Meaka Ford saw the "grand opening" banner atop the Shrimp Boat restaurant yesterday and walked into what she thought was the rebirth of the once-popular carryout and Northeast Washington landmark.
Instead of the salty but tantalizing aroma of fried shrimp, steamed crabs and breaded fish that once drew a regular stream of customers to the Shrimp Boat, she discovered that the current menu consists of videotaped films for rent, videocassette recorders and television sets.
The Shrimp Boat, at East Capitol Street and Benning Road, yesterday became a Video Channel outlet.
"I came in here for something to eat," a dismayed Ford told store owner Ray Mott, who also owns Raven Systems and Research Inc., an information processing firm in Southwest Washington. "I want a fish sandwich. I'm hungry, and you know I can't eat these movies."
Mott told her soothingly: "This is the second coming of the Shrimp Boat, dear. This is Video Channel at the Shrimp Boat. We've left the old name on the building."
"And look," he added, pointing to the kitchen equipment at the west end of the store, "you'll be able to buy a fish sandwich here soon."
"Well, okay, but it's not the same," said Ford. Mott understood.
"People were concerned that the Shrimp Boat would not be remembered as the landmark that it was," Mott explained, as youngsters on bicycles and grandmothers walking small children trouped through the store yesterday, attracted by the ribbons, posters and balloons. "There aren't many people who have been in D.C. for any length of time who didn't come here to buy some fish or crabs to eat."
Where once there was a large kitchen that served up as many as 12,000 hot steamed crabs a week, visitors yesterday found shelves of videocassette movie recordings.
Linda Matthews, who lives a few blocks away on E Street SE, started working as a sales clerk in the new store yesterday, continuing the Shrimp Boat tradition in her family.
"My father used to talk about this place all the time," she recalled. "When he was younger, everybody used to go out and party, and stop by here for food. It was open 24 hours and everybody used to come here. It was a 'happening' spot; everybody wanted to be seen here. This the video store should be a happening, too."
For nearly 30 years the Shrimp Boat, with the neon outline of its namesake perched on the front of the white cinderblock building, was an important gathering place east of the Anacostia River.
"If anybody was coming to my house, the first thing I would say is: 'Do you know where the Shrimp Boat is?' " former city council member Willie Hardy recalled a few years ago. She still lives in the Fort Chaplin neighborhood that cradles the revamped ship.
But the Shrimp Boat closed in 1981, the victim of the housing decay and increased crime that swept the neighborhood.
Mott has opened this fourth store of his video chain in a neighborhood that attracts few new businesses other than fast-food outlets.
Cherry Heard visited the store yesterday with two grandchildren because she remembers the old Shrimp Boat.
"I've been living here since 1948," she said. "The Shrimp Boat used to be the place over here. It was charming. It was clean and the food was always fresh. I miss the place a lot, but we needed a change of pace. There's something here for the whole family: the kids, the young people and the old folks like myself . . . . I watch movies all day long, sometimes."