to destination for authentic ethnic cuisine. But, like their neighbors along Metro’s Orange Line, they will probably have to spruce up.

“They must adapt,” says Karantonis. “We would like to see older, fast-food-centered units—like kabobs, Chinese, Thai—transitioning into higher-quality restaurants that … are preserving the character but offering a better experience.”

One newly opened restaurant toward the western end of the Pike has taken this attitude to heart. When Café Sazón took over a space that had given way to a succession of failed Peruvian chicken ventures, its owners looked to create an atmosphere unlike those found in typical Latin American restaurants in the area.

Owner Adriana Torres, an architect-turned-café-owner who worked on the design herself, says the ambience of the bright, airy space was nearly as important as the menu.
“I grew up on Columbia Pike, so we wanted to make sure we gave the community some good food, and a café, a nice place to sit down,” she says. Homespun touches, such as a comfortable couch and chalkboard menus, offer something more than a place to run in and grab a quarter-chicken or an arepa.

And yet the focus on atmosphere and quality service doesn’t diminish the food. Many of the restaurant’s staples—including the pounded beef silpancho and lawa de jamkáquipa, a special beef-and-vegetable soup thickened with superfine grains of ground corn—are Bolivian, like Torres and her family, and they’re made the way Bolivians expect them to be, she says.

This is the direction Karantonis hopes the Pike is going. “If you do nothing, your competitors will do it, so you will be eventually out of the market,” he says.

And who might those competitors be? Some would like to see a mini-Jaleo or a Ray’s outpost take root. Others hope to see Five Guys returning to the place where the huge franchise began: on Columbia Pike.

All Laura Myrosh knows, as she sips a glass of wine at Twisted Vines, is that she’d like more options for happy hours close to her home one block off the Pike. “It would be nice in more places to have outdoor seating,” she says. “Almost none of the places along here do.”

“We would like to have a very good restaurant, with a good chef who decides to go off the beaten path, settles here and makes truly a destination place,” Karantonis says. “We would like to see rooftops.”

Of course, not everyone is looking for Columbia Pike to become upscale. “Sure, some days, you want a $30 burger and a $20 martini, but for the other six days of the week, you want someplace like this,” says a customer named Nicki as she digs into a $2 burger at the Old Arlington Grill, the good-bargain pub attached to the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse. “Just like there are enough people that are mad about $15 movies.”

The Drafthouse is lucky, however, in that it occupies an older, very specific kind of space. With Columbia Pike’s new mixed-use buildings bringing in higher rents, an influx of chains is inevitable. If the area matches the development of Clarendon, where the average rent of older buildings is $30 to $40 per square foot, versus as much as $60 per square foot in buildings constructed in the past five years, newer retail space won’t be an option for small-scale restaurants that operate on very little margin.

Starbucks has been sniffing out new turf on Columbia Pike, as have other American-style national chains, Karantonis says.

Back in Clarendon, Java Shack owner Dale Roberts looks at his 16-year-old coffee shop and its future. “You have all these new people, and they want the newer sophisticated look versus the shack look,” he says. “Then I have people, of course, saying, ‘Don’t ever move, don’t ever change.’ ”

But the fact is, the neighborhood coffee game has picked up quickly in the past two years. Northside Social—launched by the partnership that owns Liberty Tavern and Lyon Hall—opened in the large, significantly renovated Murky Coffee space. Chef David Guas, author of the Louisiana-style dessert cookbook DamGoodSweet, found a location for his Bayou Bakery concept in Courthouse. Boccato Gelato started making handcrafted coffee drinks using the cult-status Stumptown beans. Longtime concert venue IOTA threw its hat into the barista ring with IOTAday. Now Boccato is about to open Boccato Lounge, a larger coffee hangout adjacent to its current Wilson Boulevard spot that dwarfs the size of its existing shop, not to mention Java Shack.

The competition has forced Roberts to respond. A deal is in the works to put Java Shack’s coffee on the shelves of the Clarendon Whole Foods. And it was time to expand the coffee varieties. Roberts recently began importing coffees from Peru, El Salvador and other regions.

“Up till this point, we would have our House French Roast … and four origin coffees,” he says. “I’ve come to the realization, with the competition like it is, four origins at a time is not enough.”

Many owners, in Clarendon at least, are wondering if the neighborhood already has enough restaurants. Chains occupy some of the prime real estate, and that trend doesn’t show signs of slowing down. A majority of the space in the recently opened Clarendon Center—a building occupying an entire block across the street from the Clarendon Metro —is leased to local chains: D.C.’s rapidly expanding burger spot, BGR The Burger Joint, opened next door to Hard Times Café. This same complex also hosts the first Virginia location of D.C.’s Pete’s APizza, another location for Dupont Circle’s Larry’s Homemade Ice Cream, and Red Velvet Cupcakery—a D.C. expansion.

A block away, the national guys are getting in on the action. New Yorkers’ cupcake obsession, Crumbs, opened a Clarendon Boulevard location in January, and Florida-based Lime Fresh Mexican grill is about to open on North Fillmore Street, around the corner from locally owned Mexicali Blues.

“From the beginning of March till now, it feels like a new restaurant has opened in Clarendon almost every week,” Roberts says. (OK, so that number is a little closer to nine restaurants since March.) “That’s a lot for an area. Yes, there’s new apartments, but it’s a lot to happen.”

Jon Williams, general manager at Restaurant 3 on Clarendon Boulevard—home of Bacon Week and a weekly Bacon Happy Hour—can’t help but notice the same thing. “There’s a fine line in the neighborhood between oversaturation and everybody piggybacking on each other,” he says. “We’ve got enough restaurants, at least for now.”

Williams, who managed Whitlow’s for several years, opened Restaurant 3 with Whitlow’s owner Greg Cahill four years ago, aiming to do something “completely different” from the neighborhood bar. “At the time, there weren’t as many upscale restaurants in Clarendon,” he says, laughing. “Liberty [Tavern] wasn’t open, Eventide wasn’t open, Circa wasn’t open, Lyon Hall wasn’t open. I’m sure I’m missing some.”

“It’s always a valid question as to how much demand is there for any concept. If you have one yogurt shop versus if you have two or three or five,” says Jeff Handler, a retail broker with Asadoorian Retail Solutions, which leases space in Clarendon. “It’s how deep is the level of demand? And I think the jury is out to a certain degree.”

The jury’s also still out on how Arlington’s mom-and-pops will fare as the area continues to evolve—whether they’ll continue to feed a hunger for down-home authenticity beneath the hype over craft beers, artisanal cheeses and gourmet cupcakes. “I really don’t know. The rent…,” says Williams, trailing off. “It all depends on the landlord. But I hope [they can stay]. Because I think that’s part of what makes this neighborhood cool, that there’s still a good mix of small independent guys and the big ones.” 

Rebecca Cooper is a freelance journalist and blogger living in Rosslyn.

Categories: Food & Drink
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