Big Chair Cafe Bar & Grill closes in Anacostia

You can still buy a cup of coffee in Anacostia, but you might have to get it to go.

After opening to fanfare in 2010 and undergoing a renovation and name change last year, the manager of Big Chair Cafe Bar & Grill announced over the weekend that he was closing up shop.

“Due to unforeseen circumstances, I’ve decided to close the Big Chair Bar and Grill effective Monday, October 14 2013,” manager Michael Sterling posted on Facebook Saturday. “I would like to thank everyone that has supported me and our family here at the Big Chair.”

Sterling said he had decided to become a partner at Mama’s BBQ Blues, a pizza and barbecue place down the street. He could not immediately be reached for comment at Mama’s BBQ and no one picked up the phone at Big Chair.

Big Chair’s arrival seemed to be a sign that Anacostia had added a local institution that would give people a place for a casual business meeting, a date or just a place to stop on the way to work.

Located at 2122 Martin Luther King Jr Ave. SE, the cafe was in the heart of the neighborhood’s downtown and named for the giant chair overlooking the street, built in 1959 by the Curtis family, owners of a furniture company.

Though the area still struggles with violence, the D.C. government moved its housing agency nearby the year before Big Chair opened and the neighborhood now has a business incubator and an emerging arts scene. A 2009 report from the D.C. Office of Planning said that MLK, with its traditional storefronts and lower rents, “could serve as a pedestrian-friendly core of small business developments.”

But Big Chair struggled financially before and after Sterling took the reins last year, when he added a new facade, a new menu and expanded seating.

“They don’t have to go across the bridge to go to Starbucks anymore,” Sterling said when he took over. “We can make anything they want here. Everything on the menu is under $10. I know it’s a struggle out there. I know what it’s like.”

Big Chair’s landlord, Stan Voudrie of developer Four Points, said in an e-mail that the closure resulted from a dispute between Sterling and the store’s owner. He was hopeful it could be reopened somewhere down the road. “They have to close down while they figure out a new plan,” he said.

Nikki Peele, a Congress Heights resident and blogger who works at Anacostia’s ARCH Development Corp., said Big Chair seems to have difficulty settling on a format.

“I just think it was just not clear — the setup of the space would just change so often, from being a coffee shop to being a cafe but not really,” Peele said.

With any luck for the neighborhood, Big Chair will again be reincarnated, similar to the way that Uniontown Bar & Grill was taken over by new management. Uniontown is one of Anacostia’s only sit-down restaurants.

“There’s definitely money here to be spent on things like food and drink,” Peele said. “It’s funny, every time I got to Barracks Row, I see everyone from over here,” she said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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