Bill Lindsay, a homegrown Washingtonian, was one of many proud young black folks in this town three years ago when the W. H. Bone & Co. opened in Southwest Washington.
A bold, symbolic pronouncement was proud of its roots and had finally arrived, The Bone, as the chic new restaurant soon came to be called, was in a flourishing neighborhood of self-styled young black professionals. You could mix chitlins and champagne, sweet-potato pie and Waterford crystal there, they laughed.
It had live jazz on weekends, a professional-level singles set during the week, and "Oldies but Goodies" every now and then.
African paintings decorated the walls. There was a novel party for Black Irishmen on St. Patrick's Day one year. Local and national politicians chose the restaurant for fund-raisers and staff parties, and on one evening last year, the Mums Club from First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church in Shaw chose it for their ladies night out.
"I thought it would be there forever," Lindsay said the other day.
But the Bone closed a few weeks ago. The District Government ordered it to close after the restaurant fell hopelessly behind in paying its taxes.
The order was merely a formality. For months, it was an open secret in town that despite all the glamor and glitter of the "beautiful people" who frequented it, W. H. Bone wasn't making it.
One major reason for the restaurant's failure was that it was poorly run. Toward the end, the food was only alright, and the service left almost everything to be desired.
Like so many other black businesses, it started with too little capital.
"You mismanage in a lot of instances because you're robbing Peter to pay Paul," D.C. Chamber of Commerce President James L. Denson explained of such failures.
Even those most intimately involved with the restaurant acknowledge privately that it was a good idea that lacked proper follow-through. The commitment of personal time considered so key to success in the business was not made. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.
Still, W. H. Bone was the closest thing to a big-time, black owned restaurant in Washington.there is no obvious successor.
It is a strange void in a city where 70 percent of the population is black; where middle-income blacks are not hard to find, and where the restaurant business is the most flourishing trade in town.
"It just doesn't make any sense whatsoever," one leading black businessman said the other day. "You figure you have a half-a-million black folks here and we don't own a decent restaurant."
And no one seems to really know why.
Black Washington was not always a no-restaurant town. There were those days 20 years ago when Billy Simpson's on upper Georgia Avenue NW was the most notable of several places frequented by the town's black notables. Simpson died in 1975, and his wife, Edith, closed shop three years later.
Driven out of business, she recalled the other day, by a shifting clientele and fast-food places that could sell burgers and fries much cheaper than she could sell her famous 652 Burger -- named for the address of another club they'd owned -- seven ounces of ground chuck, lettuce, tomatoes and French fries for $2.75.
But even before that, there were the days when U Street flourished. Then Then, the black middle class ate well at Key's restaurant on 7th Street, or at Elvelyn's on U Street. They stopped by Cecelia's, across the street from the Howard Theatre on T Street, for the perfect postlude to a show by Dinah Washington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Redd Foxx or the Count Basie Band.
"It was segregated in Washington and black folks had very few places to go," recalls Cecelia Scott, who from 1958 to 1969 owned the restaurant and bar that carried her name. "I did a fantastic business in that place."
When restaurant segregation became a thing of the past in D.C., so did the assumption by black enterpreneurs that their skin color ensured them a captive market.
"In many instances, integration was not the godsend one would be led to believe," Denson, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce president, said.
"The people who can afford to go to the first rate places feel they have worked and scuffled to be accepted. When you have a chance of going to a black establishment or the 'in' establishment -- which is white-owned and where people make the society column -- you have a growing black middle class that opts to go to that place."
But there are black restaurants in town which make it primarily on black dollars. These are places like Face's, a bar-restaurant on upper Georgia Avenue NW, and the backbone of soul, the Florida Avenue Grill, a no-frills restaurant with just plain old good home cooking. Both do good business.
But some black entepreneurs want to reach beyond that and enter the big leagues of Washington business. To them, the buy-black apporach is somewhat necessary, but certainly not sufficient.
"I don't believe in this city today there's wisdom in having a business that caters exclusively to black people," one leading black businessman said privately. "Historically, as I look around, they are short-lived."
Black businessmen have all sorts of reasons to explain the failure of W. H. Bone. For one thing, they say, most of those with the economic standing to regularly eat out -- those with either a lot of money or an expense account -- are white.
Lindsay, president of the Foxtrappe, a black private social club, said his business has survived for five years because young, middle-class blacks can afford a couple of drinks at a disco, but not Dubonnet, dinner and Drambuie.
"A person can come to the Foxtrappe and not spend much money," Lindsay said. "Blacks are simply more into clubs than we are into restaurants. When I think about going into the food business, that scares the hell out of me."
Theodore Hagans, one of the most successful blacks in local business, said, "You don't want a restaurant that's, quote, black. You want one that's black-owned or black-managed. You want one that deals with the general public."
"Money has a tendency not to be either black or white," Hagans said. "It's green, you know."
The problem is that W. H. Bone was a lot of that, and it still didn't succeed. And the nation's capital, with a majority black population and a majority black government, still does not have a big-league black restaurant to call its own. And nobody seems to know why.