Labor of love becomes gathering for community in Anacostia

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011

Inside Uniontown Bar and Grill, three woman sip on turquoise-colored cocktails at the bar and talk about life and love. Later, a pair of elderly sisters come in for a late lunch, plunk down pictures and talk about their grandchildren.

It could be a midday scene from any of U Street's chic hipster joints or an Adams Morgan eatery. But what makes the scene unusual is where it's happening: in Anacostia, a long-neglected area of the city where, until recently, residents' entertainment and retail options were few.

Once upon a time, this historic building at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE was Bury's Drug Store, back when Anacostia was a whites-only suburb. Natasha Dasher, the owner of the new establishment, is hoping that her labor of love, which opened two weeks ago, will reflect a time when the communities east of the river were rich with neighborhood eateries, hardware stores and grocers - where residents could easily walk to errands, have a good meal or chat with friends over comfort food.

Outside of the Player's Lounge restaurant in Congress Heights, about a mile away, and the recently opened IHOP and Big Chair Coffee n' Grill, the only sit-down dining options in Ward 8 have largely been fast-food restaurants.

"I guess when I think about it, I want this place to be a hub in the community," said Dasher, 35, a fifth-generation Washingtonian who returned home from Houston two years ago so her eldest daughter could finish high school here. "You can already see that people are moving here, coming here and want to be here, and what we'd like to do is be a service for them."

Indeed, east-of-the-river residents are buzzing about Uniontown. But it's not just the food, late hours or ambiance of the 1,460-square-foot restaurant that has them excited. For many old-timers and newcomers alike, it has become a symbol of their community's potential to become a neighborhood with the same services and amenities found in more affluent areas of the city. A sign, they hope, of its rebirth. "Uniontown" is what the neighborhood was called when it was first developed in the 1850s.

"Every neighborhood needs a Cheers, and maybe this can be ours," said Tonya Kelly, 37, a consultant who recently moved to Congress Heights. She was at Uniontown with a group of friends opening week and marveled at the crowd.

Dasher, who spent 15 years in marketing before returning to Washington with her family, has created something that residents living in Dupont Circle, Cleveland Park or Georgetown take for granted. The restaurant, with is high ceilings, intricate molding and flat-screen televisions, has a full bar and offers antibiotic-free meats and fresh juices.

"Uniontown has brought people out that many of us didn't even know lived in this neighborhood," said Greta Fuller, an Anacostia Advisory Neighborhood Commission member. "And those people are hungry to come out and spend their money. We have jobs. We have homes. We are positive. And when you walk into Uniontown, those are the people you see."

The feeling is spreading

Fuller and Dasher aren't alone in their optimism about Ward 8's potential for attracting more commercial and retail business. Although the area, with its 70,000 residents, has long been the city's poorest, more affluent professionals have settled into the historic neighborhoods and bought houses. And slowly, businesses are responding, according to several commercial developers.

Two months ago, a shared workspace called the Hive opened on Martin Luther King Avenue, and all five of its private offices have been leased and five of its six shared spaces are filled. The project's developer, Duane Gautier, is opening another shared office space above Uniontown.

In the fall, Yes! Organic Market, a health food chain, opened a store on Pennsylvania Avenue, about a mile from Uniontown. Other developers are looking to open a deli and sandwich shop across from the Hive and are planning another sit-down restaurant on Good Hope Road SE.

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