In D.C., a push for better restaurants east of the Anacostia River

At Mama’s Kitchen in Anacostia, most patrons don’t know that the owner’s name is Fatma Nayir or that she commutes every day from Bethesda to their scuffed corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

What they know is that Mama, as they invariably call her, removed the rusted security grates from the picture windows after opening in October; that she cut out the protective glass that separated previous proprietors from their customers; that her smiling face is behind the counter seven days a week, wire-rimmed glasses on her nose and thick gray hair tied in a bundle; and that she put in four tables, each of them covered by a red-checkered tablecloth.

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.”

Paul Cohn, who owns Georgia Brown’s, said he dropped the idea of opening a barbecue restaurant in Anacostia after parking on MLK Avenue for a couple of nights to measure the volume of pedestrian traffic, an important indicator of potential patrons. “The daytime demographic was fine, but at night it was just cars going by,” he said. “I didn’t feel it.”

Andy Shallal does. Shallal, the owner of Busboys and Poets, the restaurant that almost doubles as a community center on 14th Street NW, thinks he’s a year away from finding the right deal in Anacostia. He recalled associates warning him against opening an outpost on Route 1 in Hyattsville, a once forlorn strip where he says he’s now “jammed.”

“There are a lot of people who go to eat and need community,” he said. “There’s no place to hear poetry and music, nothing that’s going to bring in a couple of hundred people under one roof. I’d love to do it.”

Fatma Nayir and her husband, Musa Ulusan, Turkish immigrants who have owned restaurants in New Orleans and Bethesda, said they chose Anacostia because it was a place they could afford to open a pizzeria. When they hung a “Help Wanted” sign, more than 100 people applied. Some customers urged Nayir not to take down the security bars, telling her that she was asking for trouble in a part of the city known for crime.

But she said she wanted to connect with her customers, many of whom can now be seen walking around the neighborhood carrying pizza boxes. Nayir is already thinking about adding pasta to her menu. Maybe even cappuccino.

Earl Rodriguez, 49, an Army reservist, has volunteered to landscape the grass outside the shop and to design and paint a sign to replace the handmade one Nayir put above the entrance. “It’s all inspired by what Mama’s stands for,” he said. When she removed the metal grating, he said, “it was ‘Wow!’ She wants to be here.”

An inevitable frontier

Developers have grown more interested in wards 7 and 8 as they have pushed eastward across the city over the past decade, injecting new life in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, in downtown, along H Street NE. As rents and prices have soared, developers have come to view east of the river as an inevitable frontier.

A litany of new residential and office projects will make the area more affluent, District officials say. The relocation of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard to St. Elizabeths will bring more than 10,000 people into the area. A recently opened District office building has brightened the corner of Minnesota Avenue NE and Benning Road.

Nearby, next to a Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, Michael Landrum, owner of Ray’s the Steaks in Clarendon, opened a Ray’s branch two years ago, the unveiling of which was deemed significant enough that then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) attended the ribbon-cutting. The Uniontown Bar & Grill in Anacostia has drawn a loyal following even as its owner faces federal drug-trafficking charges. Half a block away, an entrepreneur is turning what was a failing coffee shop into the Big Chair Bar & Grill.

But the choices remain too limited for residents, some of whom suspect that restaurateurs stay away because they don’t want to open in a black community.

“My community is stigmatized,” said Yvonne Moore, a retiree who has lived in Anacostia for 35 years. “The chain restaurants won’t come here because they think we don’t have the income. They are afraid of crime. You’d think with Obama in the White House, it would’ve gotten better.”

Albert “Butch” Hopkins, president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit that has promoted investment east of the river since the 1970s, said he’s frustrated by such arguments: “It ain’t about race and class, it’s about economics. Unless we can show there’s an increase in daytime jobs with people who have disposable incomes, we will be singing the same tune for the next 40 years.”

Some long-established business owners are already envisioning a new tune.

Georgena’s in Congress Heights has been serving lunch, dinner and cocktails for more than 20 years. Before then, it was known only as the Players Lounge, a go-go bar featuring topless dancers.

Now the owner, Steve Thompson, said he’s thinking about the Homeland Security employees who will need a place to eat. Perhaps, he said, he will add picture windows. Perhaps he will put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. Perhaps he will add tablecloths.

“We already made one transformation,” he said. “When change comes, we will change again.”

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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