For Restaurant-Starved Ward 7, Dinner Is Near

Restaurateur Michael Landrum, working in one of his two Arlington eateries, Butcher Burgers, plans to open Ray's the Heat in Northeast Washington by April.
Restaurateur Michael Landrum, working in one of his two Arlington eateries, Butcher Burgers, plans to open Ray's the Heat in Northeast Washington by April. (By Leah L. Jones -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

Michael Landrum, owner of popular restaurants in Arlington and Silver Spring, all bearing his nickname, "Ray," is bringing his latest culinary venture to the District.

But Landrum isn't putting his new eatery in Penn Quarter, which has become a nighttime hot spot, or in gentrifying Columbia Heights, where a restaurant row is forming along 14th Street NW. Instead, he is going to business-starved Ward 7, which has had only one sit-down restaurant for nearly a decade.

Landrum plans to open Ray's the Heat by April in East River Park Shopping Center, a strip mall at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, said Chris LoPiano, director of development for City Interests, a two-year-old development company with a focus on projects east of the Anacostia River.

"We used to go to neighborhood meetings and ask for a list of what people wanted. It was shocking to think that this large group of citizens was being underserved," said Alan Novak, a founding partner of City Interests.

Denny's, the only sit-down restaurant in Ward 7, has become a symbol of the ward's lack of amenities. As in other elections, candidates vying for the Ward 7 D.C. Council seat in Tuesday's Democratic primary have focused on attracting new businesses.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander rejects criticism that she has not made development a priority in Ward 7, which she represents. Her challengers, barber John Campbell, organizational development consultant Villareal Johnson and former sanitarian Robin Hammond Marlin, say Ward 7 has lagged behind the city's economic renaissance.

City Interests bought the strip mall and other properties to convert East River Park into a four-block plaza of shops and residences with an anchor store such as Best Buy, LoPiano said.

The shopping center, however, came with tenants. "Several major leases won't be up until 2011, so we won't be able to start demolition until 2011," he said, estimating that a bustling plaza will be complete by 2013.

But residents want a restaurant now.

Alexander said she pushed City Interests to open a restaurant in the strip mall next year ."People were anxious. They were asking, 'When are we going to get this development everyone is talking about?' Nothing was moving. This will bring hope to people that something is coming down the pipeline," she said. "This will be a treat to have somewhere to meet after work or somewhere on the weekends.

"It can be Denny's for breakfast. Ray's the Heat for dinner," Alexander said.

At the end of the year, leases will expire on a wig shop and small grocery store in the strip mall, freeing up 2,000 square feet of space for Ray's, LoPiano said.

Novak befriended Landrum while chomping on steaks at Ray's the Steaks, the Arlington County joint that critics say makes up big on the menu for what it lacks in decor. Novak and son Jonathan, who developed the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest, appreciated Landrum's ability to carve out a hip spot with good food at a strip mall and invited him to be part of the District project.

Landrum also owns Ray's the Classics in Silver Spring and Butcher Burgers, which patrons call Ray's Hell-Burger, in Arlington.

"I've been aware of the area [in Ward 7] for some time since it was brought to my attention by City Interests," Landrum said. "The more I looked into the neighborhood, the more I talked to people, the more excited I have gotten about the great prospect and hope there."

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