Romeo Morgan and Cliff Valenti Bury the Hatchet (Sort of)
Romeo Morgan is fed up with waiting on community leaders to endorse his liquor license application, some 234 days now and counting, he says.
“We have people who are elected as ANC commissioners to represent us in our neighborhood, but then my ANC commissioner refused to even put me on the schedule to be heard, because it’s either ‘You do it my way, or it’s going to be no way at all,'" says Morgan, proprietor of the longstanding Morgan's Seafood eatery in Parkview. (City Paper alum Annys Shin previously profiled the Morgan family business and its repeated struggles with cars crashing into the restaurant in 2002.)
For weeks, the charismatic Rastafarian restaurateur has been engaged in a war of words with local ANC 1A commissioner Cliff Valenti, who points to several reasons why Morgan shouldn't acquire a license – including Morgan's allegedly leaving "junk" in the alley and the supposed correlation between liquor licenses and violent crime on Georgia Avenue NW.
On Wednesday, City Desk asked Morgan about his relationship with Valenti and why their differences seemed so irreconcilable. Morgan said some not-so-nice things about Valenti’s character, and claimed that Valenti had insulted his family business at a previous ANC meeting, allegedly telling fellow commissioner William Jordan that Morgan’s Seafood is “atrocious.” Valenti vehemently denies this statement.
The friction between the two seemed to come to a head at an ANC meeting two weeks ago, which got so out of hand during a discussion about Morgan's liquor plan that Valenti subsequently stepped down as committee chair, citing certain “personalities that I can’t manage." He meant Morgan. When City Desk asked Valenti why he resigned, he replied, "I was called something I'm not willing to repeat."
So, when the community members and ANC commissioners agreed to convene again to discuss Morgan’s case, in a more hospitable environment, they met at the restaurant. Attendants pulled stools out onto the sidewalk, arranging them in a semi-circle next to a white fold-out sign that said “BAR B QUE,” stenciled in red paint. Commissioner Jordan prefaced the discussion by saying this was an informal way of hearing community feedback. The issue at hand was whether a tavern license would be a nuisance to neighbors, increasing the number of drunks wandering the streets, pissing in alleys, and bringing the noise to an unacceptable level.
Morgan, who is wont to emotional outbursts, fervently answered these concerns. He cited his loyalty to the community, his former career as a Marine and his affable character. A pair of George Washington University graduates who live in the area dropped by to voice their opinion, one of them said, “No one has made me feel as comfortable as Romeo after moving in.”
Morgan used this support to bolster his point, “Eighty percent of my customers would like to be able to sit out, eat crabs, eat a fish sandwich, or whatever is in season, and have drink. If you want a crab cake sandwich, a cold beer goes directly with it.”
But underneath these comments, and Morgan’s frustration with other local restaurants receiving approval for a license in as little as thirty days, the simmering tension between Valenti and Morgan burst out intermittently throughout the debate. Morgan made it very clear that Valenti’s alleged remark about the restaurant had crossed the line. “I live and die by my family’s name,” said Morgan.
Then, a heated back and forth ensued: "Let me ask you something," said Romeo. "Did you want a back porch on your house?"
"Yeah," Valenti answered hesitantly.
"Ok, so why is it that you choose to have a back porch?" Morgan asked.
"Because zoning code allows me to have a back porch," Valenti said.
"And zoning code allows me to have a tavern license," Morgan replied.
"And by right I can have a back porch," Valenti said.
"And by right I can have a tavern license," Morgan responded.
"No," Valenti countered. "It’s a privilege, not a right."
Valenti insisted his criticism was "not about Romeo’s personality," adding, "and I happen to like him very much. I have never called your business atrocious. Never, never, never. Here’s the problem of why I get more and more suspicious and afraid of you getting a liquor license in this neighborhood. There are regulations that you’re supposed to abide by in order to get a liquor license. You’re supposed to have a wall up, blocking your garbage cans. I don’t see a wall there. You’re not supposed to have all that junk in the back. If you’re not allowed to have that now, and you’re seeking a liquor license, there are other violations we could go over.How are we supposed to trust you when the liquor license allows you play music as loud as you want until 2 a.m.?”
A few other neighbors agreed with Valenti’s concerns. Lisa Eady, a woman who lives a couple houses down from the restaurant, was one of them:
“We have more than enough liquor establishments in this neighborhood. The people hanging out, urination and defecation in the alleys, it wouldn’t be a good thing.”
At one point, between the shouting and the circular argumentation, a voice of reason came from the corner of the semi-circle. An old man named Jonathan Mundwa, a native Ugandan, summed up the central concerns. For the first time, everyone at the meeting was silent.
“This is my community. The only thing I’m trying to understand is that this man is asking for a license to do his business so he can help us when we need help. I live here and I die here, but before I die, I want where I live to be very peaceful and nice. If you put clear what you plan to do, we in community don’t care how much money you make out of it, we are after peace and security.”
When the meeting concluded, and the commissioners had agreed on the next meeting time, City Desk helped Morgan put the stools back inside. His frustration was still inflamed. As we chatted for a little longer while he cooked me a crab cake to take home, a man walked in with a bicycle to buy some chicken. Morgan had already cooked it, explaining in detail the correct procedure to make the chicken fall of the bone when you eat it. After reheating it, and draining the chicken fat into a steel pan, he brought the pan over to show me. “See,” he said. “I make sure my customers don’t eat that. That’s how much I care about them.”