Just before Labor Day, D.C.’s frantic pace slows a bit

The pleasures of a slow week in Washington are small but satisfying. And like clockwork, they occur on this week, every year.

Chances are your favorite food truck didn’t have a line the past few days. You haven’t had to weave through a group of 45 rowdy middle-schoolers in matching shirts, being marched from their hotel to a monument. You were seated without a reservation, and your drinks arrived right away. Maybe Wednesday’s March on Washington added a few minutes, but otherwise your commute’s rarely been quicker.

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Washington becomes efficient. And all it took was the departure of seemingly half the city for an extended, long-weekend getaway. Like all of life’s smallest pleasures, this pause on chaos has an expiration date: the day after Labor Day, when everyone gets back to business.

But until then, Mavis Baah is getting 30 extra minutes of sleep each day, since she’s not fighting as much Northern Virginia traffic. “I can maybe put some more makeup on, curl my hair,” the senior associate at Washington Media Group said. “I don’t feel like I’m rushing out the door, then dealing with traffic and Metro delays. . . . This week has been a break.”

She was also able to get same-day reservations last week at Zaytinya for Restaurant Week. Which may not be surprising if you’ve eaten out recently.

“It seemed a bit easier to walk in” last week, said Sarah Mamula, a hostess at Le Diplomate, one of the most-sought-after seats on 14th Street NW. She said that as of Tuesday morning, there were still many reservations available Sunday and Monday at prime brunch times — between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. While Mamula said it would be tough to estimate the wait times for walk-in visitors this week, parties of two who arrive early are often quickly seated outside.

Georgetown Cupcake, the sweet shop with the semi-permanent line down the block on 33rd Street NW, looked practically abandoned from the outside on Tuesday afternoon. Inside, there were only seven people waiting for their peaches-and-cream and chocolate-peanut-butter-twist cupcakes. There was no difficulty enforcing a rule printed on the window: “Please keep door closed to keep cupcakes fresh.”

Blaine Trueblood emerged from the shop with her little pink box, grateful for the lack of wait time. “Usually when I pre-order, I still have to wait 30 minutes or more,” she said.

The break isn’t welcomed by everyone, though.

“This is the worst week” to be prepping to open, said Ivan Iricanin, standing amid workers at Georgetown El Centro restaurant, which will not be debuting as soon as he’d hoped.

“We experience [this week] to be slow with permits,” he said. “Nobody told me they’re on vacation, but I assume. It takes longer to get things done.” Iricanin, who is also partner in the original El Centro restaurant — as well as Ambar, Masa 14 and other restaurants in town — said that this was the slowest restaurant permitting process he has experienced. He expects that the new El Centro will open within two weeks.

At the same time, it’s not a bad week for a new business to get into a rhythm. Thally, a new restaurant at 1316 Ninth St. NW, spent Tuesday afternoon prepping for its grand opening that night, complete with a few hiccups: Not all of the beers on Thally’s list would be available because the restaurant’s distributor had taken the week off. Co-owner Sherman Outhuok had to find another wholesaler to fill the gap.

“You have to plan accordingly,” Outhuok said. “It hurts small restaurants like us.” Thally ended up serving 60 people on its opening night. “For us it was exactly what we wanted to do — not overwhelming at all,” Outhuok said. “It was a good crowd for us. The kitchen was able to handle the flow.”

Some restaurants have the luxury of a better way of dealing with late-August doldrums: They simply take a whole week off. Komi and Little Serow, which share a chef-owner, are closed until Wednesday. Cork Wine Bar was closed for much of last week.

There was not much for restaurant publicists to publicize. “We’re not even sending out press releases this week,” said Lindley Thornburg, a restaurant publicist for Heather Freeman PR. “We’ve gotten so many out-of-office replies.”

But just as Washingtonians have fled town, so have the tourists. While thousands descended Wednesday on the Mall, a day earlier at noon there were no out-of-towners to grumble at while ascending the Smithsonian Metro escalators. Above ground, the July crowds had disappeared. A horse carrying a police officer languidly crunched along the dirt path past a carousel where five people saddled up to ride in circles. A block down Independence Avenue, a food-cart cashier stood stooped over the counter with her elbow resting beside the register and her chin on her palm, surveying the vacant stretch of trampled grass that is the Mall in late August.

“Starting this week, it’s very slow,” said Aster Tegen, who works at a Red Wagon Popcorn along the Mall. Earlier in the summer, she might have stayed open late depending on the number of tourists, but after having sold just six bags of popcorn by 1 p.m., she decided, “I’ll just close at 6.”

The emptiness is a boon to Smithsonian museum-goers. July tends to get about 4 million visits, while August averages closer to 2.5 million or 3 million, according to Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. Even the perennially overcrowded exhibit of butterflies and plants at the Natural History Museum was quiet. Anyone who stopped in at 1 p.m. was able to secure a 2 p.m. timed ticket to enter, which wasn’t the case a few weeks ago.

“At this time on a Tuesday? Normally we’d be sold out by now,” said Angela Dyson. Tuesdays are especially popular, because tickets are free. “We’d have school trips, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, long lines.”

Of course, there is a flip side. The Old Town Trolley stand, which reads “Buy tickets here,” was empty except for employees Latoya Craney and Matthew Bryant, who were chatting about their commutes.

“We’ve been sitting here since 9 o’clock having a conversation,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a few sales. . . . My target is [$2,100], and I’m not going to see that.”

But the late-summer slowdown is expected for most business owners. Even the perma-mobbed D.C. outposts of Whole Foods plan for it.

“We’re probably emerging from that slowness already,” said Jared Earley, who works on the Mid-Atlantic marketing team. “August is definitely a slower season, and it’s funny because we might say [the drop-off is] because everybody is out at restaurants, and then in D.C. you have Restaurant Week as well.”

But Whole Foods employees are rewarded by being encouraged to take vacation, and shoppers get shorter lines. It’s almost enough to inspire people to bring their lunch to work if it weren’t such a perfect time to go out.

All summer, food trucks have turned Farragut Square into an outdoor food court for office workers who wish to see and be seen, sunning themselves on picnic blankets. And at the height of the lunch hour Tuesday, there were lines at the trucks for D.C. Taco, WasSub and D.C. Ballers. At Kimchi BBQ Taco, owner Andrew Kwon said that for the past three years, he’s noticed a dip in the number of customers he serves in late August — sometimes 30 percent or more.

“It’s back to school,” he said. “People have to spend their money on their kids.”

And next week, it’s back to work. Vacation is over. Congress will soon be in session. Washington will go back to being Washington.

“I think that it’s a nice little break before the September business and rush starts up again,” said Baah, the late-sleeper. “Things pick back up. It’s nice to have a little bit of a break and refocus.”

 
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