Why is Arlington Losing So Many Popular Restaurants?

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

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.

Categories: Food & Drink
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