Young and Hungry

Palena Hopes to Expand into the Adjacent Magruder’s Space

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The way chef/owner Frank Ruta explains it, Palena must clear three separate hurdles before the highly regarded restaurant can expand into the adjacent Magruder's, which closed down in May.

The first hurdle — an agreement to take over the former grocery — has already been cleared, Ruta says. But the final deal is contingent upon whether Ruta can overcome the other two obstacles: approval to expand his liquor license and some sort of thumbs-up from the District's zoning commission to add more restaurant frontage space to a Cleveland Park neighborhood already over its limit.

The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration has scheduled a public hearing for Nov. 30 on whether or not to expand Palena's existing Class C restaurant license. Ruta was putting the notification placards in the window this afternoon. The Beard Award-winning chef doesn't anticipate many problems in securing approval. After all, he jokes, Palena's "not a gin joint, so we don't have those type of things going on."

The zoning commission, however, will present the biggest hurdle. At present, Ruta believes, Cleveland Park already exceeds its allotted restaurant/bar frontage space, which is limited to 25 percent of the neighborhood's entire commercial store frontage. The closures of McDonald's, Cold Stone, Starbucks, and Yenching Palace haven't yet freed up more frontage space because nothing new (and non-food/bar) has replaced those shuttered businesses. Under current rules, those spaces continue to count against the frontage quota until a new (and non-food/bar) certificate of occupancy is granted.

The city told the Washington Post last month that it may alter its rules slightly and free up the frontage space as soon as new building permits are issued. But Ruta is also hoping there's some truth in what the District's former chief of zoning services told the Post last month:  "If, over time, the public and the zoning commission conclude that a less restrictive rule of 30 or 35 percent is more appropriate for a particular area, that standard can be adopted by simple amendment."

If everything falls into place for Ruta, Palena will look nothing like its current incarnation. It will add 60 seats to the dining room as well as a summer garden with seating for another 36 diners. Ruta would also add more kitchen space.

"We're optimistic," Ruta tells Y&H about the possibilities for expansion. "But we're always optimistic."

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