For the first time in anyone’s memory on MLK Avenue, where quality dining choices are next to nil, it is now possible to eat a hot slice of pizza while seated at a table with an unobstructed view of the Capitol.
“It’s a miracle,” declared Cherquanda Sessions, a social services caseworker who has worked in Anacostia for 18 years, as she waited for a slice of pepperoni. She said she was so excited by Mama’s arrival that she made 60 fliers on her behalf and handed them out to colleagues. “This is something we’ve never had.”
For decades, the main arteries east of the Anacostia River have been dominated by carry-out joints and fast-food chains, their menus catering to an African American population that is the city’s most impoverished. In wards 7 and 8, with 140,000 residents, District officials and community leaders say they’re aware of just six restaurants that provide waiter service, including a Denny’s and an IHOP. The dearth of choices fuels the sense among residents that theirs is a forgotten part of Washington.
District officials say they hope to bridge the culinary gap. In recent weeks, they have invited restaurateurs and real estate brokers on two bus tours through the wards, talking up the professionals moving into new condominiums and showing off projects recently completed or planned, including the Department of Homeland Security’s pending move to the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus.
“People are a lot more open to hearing the story about east of the river,” said Keith Sellars, president of the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, a nonprofit group that promotes development and helped lead the tours.
On the cusp of change
Domenico Cornacchia, owner of the Bethesda-based Assaggi Mozzarella Bar, took the tour, his interest inspired by a vision of opening a restaurant in Anacostia that serves pastas and salads and where he could train local residents in the dining business.
Cornacchia said he needs to raise $1 million and has his eye on a vacant property at MLK Avenue and Good Hope Road, across from a recently built office building.
“You have to come with the right concept, the right prices,” said Cornacchia, who also owns a restaurant in McLean, one of the region’s wealthiest suburbs. “We’ve seen all the changes in D.C. over the past 10 years. I don’t see why it won’t happen here.”
But Joe Englert, who has made a career of opening bars in gentrifying neighborhoods, including the H Street corridor, is skeptical it will happen anytime soon. Opening east of the river, he said, is daunting because the population lacks “the expendable cash” to guarantee success. “You’d have to have a lot of money and a lot of patience,” Englert said. Comparing the area to H Street NE, which was desolate when he arrived, he said, “H Street abuts Capitol Hill, and many people have lots of money.”