Why is Arlington Losing So Many Popular Restaurants?

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

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.)

Categories: Food & Drink