Maurice and Elsa Pairel had come to feel out of step with the madding, and too often adolescent, crowd pounding M Street in front of their little French restaurant. When a buyer came along recently, the Pairels sold Chez Odette and, with it, a 32-year Georgetown legacy that is said to predate the invention of chicken nuggets and Madonna posters.
"We felt that it was just the right time to get out of it," Elsa Pairel said yesterday.
The closing of Chez Odette, at 3063 M St. NW, is expected to take place by the weekend. Some Georgetown community leaders believe the restaurant's demise signifies more than merely the shutdown of an intimate little spot with unfashionable red-and-white curtains, red-leather banquette seating, knickknacks on the wall and familial service. They say Chez Odette is a vestige of quieter days in Georgetown when trends developed more slowly and the neighborhood attracted fewer visitors.
"What is happening in Georgetown is the streets are being overrun by the young juniors -- 14, 15, 16, the punkers," said Charles Gersky, who closed his Georgetown women's clothing store, Tootsie's, last month. "Most of these are kids that come in from the outskirts. They are not of age, they haven't got money. They are ripping off handbags, breaking into cars and stuff like that."
William Cochran, chairman of Georgetown's Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E, added that the changing clientele in Georgetown has markedly influenced the retail services in the area.
"When you have 25,000 hungry kids standing out in the streets with no place to go, that is going to have some influence on the kind of businesses that get started," he said. "There has been a shift in the retail base towards entertainment, shoe stores, ice cream parlors, anything that is pitched towards the walk-around crowd."
The well-publicized influx of young people to Georgetown recently triggered a police campaign to curb rowdiness and illegal parking. Some Georgetown leaders say the police efforts have brought improvements, but the Pairels say they have lost too much of their clientele to stay.
"I have worked here for 25 years and Georgetown has changed so much," said Maurice Pairel, 49, who purchased the restaurant 14 years ago from Odette Pantelich. "My personal opinion is that Georgetown is not what it used to be. Georgetown became for the young, young people, for bars and drinking. That has really affected our business. We have had lots of problems . . . . We have lost a lot of old business people who are scared to come to Georgetown."
Elsa Pairel said the restaurant has been sold to Capital Management and Development Corp., which also has purchased Cafe Med, a bar located above Chez Odette. She said Capital Management plans to continue operating Cafe Med and convert Chez Odette into an Italian restaurant. A spokesman for Capital Management declined comment on the transaction.
Not all observers of the Georgetown scene are pessimistic about the changes taking place there. Rick Hindin, president of the Georgetown Business and Professional Association, said the police campaign has brought the young crowd under control and has diminished its numbers. Since the District government identified problems in Georgetown, he said, the number of officers assigned there on weekends has been increased, as have automobile towing crews.
"We are now seeing some improvement," Hindin said. "It is once again a pleasure to walk down the streets on Fridays and Saturdays. The city government has made a major commitment in the form of moving the traffic and law enforcement, the result of which has been very beneficial."
Hindin, noting that the city has begun to enforce zoning restrictions in the area, said he foresees a crackdown on illegal signs, awnings and other trendy traces that defy Georgetown's official city designation as a historic district.
Whether a decline in the amount of neon displayed in Georgetown will diminish the area's appeal to young people remains to be seen. Gersky said he would like to see the youngsters diverted to the city's downtown area -- the Pavilion at the Old Post Office in particular.
"Get some rock groups, keep the kids busy over there," he said.
But, in Maurice Pairel's view, the interchangeability of Georgetown and some of downtown is part of the problem. Both are too high-energy for a quiet hideaway like Chez Odette, he said.
"The charm of Georgetown disappeared," he said. "What you get now is the same thing you get with the businesses of 16th or 18th street places . . . . All the older businesses, I think, feel the same way we do."