Second Servings

New 14th Street NW restaurants are bringing some very familiar flavors

September 5, 2013

Doi Moi is the Southeast Asian offering from the chef at Estadio and Proof.

For those who remember the corner of 14th and Q streets NW better as a laundromat than Le Diplomate, the neighborhood looks a little different these days. From Logan Circle northward, restaurants on 14th Street are unwrapping the brown paper from their windows, revealing renovated interiors ready to serve an influx of new residents. It’s charming to see freshly glazed pop tarts through freshly glazed windows at Ted’s Bulletin’s second outpost. Of course, you can still find Ted’s famous homemade pop tarts at the restaurant’s original location on Barracks Row. And if the tables at the new Greek restaurant, Kapnos, are full (spoiler alert: they are), you can always eat chef Mike Isabella’s food at his Chinatown restaurant, Graffiato.

The same could be said of Ghibellina, a new take on Italian from the owners of Eastern Market favorite Acqua Al 2. Meanwhile, up on V Street, Diego was opened — and temporarily closed — by the brother-owners of Dupont Italian Kitchen. And the new pizza place, Etto, has three proprietors: two own Tenleytown’s 2Amys and one owns 14th Street’s Garden District.

This summer’s restaurant boom brought new and exciting concepts to 14th Street — almost exclusively from owners with successful ventures elsewhere in the District or around the country.

As a result, 14th Street is quickly becoming a microcosm of D.C.’s culinary identity, with founders of popular restaurants in other neighborhoods trying to put their mark on the corridor.

“Back in 2006 and 2007, [14th Street] didn’t have the ‘star power’ ” it has today, says Ben Harris, who ran 14th and You, a now-defunct blog about the neighborhood, from 2007 to 2011 before moving to Montgomery County, Md., with his wife. “It was people kind of striking out on their own. You had the Corks, you had the Saint-Exes and the Bar Pilars.”

Back then, 14th was a less-developed strip where intrepid restaurateurs could go into business for the first time.

Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts were first-timers when they opened the wine bar Cork in 2008. They raised money the old-fashioned way: by asking friends for donations and putting a second mortgage on their condo.

“What my wife and I did, you’re not going to be able to do that anymore,” Pitts says. “The cost of doing business here has dramatically increased.” Pitts estimates commercial rents in the area increased between 35 and 45 percent since 2007.

Those are rents would-be restaurateurs can’t afford by asking a few friends to pitch in. That means it’s become the playground of big-name restaurant groups, such as Starr Restaurants, which opened Le Diplomate, or concepts that have already proven successful, such as Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin.

To Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, the increase in rent costs is a matter of supply and demand. “Logan Circle has become the densest residential population in the city,” Tregoning says. “So it’s got more mouths, or more wallets per square mile, than any other part of the city.”

That demand for spots on 14th Street grew very quickly after a slew of condos and apartment buildings were planned for the area. “It happened so fast,” says Matchbox Food Group co-owner Ty Neal, who opened Matchbox on 14th Street in the spring and Ted’s Bulletin across the street in August. “Everyone we heard about was looking for a lease on 14th Street.”

It remains to be seen whether that influx of new restaurants makes 14th Street the most innovative culinary avenue in D.C., or a version of Epcot, where you can get a taste of everywhere else. “Fourteenth Street seems to be a place people want to have a stake in, and you’re not seeing quite so many new ventures,” Harris says. “Whether that’s coincidental or that’s the nature of how the neighborhood’s shaping up, I couldn’t say.”

Though he’s more closely associated with the restaurant scene on H Street NE, Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang spent his summer at Hanoi House on 14th and U streets, where he tested recipes for his forthcoming restaurant, Maketto.

“It’s expensive out here, you can’t dance around that,” says Bruner-Yang. “You have to have money.”

For Bruner-Yang, his residency was a chance to serve a new clientele. “People go out to eat for every meal like New Yorkers,” Bruner-Yang says of the 14th Street denizens. “They want a good breakfast, they want a good lunch and they want a good dinner.”

But when it opens for real, Maketto will be on H Street NE. “I couldn’t open it on 14th Street,” says Bruner-Yang, whose Toki Underground has won national acclaim. “Still.”

Beth Marlowe is a senior editor at Washington Post Express. She has written for The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Bloomberg Television and other publications.
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