Black and Orange, new U Street burger joint, struggles with dream of 24-hour city

Correction: After publication of this piece, both Black and Orange and the Hamilton announced they were cutting back their late-night hours. This version has been updated to reflect that.

In her ninth foot-numbing hour of adding the finishing touches to handcrafted hamburgers, Iliana Navarro’s eyes strayed from the chopping block to the clock on her cellphone.

It was 1:37 a.m.

“Don’t watch the clock!” Raynold Mendizabal, chef and co-owner of Black and Orange, yelled in Spanish. “It will make you crazy. Focus on the work.”

When the grilling started in February at this upscale hamburger joint just south of U Street on 14th Street NW, Mendizabal vowed to keep the doors open until 5 a.m. every day. It isn’t unusual for a pizza joint to keep such hours on weekends. But on Wednesdays? Even the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl locks up at 2 a.m.

On its 17th night of existence, Black and Orange’s gamble wasn’t looking good. The place hadn’t had a customer in nearly an hour.


Suzzie Wright has a burger at the Black & Orange, a new U Street burger joint. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Mendizabal, who fled Cuba in 1994 on a raft made of tires, wasn’t deterred. A physicist in his homeland, he had a Darwinian perspective on the challenge ahead.

“There is always going to be something to fear,” he said, invoking a story his grandfather told him. “The zebra doesn’t need to fear the lion; he just needs to run faster than the other zebras. Ha-ha, right?”

Black and Orange was testing a question that demographers and late-night revelers have long debated: Is the District slowly evolving into a 24-hour city?

Mendizabal, for one, said he thinks all the ingredients are there: the influx of young professionals, people of all strata working stranger and longer hours. They have to eat somewhere.

Max Farrow, a spokesman for the District’s Chamber of Commerce, said late-night dining is essential for the city to become an “entertainment mecca like New York or Los Angeles.”

But as of Thursday, it appeared perhaps Washington wasn’t ready. Both Black and Orange and the new 24-7 restaurant the Hamilton announced they were cutting back hours.

Although late-night weekend diners can still get a burger at Black and Orange at 4:59 a.m., the restaurant will close at 11 p.m. the rest of the week (except for a 3 a.m. Thursday close). On Twitter, Black and Orange cited a need to balance demand and business costs.

The Hamilton, a 400-seat agora of white-cloth tables, prosciutto and poached-egg sandwiches, and $13 mint juleps, will move to much more standard closing times of 1 a.m. on weekdays and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Mendizabal’s angle is to fuse foodie sensibilities with urban grit. There are no white tablecloths. The burgers don’t even come on trays.

The steel shells of at least five condominium buildings are rising within five blocks of the restaurant, including a massive one across the street, next to a check-cashing spot. Still, when nights are slow, the strategy can seem as fanciful as the patties seasoned with truffle oil and thyme.

The staff perked up as a redheaded wanderer pushed through the door.

“Are you guys really open?” she asked the cashier.

“Yes!”

She chose a burger infused with garlic, sun-dried tomato and basil.

Then came the interrogation. Medium or well-done? Half-pound? Lettuce? Tomatoes? Bacon? Cheese? Fries? Seventeen questions in all.

Navarro, 19, sees her double shifts as a blessing. Instead of Navarro having to negotiate between two jobs, Mendizabal gives her more hours and coordinates them around her classes at Trinity Washington University. He even tutors her in math.

“My hair gets a little smelly,” said Navarro, who came to the United States from El Salvador with her sister at age 13. “But I just think about the money.”

When Mendizabal, who is also a chef at a K Street restaurant, first came in that night, he parked his motorcycle at Black and Orange. Inside, he fired a food runner who was sitting down, checking his iPhone.

“Wasn’t working hard enough,” Mendizabal said.

He was gone by 2:15. From midnight to 5 a.m. on Night 17, the restaurant rang up fewer than two-dozen tickets. The staff was out by 5:06.

Ricardo Arrieta, a cashier at Black and Orange, has known Mendizabal since the two were studying in Havana, analyzing gothic novels and Argentine poetry. Arrieta, who wrote short stories back then, was looking for work in New York when Mendizabal encouraged him to move to the District last year.

“He always liked being around writers,” Arrieta said.

Mendizabal, 41, spoke no English when he arrived in the United States. So the physicist started anew as a dishwasher.

He held true to his favorite law of physics: Objects naturally follow their simplest path. Staying in the kitchen was the quickest way to financial stability.

“Money, fast cars, girls,” he joked. “What more do you want?”

There is one thing, he’ll tell you in private: that feeling of ownership, which he calls being able to “buy your freedom.”

“Maybe it’s asymptotic,” he said. “You know, like in math? Maybe we can try to infinity but never reach it.”

By 2001, Mendizabal had climbed the ranks to work as chef at Pesce, in Dupont Circle. Since 2006, he has been executive chef at Fujimar (formerly Lima) on K Street.

In 2010, he opened his first burger place, Rogue States, in Dupont Circle. He shut it down for eight months after lawyers next door sued him over the fumes of hamburger meat wafting into their offices. After renovations, it reopened in December. Now it’s also called Black and Orange, after the blackened grill and the flames shooting from it.

After Night 17’s bleakness at the Black and Orange near U Street, Navarro hoped for a big night the next Friday.

The couples arrived about 10 p.m., the drunks about 3 a.m. The word-slurrers got only two questions with their order: Fries? A drink? A red-faced woman complained that she never got her hamburger, only to realize that she had already eaten it. A man danced and debated who the world’s greatest boxer is with no one in particular.

Between midnight and 5 a.m., 201 transactions were made. The staff cleaned until 6:37 a.m. This is what success looks like.

At the register, Arrieta left a sliver of white paper with a few indecipherable words. When his days are slow, he hopes to scribble a short story, still unwritten.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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