Capital City Diner brings sit-down eating to D.C.'s Trinidad

After months of bureaucratic hurdles, the owners of a vintage 1940s diner car are ready to serve up hamburgers, meatloaf and other classics at the Capital City Diner in Northeast Washington.
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Matt Ashburn's original business plan was fairly modest: He would build a cheese steak cart and set up along that stretch of H Street in Northeast Washington where all the hipster bars and clubs have opened.

"A lot of drunk people over there," said Ashburn, a Department of Justice analyst who lives in Trinidad, several blocks from H Street.

He had begun constructing a cart in his living room when his roommate, Patrick Carl, came up with a more ambitious idea: Buy a classic 1940s diner on eBay and open it right there in the neighborhood.

Never mind that neither Ashburn, 27, nor Carl, 38, had ever run a restaurant. The next day, they journeyed to southwestern New York to examine the Silk City Diner car (price tag: $20,000, plus $700 for the stove) and plunged into the greasy-spoon business, with financing from personal savings, loans and credit cards.

Thus began Ashburn and Carl's not-always-excellent start-up adventure, a sometimes disorienting odyssey through the District's licensing maze. As Ashburn and Carl prepared to serve their first customers at Capital City Diner (the soft opening was Friday night; the public opening is planned for 6 a.m. Tuesday), they were still peeling off red tape after a months-long ordeal that the D.C. Chamber of Commerce says could serve as a case study on the difficulties of launching a small business here. "This diner is a prime example of why it's just so challenging to do business in the District of Columbia," chamber President Barbara B. Lang said.

Running the bureaucratic steeplechase, she said, can be particularly trying for small businesses, which typically can't afford expediters and don't have much experience working with the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and other agencies.

"The process sucked the entrepreneurial soul out of us many, many times," Ashburn said. "If we weren't so bullheaded, the diner would've been back on eBay."

Instead, the grill and fryers are being fired up as Capital City begins serving traditional diner fare, including burgers, meatloaf, milkshakes and all-day breakfast as the only full-service, sit-down restaurant in Trinidad.

"We're just two guys trying to create a neighborhood gathering place where we live, because there's a real need for it," Ashburn said. "It's a real labor of love."

"And hate," added Carl, a former construction-company owner.

Nine months ago, the old modular building was delivered from Avoca, N.Y., to an abandoned used-car lot at 1050 Bladensburg Rd. NE -- and Ashburn and Carl were promptly informed by a D.C. building inspector that they couldn't move the structure onto the foundation they'd built. The concrete wasn't properly set, and the foundation wouldn't secure the diner, the inspector said.

Then the D.C. Department of Transportation said Ashburn and Carl lacked the proper permit to move the diner across the sidewalk. The District says an unlicensed architect was to blame for most of the project's initial problems, and over time, city officials became more helpful, Ashburn said.

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