Why There Are No New Hip Restaurants in Georgetown

Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

The other night, a panel hosted by the Georgetown Business Association addressed the question of the moribund state of Georgetown’s nightlife. GM wasn’t there, but the City Paper’s Lydia DePillis had it covered.

The forum’s speakers lamented the fact that no new and hip restaurants have moved into Georgetown in a while. Acording to DePillis, their explanations fall into three categories:

Theory number one: Georgetowners themselves wouldn’t be terribly excited about new offerings. Linda Greenan, vice president of communications for Georgetown University, noticed that the newly vibrant corridors of 14th Street and Penn Quarter are filled with people from the neighborhood, while Georgetown’s restaurants are more often filled with tourists…

Theory number two: Georgetown makes it too hard to open a business, with all its layers of review and resistance…

Theory number three: It’s the landlords’ fault!

[but most of all] Georgetown just seems too far away, too crusty, and too expensive for the younger set that’s flocking everywhere else.

GM thinks these are all pretty spot on. You could also throw in to the mix the liquor license moratorium. By some estimates, it costs $70,000 to buy a Georgetown liquor license on the open market. That’s a pretty steep disincentive. But GM doubts that’s really the crucial element. When ABRA released seven new licenses, none ended up in the hands of any “hip and new” restaurant. (Hell, half of them ended up with restaurants that weren’t even new).

When did it go wrong? The last restaurant to open in Georgetown with any sort of buzz was Hook, and that was almost four years ago. Before that, Mei N Yu is about the only other buzzy restaurant that opened in the last ten years. (You could possibly throw in L2 and George, but they both have restrictive guest lists and neither has much name recognition beyond those actually on said lists).

The thing is, GM doesn’t think Georgetown changed or declined, or whatever. It’s the city that changed. Ten years ago, 14th St. and H St. NE had none of their current luster. And the “New U” (as the Post called it back then) was only starting to emerged from its slumber. They all basically entered this past decade as a blank canvass ready to be filled up with the playgrounds of the city’s new young urbanites.

Georgetown, on the other hand, was already full of bars and restaurants and they were (and are) pretty popular within certain groups. That consistency (and those crowds) are exactly what those flocking to U St. wanted to avoid.

What Georgetown’s got isn’t hip. It isn’t new. But it works. And it’s probably unreasonable to expect restaurants to give up a good thing to chase new patrons who don’t particularly want to be around the current patrons.

And that’s why it’s kind of funny to see among the speakers Paul Cohn, president of Capital Restaurant Concepts, which owns J. Pauls, Third Edition, Neyla, Old Glory, among others. Those establishments are just the sort of typical Georgetown restaurants that people who go to U St. or 14th are trying to avoid. But they’re all very popular and successful with the people who come to Georgetown for what it is right now. And GM doubts Cohn really has any desire to change that.

9 Comments

Filed under Restaurants

9 responses to “Why There Are No New Hip Restaurants in Georgetown

  1. Ken Archer

    I kind of agree with Jennifer Altemus that we shouldn’t strive to be hip. We have plenty of quality and unique restaurants that you have to come to Georgetown to experience. I would say the main 6 in that category are:

    Hook
    Il Canale
    Fahrenheit
    1789
    Bistro Lepic
    Zed’s Ethiopian Cuisine

    I’d love to have some hip fusion joints, but I love Georgetown’s green spaces and focus on families more than I miss hip restaurants. And with the Circulator extending to U Street, it will soon be easy to go there for dinner.

  2. Jacques

    What’s striking about Ken’s list is that with the exception of Hook (which is shuttered for a while), all of those restaurants are either on the edges or off the main stretches of M and Wisconsin. [Minor quibble: I would sub in Citronelle and Bourbon Steak, and sub out Zed’s, which is higher priced and not the same quality as many offerings in the District, such as Etete, Meskerem, and Ethiopic].

    I think there’s a difference, though, between striving to be hip and wanting to have higher quality dining options (at multiple pricepoints). I agree with GM in the assessment that many restaurants in Georgetown compared favorably when the top of the dining food chain in DC was occupied by Kinkeads, Capital Grill, and the like. In the last ten years, though, the dining scene has expanded, and the talent level of chefs and kitchens has risen with it.

    Whether a spot is hip or not, it seems a shame that a neighborhood that offers fabulous ingredients (though at an exorbitant cost, with the city’s only Dean & Deluca) can’t benefit from the rising tide of quality in DC dining. Among nearly 100 restaurants in the neighborhood (not sure the actual number), there should be a lot more than a half-dozen standouts, and much less of the soft middle.

    But if people aren’t asking for it (or if the cost or other barriers are too high), it won’t happen.

  3. Bottom line: The rent is too high.

  4. Phil

    Georgetown is not hip, Has not been hip or trendy in years- getting a liquor license is next to impossible. The buildings are older, there is limited parking, the rent asked by landlords is based on a cachet that may no longer be there, the residents of Georgetown are older & have no interest in being hip, urban & trendy- quite the opposite- If I were to open a cool eatery, Georgetown is just about the last place I’d look into. Don’t forget, This is a neighborhood that opposed the idea of a Metro Station on their streets for fear that it would bring in the riff-raff…..

  5. “This is a neighborhood that opposed the idea of a Metro Station on their streets for fear that it would bring in the riff-raff…..”

    Groan. Will this urban legend never cease?

  6. Anonymous, please: "Nemo"

    Why should anyone be distressed at this development other than the operators of Georgetown’s overpriced and noisy meat-market “eateries,” and its far-too-numerous schlock shops? Let the wayward hipsters take their business elsewhere. For bona-fide rsidents of the Village and other parts of North West DC and close-in Arlington, it means fewer muggings and break-ins, less vandalism, public intoxication, and sidewalk vomiting, and, if we’re really lucky, restaurants and shops that actually cater to the needs and tastes of the people who live nearby.

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  8. GM

    Nemo:
    I’m a little confused by your comment. Wouldn’t Georgetowners who are tired of all the overpriced and noisy meat-market eateries also be distressed about the lack of new restaurants that don’t fit in that category? The patrons at these new restaurants, like say Estadio on 14th, are not likely the type to create vandalism or vomit. That is much more likely to come from the frat bars like Third Edition, Rhino and the like. And most of the time, those patrons are “bona-fide” residents of Georgetown, NW, and Arlington.

  9. Maxwell

    “…the type to create vandalism or vomit…That is much more likely to come from the frat bars like Third Edition, Rhino and the like.”

    Well said GM…well said.

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