Sure, there are still good restaurants in Georgetown. Chef Frank Ruta’s Grill Room, at the Capella Hotel, wins high marks among reviewers. Café Milano and 1789 remain stalwarts. Fiola Mare on K Street was recently ranked the best in the region by Washingtonian Magazine.
But for the most part the restaurant boom that has populated neighborhoods throughout the region and especially in the District during the past decade has passed Georgetown by.
Highly acclaimed chefs and those made famous by reality television are trying their new concepts in other neighborhoods, where developers are eager to offer them new space in freshly designed buildings.
Foodies in turn are more likely to congregate along 14th Street NW in Logan Circle, 7th Street NW in Penn Quarter or H Street NE than they are the intersection of Wisconsin and M, once considered Main-and-Main for a night out.
Business leaders in Georgetown say this circumvention occurred for a very specific reason, the neighborhood’s 27-year moratorium on new liquor licenses. But on Wednesday they made their most pronounced effort at bringing it to an end.
D.C. approved Georgetown’s moratorium in 1989, when residents were in a furor over the noise, trash and occasional violence that came with being a late night hotspot for Georgetown University students and other young partygoers. Residents complained of damaged gardens, raucous noise when bars let out at two o’clock in the morning and their grounds frequently stinking of urine on weekend mornings.
“The gutters and many sidewalks would be littered with beer bottles from people who were drinking before they went to the bars,” recalled Tom Birch, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in the neighborhood.
He and his neighbors were routinely woken in the wee hours. But he said, “that’s not a problem any more.”
Perhaps there is no greater condemnation of the state of Georgetown’s nightlife than Birch’s contention that many of the indecencies he and his neighbors endured when the neighborhood was booming are no longer occurring.
Instead, speaking to the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Wednesday morning, Birch said Georgetown had fallen so out of favor with diners and partiers that it had begun to decline.
“[Back then] we were worried about it becoming an uncontrollable entertainment district,” Birch said. “We’re not that entertainment district any more.”
Birch and other neighborhood leaders have teamed with the Georgetown Business Improvement District, an association of developers, commercial landlords and other businesses, to advocate allowing the moratorium to expire, which was originally scheduled for February and is now set for April. (Tavern licenses are regulated separately and would remain capped.)
They argued Wednesday in the board’s hearing room on 14th Street that the cap on restaurant licenses was a relic of a time when the District government, in the midst of battling the crack epidemic and much higher crime rates, was unable to enforce alcohol rules, respond to noise complaints or police the streets.
Crime in Georgetown is dramatically less than in the rest of the city, with only 48 violent crimes reported over the past four years in the commercial district, according to the business improvement district. The district itself, established in 1999, employs a dozen employees to keep the streets clean and safe.
Today the neighborhood has 68 restaurant licenses and six tavern licenses, not all of which are in use. Joe Sternlieb, chief executive of the business district, said the scarcity of available restaurant licenses is so great that their owners offer to sell them for as much as $15,000. Others have said a license can cost as much as $90,000.
Other neighborhoods, such as Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan, have done away with restrictions on restaurant licenses in recent years. Sternlieb said Georgetown’s now mainly served as a “barrier to entry for new restaurants that does not exist in other neighborhoods.”
Industry representatives argued, however, that allowing the moratorium to expire wouldn’t go far enough in easing new restaurant openings because in recent weeks the BID and the ANC drafted a template “settlement agreement” that would be used to restrict the hours or terms under which new establishments could operate.
The document proposes rules such as no dumping of recycling at night, no noise that can be heard more than 50 feet from a sidewalk café after 10 p.m. on weekdays, closure of sidewalk cafes by 11 p.m. and “no amplified entertainment with bass that can be heard or felt in any residential property.” It also suggests a series of inspections and penalties for licensees.
Sternlieb and leaders from the advisory neighborhood commission cautioned that the guidelines were just a starting point for discussions with new business owners and that not every new restaurant, such as Chez Billy Sud, which opened on 31st Street NW in 2014, would be subject to the same rules.
But Andrew Kline of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington said the template equated to a different but no better way of making it difficult for new establishments to open in the neighborhood. Mark Lee, head of the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, said there was little point in allowing the moratorium to expire if it was just going to create a new set of “arbitrary” restrictions.
“The sole and solitary signal Georgetown could send to shed its unfortunate negative image would be to become the first moratorium zone with the common sense to declare that this failed marketplace manipulation is fully over,” he said. “Nothing short of that will symbolize that Georgetown is again open for business.”
The board is slated to make a decision on whether to allow the moratorium to expire by April. Members gave differing opinions on whether the template would be part of that ruling.
Another neighbor and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Bill Starrels, said he hoped the discussions would lead to restaurateurs considering the neighborhood again.
“We’re simply hoping that it will feel a little bit more welcoming to businesses going forward,” he said.
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