Restaurateur sees opportunity in Anacostia, will open new bar and grill

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, May 3, 2010

Natasha Dasher is a third-generation Washingtonian who, as the daughter of a former city housing administrator, knows her way around town. So when she left her corporate marketing job in Houston last year to return home and start a restaurant, she knew which areas to consider before she began talking to brokers and landlords.

She chose Anacostia.

In July, if permitting and construction continue as planned, Dasher will open the Uniontown Bar & Grill, a 1,500-square-foot spot for sandwiches, salads and cocktails that she believes will thrive in a neighborhood where there are few dining options that don't rely on a vat of grease and takeout stryofoam containers.

That the restaurant would be the first sit-down place to get a bite and a beer after work in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods is not lost on Dasher, who grew up in Southwest. It will offer antibiotic-free meats and fresh juices as mixers. The name -- Uniontown -- is what the neighborhood was called when it was first developed as a whites-only suburb in the 1850s. "I have the ability to change the nature and tone of a neighborhood," she said.

But that doesn't necessarily make it good business. Signing a 10-year lease in Anacostia, a neighborhood that many Washingtonians and visitors -- often unfairly -- associate mostly with poverty and violence, seems like a head-scratcher when there are vacancies with reduced rents being offered in wealthier parts of town. Others have tried unsuccessfully to open here; planners of a restaurant and lounge, a jazz club and a barbecue joint all pledged to open in the neighborhood in recent years and failed.

Greta Fuller, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the area, said the idea is "more than welcome and is long overdue."

"People have made claims before, and I haven't seen anything," she said.

Dasher, who worked as a marketing manager for Houston-based Satterfield & Pontikes Construction before deciding to open Uniontown, considered space on 14th Street Northwest, near the new Target store. But she isn't alone among local, independent restaurateurs in settling on a location that many would consider less choice. The owners of Marvin, a popular U Street bistro and lounge, plan a new restaurant and bar on Georgia Avenue Northwest this fall. Michael Landrum, owner of Ray's the Steaks in Arlington, opted to open his newest restaurant in Northeast D.C.

With the kind of competition in Columbia Heights, Dasher said, "you have to really be something totally different to make a consumer or patron want to come to your business. And I don't think that my concept was strong enough for that. So I wanted to go into a neighborhood where I could exceed all the expectations."

Ian Hilton, one of the Marvin owners, said he turned down space in brand-new buildings in favor of one that has been vacant and boarded up for years. Unlike national chains, many of which have dramatically slowed or stalled expansion, he said he does not rely on a lot of demographic statistics to make choices about expansion. "You kind of do it more on instinct and kind of what you can see walking around the neighborhood with your eyes open," he said.

Keith Sellars of the Washington, DC Economic Partnership, which attracts retailers to the city, said the reason for selecting out-of-the-way spots is customers in search of a unique retail experience. "The local mom-and-pop entrepreneurs, they've seen the signals and they respond faster than the national retailers," he said.

Dasher made a simple calculation in choosing the 101-year-old building at 2200 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE: There were no competitors in a six-mile radius. Plus, rent was $15 less per square foot than in Columbia Heights, enough savings that she can hire an off-duty police officer to man the door at all times.

She said she would be coming to Southeast whether or not the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was building a massive campus nearby -- but she is aware of the number of employees, 14,000, that are expected to arrive. She said she expects most workers to go out for lunch once a week and that "right now, if they're on this side of town, they have to come here."

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