Why is Arlington Losing So Many Popular Restaurants?

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

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

Categories: Food & Drink