When Capital Q barbecue in Chinatown shuts its doors this Saturday, it will be the end of an era in barbecue — not just in Washington, but nationally.
Texas native Nick Fontana opened his small cafeteria-style joint in 1998 in a section of the nation’s capital that was only then emerging from decades of neglect.
“It was desolate back then,” Fontana recalled in a recent interview. “The Verizon Center, well, the MCI Center back then, had just opened a week or two before us. You couldn’t even get a cab at night.”
Not only was Washington, along with many Northeastern cities, on the cusp of change, so was barbecue. Capital Q was part of that change even as it was undone by it.
Some 15 years ago, the lowly food of Southern country folk and impoverished city folk had gotten shined up by the likes of Corky’s BBQ in Memphis and the Washington area’s own Red Hot & Blue chain; traditionalists soon spat out the phrase “gone to gas” in regions where wood-enhanced ovens were replacing wood-only pits. But the intertwined trends of corporatization and technology had just begun.
No one back then could have foreseen the rise of upscale, high-ceilinged barbecue restaurants with designer cocktails or chefs-turned-pitmasters. Competitions existed, but they had not yet coalesced into Cook-Off, Inc. Regionalism could still start a bar fight between partisans of one style over another.
Capital Q was right in the middle of all that. Drawing on technology, it ran an Ole Hickory wood-enhanced gas smoker to produce its Texas-style ’cue. Regional in outlook, it opened without offering pulled pork (a North Carolina specialty not common in Texas), but a month later, Capital Q caved to customer demand by adding pulled pork to the menu.
Despite the menu change, Capital Q helped introduce the area to Texas-style barbecue. Its decor of cow skulls and bull horns helped set a Lone Star State vibe that struck some as kitschy, others as homey. That iconic Texas meat, smoked beef brisket, while available here and there in town, was the centerpiece of Capital Q’s menu. To this day, the eatery’s brisket sales are double those for pulled pork; Fontana sells 1,000 pounds of oak-and-hickory smoked brisket a week compared to about 500 pounds of pulled pork. He also sold a spicy beef sausage, beloved by Texans, from the tiny central Texas town of Elgin.
Fontana catered meals for famous Texas politicians, including President George W. Bush,
former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (*) and former House majority leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. He catered Bush’s last meal as president, at Glen Echo Park, the night before Obama’s inauguration. He catered dinners and events for Democrats, too. (He also catered an event for Shania Twain. Just thought I’d mention it.)
Fontana maintains that he wasn’t run off by the competition that has sprung up lately or by Hill Country, a high-dollar Texas-themed restaurant that opened more than two years ago just a few blocks away. His sales, he says, remain the same as ever, sometimes even higher.
What did him in — in a cruel irony known to many small forward-thinking businesses — was the success that his early-adopting entrepreneurialism helped create: The city’s revival resulted in higher costs of doing business. That and increasing food costs. “People are going to only pay so much for a brisket sandwich,” he said. “We’re charging $7.50, and it should be $10 for what our costs are.”
The landlord, who gave Fontana a five-year option, offered him a buy-out. “We took it,” Fontana said. “Running a community service and employment agency is not really profitable.”
The decision to close, he said, was tough. “We could have stayed for five more years,” he said. “But occupancy costs and food costs are so high. And that’s the sad part. It’s starting to look like a food mart in a mall around here. All chain restaurants.”
For now, Fontana is going to concentrate on Cantina Marina, the waterfront restaurant that he has a stake in. He is also going to decide whether to resurrect Capital Q elsewhere or open something entirely different. “Maybe I’ll make spaghetti,” he said. “Get back to my Italian roots.”
In a way, Fontana, by helping to introduce Texas barbecue to Washington, helped pave the way for Hill Country. When Fontana opened Capital Q 15 years ago, smoked brisket was an anomaly at barbecue restaurants in the District and throughout the North. These days, it is ubiquitous.
Fontana was part of that.
“We did something very unique here,” he concluded.
Capital Q’s last day of business will be Saturday, July 14. As a send-off, Fontana is lowering prices. He will sell brisket sandwiches and his Cowboy platter (brisket- or pulled pork-topped rice) for $5, beer for $3 and chicken wings for 50 cents apiece. He will hang pricetags on the restaurant’s adornments. Get there early to buy those bull horns, a stuffed armadillo or a cow skull.
* Correction: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison(R-TX) is still a U.S. Senator. She will be in office until the end of the year.
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