Barracks Row, the historic commercial strip on Eighth Street SE on Capitol Hill, has in less than a decade transformed into one of the hottest restaurant corridors in the District. And behind some of the area’s most popular haunts is Xavier Cervera.
The owner of Lola’s Barracks Bar & Grill, Molly Malone’s, the Chesapeake Room and Senart’s Oyster & Chop House has a mushrooming portfolio of restaurants that have all opened on Capitol Hill in the past three years.
And he’s far from done. Three doors down from Senart’s, which opened four weeks ago, a gut renovation is slated to begin in June for Pacifico, a 170-seat tapas concept with a rooftop bar to debut in seven to eight months. By that time, Cervera anticipates the 75-seat BoxCar Grill, an upscale American bistro under construction on Seventh Street SE, will just have opened. Plans are also in the works for a 125-seat bistro around the corner on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Cervera, 48, churns out these restaurants with the help of his own crew of nearly 30 construction workers who execute all of his projects. Cervera even has artisans in South Carolina who exclusively custom design all of the restaurants’ woodwork.
“I’m the designer, architect, engineer and general contractor,” he said. “That saves a lot of time and a lot of money. I have fantastic staff, so not worrying about the ones that are running is a huge help.”
Cervera estimates the price tag on smaller developments, like the 44-seat Chesapeake Room, ranges from $1 million to $1.4 million, while larger venues pencil in at $2 million plus. Keeping a close eye on construction has helped Cervera complete most projects on budget, though he has occasionally registered cost overruns of roughly 10 percent.
Accessing capital has not been much of a challenge for Cervera, who credits National Capital Bank of the District with floating a portion of the construction financing. He and his silent partner, an investor out of Florida, provide about 60 percent of the financing from their own pockets.
The pair began working together 20 years ago, when Cervera started turning old buildings in Miami Beach into boutique bars. After gaining acclaim for such establishments as Norman’s Tavern, Cervera decided to head to South Carolina and try his hand at converting cotton warehouses into lofts. But he missed the restaurant business.
A District native, Cervera returned home and scoured the market for sites. Capitol Hill struck a chord and in late 2008 he bought and transformed Tapatini’s into Lola’s, named after his late mother.
Barracks Row has attracted a crop of local restaurateurs who grew their eatery empires during the downturn. The owners of Matchbox turned to the Hill to launch both DC-3 and Ted’s Bulletin, while the guys behind Cava Mezze Grill opened their second of four restaurants there. “The very few successful restaurateurs on Barracks Row have infused the right amount of capital, brought in the right chefs,” Cervera said.
Straying a little far from home, Cervera has deals in the works for a 400-seat and 140-seat restaurants on the waterfront. And after those are completed, “there will be one more and I’m done,” he said.