When members of Congress were working on the Hill, Johnny's could be jumping. When politicians were meeting with constituents back home or on recess, it could be nothing but crickets. It's important to note that Johnny's was located on the bureaucratic north side of the U.S. Capitol, where restaurants are not cheek by jowl; the prime movers on this side of the Hill are Bistro Bis, a hotel restaurant, and Charlie Palmer Steak, another bulletproof carnivore's paradise.
“If you think about it, they start work on Tuesday. They leave Friday. There's no Saturday. There's no Sunday. There's no Monday,” Fulchino said about the members of Congress.
Johnny's held on for a decade on Capitol Hill, but in March, landlord Mebar Realty Holding Trust sued for possession of the property. Court documents allege Johnny's Half Shell owed more than $173,000 in back rent, utilities and taxes. The following month, D.C. Superior Court records allege the debt had ballooned to $208,002.
The attorneys for both sides, Fulchino said, worked out an agreement in which Johnny's voluntarily surrendered the space at 400 N. Capitol St. NW, thereby avoiding the whole ugly eviction process with U.S. Marshals — and avoiding the attention of neighbors and media.
“It was the worst 10 years of our life, absolutely day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out just so hard,” Fulchino said. “I tried for seven years to renegotiate that lease, and they weren't willing to do it.”
Mebar Realty did not return a call for comment on its dealings with Johnny's.
By the time Cashion and Fulchino surrendered their Capitol Hill spot, they had already worked out a deal to take over Cashion's Eat Place, the very space where, more than 20 years ago, they had carved out one of Washington's most memorable restaurants. Cashion's was the place where, in 2004, Ann Cashion earned a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. In 2007, she and Fulchino sold the business to John Manolatos, a longtime Cashion's sous chef; his brother, George Manolatos; and their business partner, Justin Abad.
But nearly a decade later, the new Cashion's owners were having their own financial problems. As first reported by Washington City Paper, the landlord filed suit in April, seeking possession of the Eat Place property as well as more than $69,000 in back rent, taxes and other fees. (The lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice in June.)
The legal problems at Johnny's previously didn't make the news, perhaps because neither Fulchino's nor Cashion's name appeared in the initial court filings. The defendant was their business company, Po Boys LLC.
Fulchino said he and Cashion are not personally responsible for Po Boys's debt to Mebar, which has not been paid. Meanwhile, the business partners have formed a new company, High Tide LLC, to take over the remaining lease at Cashion's Eat Place and operate it as Johnny's Half Shell.
It's not exactly a fresh start, Fulchino noted. He and Cashion are still carrying about $400,000 in debt from the old location, where, among other things, they had to foot the bill to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure. Fulchino said he and Cashion also had to resort to family loans, mortgage refinancing and other means to keep the business afloat during the final months. An auction of Johnny's assets from the Hill fetched only $26,000 for the bank, Fulchino said.
Johnny's relocation, however, gives the owners a “chance to try to pay back our people who have been with us,” Fulchino said. “Maybe we can get this whole thing back to where we want it to be, with a chance to do business again. If we didn't have a chance to relocate, we would have been stuck with that [debt].”
This will be the third go-round for Johnny's Half Shell, which debuted in 1999 on P Street NW. It moved to the massive Capitol Hill location in 2006, where it became a fixture with politicos and a frequent site for congressional fundraisers, hundreds of them. (Johnny's hosted so many fundraisers, in fact, that it drew the ire of television host and satirist John Oliver.)
The third iteration of Johnny's will significantly reduce the number of seats, from 400 on Capitol Hill to 80 at the Adams Morgan address, and its fortunes won't be tied to Congress's calendar. It will be open seven days a week, offering a regularly updated menu that may be consumed by people who actually care about food, instead of the politicians who the owners say were more interested in hefty donation checks.
The new Johnny's opened last week for neighbors and regulars only, partly because Fulchino and Cashion still didn't have a phone installed nor a working OpenTable page to take reservations. But Fulchino felt certain all systems would be operational by Wednesday. He declared Thursday would be the first official day of Johnny's third life.
“I really feel like we're going to do something special here,” Fulchino said. “I really, really think that we're going to be able to come out on top.”
Johnny's Half Shell, 1819 Columbia Road NW, 202-506-5257, johnnyshalfshell.net.