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East-of-the-river residents hunger for new dining options

Uniontown bartender "John John" slings drinks

Uniontown Bar & Grill, after a roller-coaster few years, remains one of the few restaurants east of the river, though residents say they're hungry for more

Cookies and quiche at Nurish, inside the Anacostia Arts Center

ANC 8A07 commissioner Natalie Williams, left, eats lunch with Darrick Strickland at the Uniontown Bar and Grill. She says she comes here a lot and is excited about the revitalization in this neighborhood

Patrons at Uniontown Bar & Grill

Owner Kera Carpenter prepares salad dressing at Nurish

In wards 7 and 8, there are only a handful of sit-down restaurants for almost 150,000 people. Change is slowly coming, but here's what we can do better. Paging all entrepreneurial restaurateurs: your opportunity is here.
Left with virtually no choice, lifelong Ward 7 resident Edward Fisher often leaves his east-of-the-river home for downtown, the U Street corridor or the Atlas District to sit, dine and get a taste of the city.

“Many [Ward 7] residents do frequently eat out at restaurants, but we obviously leave the ward to do that,” says Fisher, chief of staff to Ward 7 councilmember Yvette Alexander.
A Denny’s restaurant that sits at 4445 Benning Road NE opened in 1999 and is the only sit-down restaurant serving the more than 70,000 residents in the ward. For decades prior, fast food options and liquor stores have been the prime options for food and wine in the ward. Even the ward’s most famed dining landmark, the Shrimp Boat at East Capitol St. NE, which was built in 1953, is a carryout.
But while east-of-the-river neighborhoods are "known" for their lack of economic vitality, residents say they're hungry—literally and figuratively—for more sit-down dining options in their neck of the woods. So why aren't restaurateurs flocking to Wards 7 and 8, where the customers are there and the rents are cheap?
A few notable flubs have marred restaurants' prospects in the area. In 2010, Ray’s the Steaks opened to much fanfare at the East River shopping center. In 2012, the establishment closed for Thanksgiving and never reopened.
“There were a number of factors that played into Ray’s the Steaks not being successful,” says Fisher. “The biggest challenge was its recognition in Ward 7—most people simply weren’t familiar with that brand prior to coming to Ward 7.”

Another part in Ray’s downfall, says Fisher, was its management. In early 2013, owner Michael Landrum was said to have closed his two Arlington burger shops, Ray's Hell Burger and Ray's Hell Burger Too, because of a dispute with the property's landlord.
In the councilmember’s office, Fisher has assumed responsibility in seeing that more sit-down restaurants enter and remain in the Ward.
“It is very high on our agenda and we’re trying to find any incentive that we can to persuade more popular sit-down restaurants to come,” he says.
Fisher is facilitating tax breaks, lower rents from landlords and grant funding from the Great Streets Initiative.
Hindered by stereotypes and geography
What Fisher loves most about living in the ward may also contribute to its lack of economic growth.
“One of the best things about Ward 7 is you can get yourself a nice home with a nice yard—it’s almost like living in the suburbs in the city,” he says.
This geographic makeup consisting of mostly residential neighborhoods and abundant green space means the ward has very few commercial districts compared to other parts of the city, which Fisher believes has limited the development of entertainment and restaurant options.
Further, as households east of the river have historically accounted for the highest poverty rates in the city, there has been a belief that residents lack the disposable income necessary to keep a local business in the black. As someone who frequently spends money on dining out and entertainment, Fisher believes this to be a fallacy.
“There are incomes here to support a restaurant, we just need a restaurant that is willing to take the chance to venture into a new community,” he says.
According to NeighborhoodInfo DC (a database collaboration between the Urban Institute and the Washington D.C. Local Initiatives Support Corporation), the average family income in Ward 7 was about $57,000 from 2007-2011.
“While $57,000 isn’t necessarily a high income,” says Fisher, “there is a growing number of relatively high-income young professionals, myself included, that live in the ward. There are also long-term residents who earn higher salaries. What brings the average salary figure down is the high concentration of poverty in certain areas of the ward.”
Currently in negotiation with the landlord at Ray’s the Steaks site, Fisher says that a new sit-down dining option will be coming to East River very soon. In fact, he affirms that at least two sit-down restaurants will be coming to the ward in the next six to nine months, although he could not provide further details.
A ripple effect
One successful business can have a ripple effect on economy of the entire ward.
“When you have a successful business in a specific area, it attracts other businesses around it and what that does is provide more amenities and a broader array of services to the community,” says Fisher. “It also attracts more residents to that community and those residents will have higher incomes that will support those businesses.”
Further south of the river, in Ward 8, there have been glimpses of that economic growth with the recent emergence of sit-down restaurants—albeit not as many as the two dozen new restaurants to hit 14th St. NW in the last year. 
“East of the river is no different than west of the river in terms of needs,” says Nikki Peele, who moved to Congress Heights in 2007, when the Players Lounge (also known as Georgena’s) at 2737 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE was the only sit-down restaurant in the neighborhood—and in the ward.
In 2010, the District’s first IHOP franchise opened on Alabama Ave SE. Since then, Anacostia has seen the opening (and closing, and eventually the quiet reopening) of the Big Chair Coffee and Grill, and a similar rollercoaster of openings and closings at Union Town Bar and Grill, both on MLK Avenue. Just earlier this year, Nurish Food and Drink, from Domku owner Kera Carpenter, opened inside the Anacostia Arts Center on Good Hope Road.
“Obviously its progress; we’ve gone from one to five sit-down restaurants,” says Peele, who is the director of marketing and business development at ARCH Development Corporation and runs coworking space The HIVE 2.0.  “People want to go to places that are in walking distance of their home, it’s about the neighborhood’s culture and the experience.”
Sitting at a booth in Georgena’s in front of a tuna fish sandwich, fries and sweet tea, a regular customer, too shy to give his name to a reporter, explains its history.  
“You get elected officials coming here, they host birthday parties, wedding receptions and have karaoke night. I’ve been coming here for about twenty years but you have elderly people who have been coming here way longer,” says the 42-year-old, who has lived in Congress Heights all of his life.
In continuing this uphill battle, Peele believes it’s important for developers to get to know the area and the people who reside there.
“I think there was a lack of awareness about the neighborhoods east of the river,” says Peele. “The focus has been too long on the income levels east of the river, and no one really took a moment to realize these communities still have spending power. Just because there wasn’t a restaurant here or more than one grocery store or a CVS doesn’t mean that people are not spending money on those things. They just have to leave the neighborhood for those things.
“I think that awareness leads to more of an optimism about these communities,” says Peele, “and I think that’s going be something that comes along over time.” 

Read more articles by Christina Sturdivant.

Christina Sturdivant is a native Washingtonian who's always watching and writing about the latest cultural, community and innovative trends in the city. She's interested in people and companies that create equitable opportunities for longtime residents and transplants alike.
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