Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger announced he’ll be opening a 7,100-square-foot restaurant a stone’s throw from Heinz Field, the stadium where he has thrown passes since 2004. It’ll be right down the street from Jerome Bettis’s Grille 36 restaurant. On the way home from Steelers games, why not stop at Hines Ward’s Table 86 in suburban Seven Fields for some mae oon shrimp “tossed in a sweet Korean BBQ sauce.” Mike Ditka, a native of nearby Aliquippa who played college football at Pitt, has placed two suburban outposts of his steak and seafood chain in the area.
Other areas are similarly stocked with athlete-endorsed restaurants: Chicago (Ditka’s has three locations there, and Michael Jordan promises something called “Steaksmanship” at his meat emporium); New York (another Jordan Steak House, Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine); Denver (Elway’s); even Iowa City (former NFL kicker Nate Kaeding has a virtual restaurant empire at the home of his alma mater, Iowa). But not Washington, where there’s Joe Theismann’s and Bugsy’s and Langways, all named after athletes long past their primes. Does Chatter, a restaurant co-owned by a former Washington Post sports columnist and a former University of Maryland basketball coach, even count? Do we consider O’Brien’s in Annapolis, even though only the name remains from its long-ago association with former Redskins defensive lineman Fran O’Brien? (His son, Marty, closed the Fran O’Brien’s location at downtown D.C.’s Capital Hilton in 2006.)
There are no Cowherd burgers (“made from 100 percent bull”) at John Wall’s. No St. Louis pizza from Bradley Beal. No TJPB&Js at Oshie’s.
Kirk Cousins’s You Bite That bar and grill does not exist. Maybe it will in Phoenix, Houston, Cleveland or Denver. But not here.
It wasn’t always this way: The area once was lousy with athlete-endowed restaurants. Theismann lent his name to a Baileys Crossroads restaurant way back in 1975, before he had even thrown a pass for the Redskins — and one of the original four locations still is open in Alexandria more than 40 years later, an eternity in restaurant years. Bryan Watson spent the last two-plus seasons of his NHL career with the Capitals in the late 1970s and opened a branch of the Armand’s pizza chain in Old Town Alexandria in 1983, with the upstairs a sports bar called the Penalty Box. (Watson spent 2,212 minutes there during his NHL career, so the name was apt.) After splitting with Armand’s, he changed the name to Bugsy’s, after his nickname. It’s still there, though Watson sold his interest in the restaurant to a longtime employee in 2013.
Langways, named after beloved Caps defenseman Rod Langway, opened in 2015. It’s a descendant of Rod Langway’s Sports Club, which was around in Lanham in the 1980s and ’90s.
But the D.C. area’s athlete-restaurant graveyard otherwise has been filling up for years, and this 1988 Post guide to Super Bowl bars is its cemetery map. Take former Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder, whose J. Schroeder’s All-Pro Restaurant in Falls Church had the unfortunate timing of opening in the fall of 1987, just as he was losing his starting job to Doug Williams. (There was also the minor detail that Schroeder was never technically an all-pro, and his weird decision to shorten “Jay” to “J.”) The restaurant didn’t last six months, closing soon after Schroeder watched Williams lead the Redskins to a Super Bowl win over the Broncos. (Schroeder then was traded to the Raiders.)
“Having the second-string quarterback’s name on the restaurant did not help business,” one nearby restaurant manager quipped to the Associated Press.
Frankly, if you played for the Redskins in the 1980s and didn’t either own restaurants or license your name to restaurants, you simply weren’t trying very hard. There were George Starke’s Head Hog and Roy Jefferson’s Pit Barbecue. Rick “Doc” Walker had his Scoreboard restaurants in Herndon and Fairfax, and Mark Moseley had a french-fry place at Potomac Mills and a burger joint in Herndon. Successful assistant coach/failed head coach Richie Petitbon had short-lived Cajun restaurants in Seven Corners and Oakton. The team’s punter, Jeff Hayes, opened three Northern Virginia branches of Rocco’s with safety Curtis Jordan.
The Redskins’ string of culinary woe continued into this century when LaVar Arrington’s Sideline restaurant in Landover closed amid a sea of red ink in 2009. They were hardly alone. Dennis Maruk, the first Capitals player with 100 points in a season, opened an eponymous restaurant in Alexandria in the early 1980s. As told by Dave McKenna in 2009, the “Save the Caps” movement was born there in 1982 after owner Abe Pollin threatened to disband or move the team. The Caps stayed. Both Maruk the player (traded to the North Stars) and Maruk’s the restaurant were soon gone.
Grevey’s, the Merrifield restaurant and sports bar owned by former Bullets shooting guard Kevin Grevey, had a good run after opening in 1979 but closed in December 2016, citing lease issues. Michael Jordan — Michael Jordan! — couldn’t make a restaurant work in D.C., as his eatery in the Ronald Reagan Building lasted about as long as his odd, short tenure with the Wizards.
Athletes weren’t alone, as the entities that covered them were not immune to failure: The Sporting News Grille had a hardly remembered four-month run at 13th and F downtown in 1999, portending the death of the outlet’s print publication by 13 years. The ESPN Zone a few blocks away did much better, lasting 10 years before shutting down in 2010.
So why haven’t any of D.C.’s current star athletes stepped into the void? Could it be that they and their money people have come to the realization that restaurants often are dismal investments? Upon announcing last year that he had purchased a stake in the restaurant that would become Chatter, Tony Kornheiser joked that his financial adviser had told him to avoid three things: buying a private plane, investing in horses and purchasing a restaurant.
“Well, I did two of the three well,” he said.
For another, chefs are celebrities now, much more so than in the 1980s. In competitive fine-dining markets like D.C., restaurateurs would much sooner slap a chef’s name on their joint than some jock who would be collecting a paycheck in exchange for his or her name and a smattering of their memorabilia to tack up on the wall.
And in the age of Yelp and Trip Advisor, restaurants have to be, you know, good. Expecting quality from a restaurant simply because it has some athlete’s name on it is kind of like betting on a horse because it shares a name with a beloved relative. In either case, you’re basing your assumption on emotion and fond memories, not any sort of expectation of success or quality. Years ago on a trip to New York, I dragged my then-girlfriend/now-wife to Mickey Mantle’s restaurant on Central Park South and remember approximately nothing about the meal other than the fact that the beer was perhaps cold. (The Mick would’ve approved.) I do remember leaving the place feeling like even more of a tourist rube than I already was. The restaurant closed in 2012.
This is not to say these restaurants are bad. Joe Theismann’s is ranked No. 3 of 599 Alexandria restaurants by Trip Advisor, and Bugsy’s comes in at a respectable No. 89. And just last week, the Capital Gazette gave Langways a mostly glowing review. Considering that two of the three have been around for decades, they must be doing something right.
There’s also the not-insignificant fact that most athletes who get restaurants named after them are winners. Theismann won one Super Bowl and led the Redskins to another, while Langway won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens. All of the above Pittsburghers have rings, and the Redskins restaurant craze of the 1980s was spurred by years of success. Our current crop of D.C. stars have won exactly jack squat, in the grand scheme of things. No one is going to frequent a place called Ovechkin’s Great Ate or Otto’s Second-Round Cafe or Big John’s First-Round Cafe, though Vernon Davis’s Curling Fries could be an idea with promise.
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