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  Inside and Out, Merchants Await Crowds

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 1997; Page A1

On Sixth Street NW, Danny Callahan is preparing his sports bar for the big day: laying in extra kegs of microbrew, stocking up on food, giving final instructions to new employees, checking the 35 television screens.

Across the street but in another world, Brian Cohn is putting the finishing touches on his sports bar — microbrew, food, new employees and 88 television screens.

Cohn’s establishment, the Velocity Grill, is inside the new downtown sports arena, while Callahan’s, the Rock, is outside. Both entrepreneurs have huge hopes pinned to the same date — Dec. 2, a week from tomorrow — when the MCI Center will open with a Wizards basketball game.

But their separate vantage points — so close, yet so far from each other — highlight a paradox of the arena’s place in its neighborhood. Abe Pollin has gathered inside the arena much more than basketball and hockey, concerts, circuses and other events, which he says will keep the arena booked 250 days a year. He has assembled an impressive collection of dining options, shopping and interactive sports exhibits. The arena is a self-contained fun zone, and much of it will be open seven days a week, 365 days a year.

People without arena tickets will be able to enter the Velocity Grill, the Modell’s sports store, the Discovery Channel Store (opening in February) and the interactive National Sports Gallery (which will charge admission). Those establishments will open at 9 or 10 a.m. and stay open at least until the end of the business day. Discovery plans to remain open until 11 p.m. seven days a week, Velocity as late as 2 a.m.

Also on non-game days, part of the arena concourse will be open so people can patronize concession stands, almost like the food court of a shopping mall. You could while away a day without leaving. When it is time to go, you hardly have to step outside. From the front door, it is 75 paces along a partially covered sidewalk to the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station.

Yet merchants around the arena are counting on its crowds to venture onto nearby blocks. They envision this struggling neighborhood blossoming into a trendy entertainment district. Several restaurants have opened in anticipation. More are on the way.

Cohn predicts that the novelty of the arena will dominate fans’ attention and wallets in the beginning.

"For the foreseeable future, people will be coming to the MCI Center and spending all their time there," said Cohn, 40. "They’ll arrive early, get something to eat at the Velocity Grill or one of the other venues in the building, watch the event, after the event the Velocity Grill and get a beer or a dessert and head home."

But the Rock’s Callahan says he doesn’t need much. If just a fraction of the fans flow from the sports palace into the neighborhood, it will be payday for all.

"We know the Velocity Grill will do very well," said Callahan, 36, who opened the Rock a year ago with the arena in mind. "But we know there are 20,000 people there, more than enough for everybody."

At the District Chop House & Brewery on Seventh Street, general manager David Greenberg agrees: "If we can get just 1 percent of the folks walking into the arena, 200 people, that would double our current guest counts each night. There’s plenty to go around."

The Pollin organization has a vested interest in patrons spending their money inside. Arena tenants — including two restaurants, concession stands, suite catering, shops — will pay a share of revenue to Pollin. But Pollin says the center will be such a magnet for fans and tourists that the food and drink in the arena won’t satisfy all of them, all the time.

"People are going to come every day, all day, thousands of people," Pollin said. "There are going to be people exploring all of the restaurants in the neighborhood."

In order for the neighborhood to win, suburban dwellers unaccustomed to the city after dark must be convinced that it is safe.

Hockey fan P.J. Pauley, 41, of Olney, said he thought he would never attend a Capitals game in the new arena because he "can’t stand" the city. But he was impressed at how close the Metro exit is to the arena entrance.

"You just walk right in," Pauley said. "You don’t have to associate with what’s outside."

But city leaders are counting on such fears to evaporate when people actually come downtown and see for themselves. Pollin moved game times to 7 p.m. from the starting time of 7:30 p.m. at the US Airways Arena, in Landover, to make it easier for fans to come from work. But the change also gave people less time to eat in the neighborhood before entering the arena.

"We’re unhappy with 7 p.m.," said Dennis Brown, a partner in Mike Baker’s 10th Street Grill, scheduled to open Dec. 1. But the partners say they believe there will be plenty of action for their mid-scale restaurant ($13 dinners) and bar.

"The arena is bringing people to the area," Mike Baker said. "We welcome the competition."

But many of those people will be tempted to head straight for the fare inside the arena.

More ambitious and upscale than a standard sports bar, the Velocity Grill has three levels, including one with a lounge overlooking the Wizards’ underground practice court. Eat, drink and watch Chris Webber practice jump shots.

The 88 video monitors will carry sports feeds as well as vintage footage of sports, politics and art in Washington, such as film of numerous presidents throwing out the first baseball at old Griffith Stadium.

With restaurant seating for more than 400 and standing room for an additional 1,300, Velocity will be open 365 days a year. During games, people without tickets will be welcome, entering from F Street. Ticket-holders will be able to go from the grill directly into the arena.

Fans with club seats can patronize the Capital Club, a 350-seat restaurant overlooking the basketball court or hockey ice. Entrees will cost about $21 and include select cuts of meat or fish cooked in a wood-burning oven.

Besides the usual hot dogs, the menu at concession stands will include clam chowder, quesadillas, pastrami and calzone. And the neighborhood will claim a foothold inside the arena with Julius Bell’s Original Buffalo Wing House, from Shaw, which will have a booth, as will Linda Lee’s Hunan Chinatown, from Chinatown.

But the neighborhood outside has its own enticements.

Some of Washington’s finest restaurants are a short walk away, including Jaleo, Coco Loco and Cafe Atlantico. The District Chop House will try to lure discerning palates with its own select cuts of meat.

Chinatown’s restaurants are eager to be rediscovered. Yeni Wong, owner of the Golden Palace restaurant across from the arena, said she may offer dim sum before games, even though the tasty Chinese appetizer-size dish is traditionally served earlier in the day, because Americans seem to like it at all hours. "We don’t want to miss any business," she said. "I’m very excited."

In the shadow of the arena, the Spicer family’s Arena Cafe is hoping to win customers with home-cooked platters for less than $7, a friendly refuge from the trendy, sporty and upscale. The cafe, which has served only lunch since it opened a little more than a year ago because of a lack of evening business, will begin serving dinner Dec. 1, Nina Spicer said.

The list of restaurants coming soon includes the Fado Irish Pub and the Capital Q Texan Barbecue. Developer Douglas Jemal is planning a live music and dance place and a piano bar restaurant in historic buildings he is renovating across Seventh Street from the arena.

Jemal said: "The busiest gas stations are the ones with gas stations on four corners," a motto for the neighborhood with food and entertainment coming to all corners. "You want to create the alternative."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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