The dining options in Debra Bacon’s Northeast Washington neighborhood are so few and unappetizing that she found herself delighted recently when the new owner renovated a long-bedraggled carryout and remade its menu.
At the Shrimp Boat, a geographic and once-gastronomical landmark for generations of Washingtonians, the walls are freshly painted, the lights are bright and the choices now include everything from pepper steak to frozen yogurt to cafe au lait.
No tables are available yet, but the owner, an Ethiopian immigrant, hopes to add indoor and outdoor seating, as well as an adjoining organic grocery at the corner of Benning Road and East Capitol Street NE, a busy intersection that also hosts a Metro station.
“It feels like you’re in another neighborhood,” Bacon, 60, an accountant with the District government, said on a recent afternoon, smiling as she sipped an iced mix of peach and mango flavorings that the server behind the counter had concocted.“It’s just so clean in here and they’re focused on the customers.”
Healthy food options are a staple in prosperous Washington enclaves, but a dearth of quality choices is a chronic problem on the District’s eastern edge, one recently documented by a hunger advocacy group that warned of a “grocery gap” between the city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods.
The gap isn’t any less discernible when it comes to restaurants, a problem that D.C. officials have sought to conquer in the past, with little success. While new eateries have become ubiquitous in flourishing neighborhoods across the city, the few choices east of the Anacostia River include a couple of diner-like establishments, a Thai restaurant and an abundance of carryout counters where patrons order food they take away in foam boxes.
Across the street from the Shrimp Boat is a Denny’s, one of two restaurants in Ward 7 with tables and servers. There are also several carryouts, including a Yum’s and a 24-hour Subway, where patrons order through holes cut through protective plexiglass.
“When we want to go somewhere nice, we have nothing here,” said Dave Belt, 59, an IT specialist who has lived on Benning Road for 18 years. “We have to travel. We go some place else in D.C. or to Maryland. That’s the reality.”
For years, neighborhood leaders have yearned for the kind of market-rate housing and retail burgeoning in other parts of the city. Instead, alongside the Metro station that borders the Shrimp Boat, 200 units of affordable housing are being built by So Others Might Eat, a community-based organization established to help the poor and homeless.
The project is one of two subsidized housing complexes nearing completion in that area of Benning Road.
“It concentrates poverty in a poverty-stricken neighborhood,” said David Smith, president of the Deanwood Civic Association. He is worried that the projects will discourage potential investors from migrating to the area. “It’s absolutely the wrong location,” he said.
When he bought the Shrimp Boat property for about $1 million more than a year ago, Woundim Demissie, 37, who immigrated from Ethiopia in 2008, hoped to open a Checkers franchise that could thrive off the daily flow of commuters passing through the intersection.
But Demissie, the owner of four 7-Eleven franchises in Washington, changed course after neighborhood leaders persuaded him that residents want more than burgers and fried chicken.
“The community didn’t want more fast food,” said Janis Hazel, a local advisory neighborhood commissioner and an aide to D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).
Demissie also came to appreciate the Shrimp Boat’s rich history and significance to many Washingtonians. Opened in the early 1950s, it served steamed crabs and fried shrimp that drew an integrated crowd from across the area. Later, it was a video store, and then a carryout, its exterior cinder block walls ragged and light blue awning in need of repair.
No matter the changes, the property’s configuration — a stand-alone, two-story rectangle with “Shrimp Boat” and “Seafood” lettering atop its roof and, at one time, a decorative boat — made it instantly recognizable to passersby.
“It’s our unofficial landmark, our compass,” said Edith Hancock, a longtime neighborhood resident. “It speaks to a time and an era when we had a vibrant community. There’s a legacy there and a history.”
Hancock is helping Demissie develop his vision for the Shrimp Boat and to navigate the District’s bureaucracy. Along the way, she has sampled his food and was astonished when she tasted curry in her order of Asian noodles.
“I never thought I’d have anything with curry in my neighborhood,” she said. “The other day I had baked chicken. In other neighborhoods, this is no big deal. To get baked chicken and greens in my neighborhood is a big deal. We are a community that used to have this kind of thing. We just haven’t had it in the last 15-20 years.”
Demissie decided to retain the “Shrimp Boat” name after overhearing enough people invoke it to give directions, though he added the word “Plaza” to signal a new era and that a variety of services would be offered, including a new Metro PCS store.
On a website he created, the owner promised to "recreate a new legacy" at the intersection and that "we will never have a lottery machine, Keno Screens or a big obnoxious TV blaring at you."
“We want to make the corner of East Cap and Benning a place where community happens again,” he wrote.
Demissie envisions apartments or offices over the adjoining supermarket, the idea for which he got after observing people emerging from the Metro station with Whole Foods and Harris Teeter shopping bags.
To help finance the supermarket’s construction, Demissie applied for an $840,000 grant from a District government fund established to help businesses in areas with unemployment rates exceeding 10 percent. In his application, Demissie said the supermarket would create 25 jobs, more than half of them full-time. But the Bowser administration last month turned him down.
“It was extremely competitive,” said Chanda Washington, an administration spokeswoman. “There were other applicants that met the criteria at a higher level.” She declined to identify the city’s choice for the grant, saying that final details were being worked out.
Demissie said he would press on with his plan for the grocery, nevertheless.
“There is demand here,” he said.
His rejuvenation of the Shrimp Boat has spawned social media chatter that the changes might be a harbinger of the area’s impending gentrification. Some worry that Demissie is using the location’s famous name to promote a business that has nothing to do with the Shrimp Boat’s history.
“It now serves doughnuts — the name don’t go with the business,” said Chris Cummings, 34, a real estate broker who grew up in the area. “It’s kind of like a slap in the face to Northeast. To call it Shrimp Boat Plaza is to piggyback off the people who came before him.”
Others are not sure what to make of the changes.
“Where’s the plaza?” asked Denise Smith, 64, her eyes narrowing as she gazed at the Shrimp Boat’s exterior. Her son, Delonta Smith, 27, a retail clerk, was taking in the Shrimp Boat’s new colors — freshly painted brown and tan instead of blue and white.
“It’s a little disorienting,” he said. “It takes getting used to.”
But most patrons sampling the new Shrimp Boat expressed appreciation for what they were getting.
“How many places can you get teriyaki chicken, doughnuts and pay your phone bill?” asked Josh Burrell, 29, as he ordered his lunch.
Qadira Eaves, 42, a nurse who works across the street, interrupted a phone conversation she was having with her mother to ask the man behind the counter when they would have more strawberries to mix in the smoothie she likes to order.
Soon, he responded.
In her ear, her mother wanted to know why she was getting lunch at the Shrimp Boat, of all places.
“They changed,” Eaves assured her. “It’s not like it used to be.”