The fall of the Black Empire


Jeff Black will have to go back to the drawing board if he plans to build the Empire Oyster House in another location. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The planned Mosaic District project, featuring what Black had called the “largest oyster bar on the East Coast,” is dead in the water, the restaurateur said this afternoon. It’s the victim of “an impasse with the landlord,” Black said, referring to Edens, developer of the Merrifield site.

Black said that about two and a half years ago, he signed a lease with Edens for the Empire Oyster House, a massive restaurant whose name and design was supposed to recall New York City in the 19th century, when the Big Apple was Bivalve Central. (The name even came with its own inside joke, a reference to Black’s historic discomfort with media references to his “restaurant empire.”)

As part of the lease contract, Black said that Edens was obligated to pay for certain parts of the estimated $5.5 million build-out of the Empire Oyster House, including a pricy storefront. Black said that Edens was contractually on the hook for about $2 million, but would only commit to $1.4 million, leaving the restaurateur scrambling to cover the remaining $600,000. He said there was “no cap” on Edens’s build-out commitment.

“I’m assuming they thought I was going to buckle at some point,” given that Black had already sunk about $500,000 of his own money into the project, the restaurateur said.

But Black didn’t buckle, and he has now pulled out of the project altogether, pending some final paperwork. He said he didn’t feel comfortable working with one particular person with Edens, who was apparently putting a financial squeeze on the Empire Oyster House project. Black declined to name the person.

But Black did wonder aloud if Edens was trying to force him out, given that he signed his lease so long ago and the rental terms were now well below market rate.

Kerry Cavanaugh, vice president of marketing for Edens, declined to comment on “the specifics of the back and forth” between the parties. But he addressed Black’s speculation that Edens may have wanted him out.

“I can wholeheartedly say that there is no factual basis” to that claim, Cavanaugh said. “That is not our intent. We were excited from Day 1 to have Jeff at Mosaic, and we are disappointed not to have him.”

So is there a chance Black may revive the Empire Oyster House in another location? Black said it’s hard to say. “I always generate concepts based on the space, so I had to find a space that spoke to that concept,” he said. “I’ll look. I don’t know if I’ll ever find something else.”

Further reading:

Jeff Black plans to open his Empire in December

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.

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