Night Moves: This Is Why D.C. Diners Can’t Have Nice Things 24/7
It’s Monday night, about 11:26 p.m. and my new would-be go-to late-night burger spot, Black & Orange, is all locked up.
A guy in the window makes a cutthroat gesture as I try in vain to pry open the door. When I point to the large posted sign reading “Open Till 5 a.m.,” he just shakes his head.
As we continue to pantomime back and forth, a trio of svelte young ladies also attempts entry and immediately starts sniping about the snub. “They said they were open ’til five!” one gal scoffs as she and her friends turn away and clomp in their heels up toward U Street NW.
It’s no surprise the place had customers waiting to get in. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post spotlighted the wee-hour goings-on at the two-and-a-half-month old gourmet burger joint on 14th Street NW in an article prominently displayed on the cover of its Metro section, which pondered, “Is the District slowly evolving into a 24-hour city?”
Ironically, the article appeared in print one day after the Post’s own Going Out Gurus reported that Black & Orange had abruptly and dramatically scaled back its hours.
Oh, sure, you can still grab some fancy black truffle oil and thyme-laden gourmet grass-fed beef on a bun as late (or early) as two hours after D.C. bars and nightclubs close on weekends, which means 5 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. But there’s no such luck on most weeknights, when the grill now cuts off at 11 p.m. sharp.
The operational flip-flop didn’t just undermine the primary component of Black & Orange’s advertising strategy. It also forecast uncertainty for the grander evolution of the city as a whole—the promise that, even here in the notoriously sleepy District, with its predominant 9-to-5 desk jockey culture, your options for post-midnight snacking on any given day of the week are expanding more in line with the hallowed nightlife capitals of New York and Los Angeles.
Coincidentally, the hourly rollback at Black & Orange occurred around the same time that another insomniac-geared establishment located farther downtown, The Hamilton, which initially boasted of serving food 24/7, had also given up on its ultra-late night offerings.
As it happens, the backsliding among the new would-be 24-hour pioneers comes just as Mayor Vince Gray has proposed to extend the hours that bars and restaurants can legally serve alcohol by an extra hour, until 3 a.m. on weeknights and 4 a.m. on weekends. The idea, presented as part of the mayor’s overall budget-balancing scheme, is intended as a source of additional tax revenue for the city, potentially bringing in an estimated $3.2 million annually, or $5.3 million when combined with proposed earlier hours for liquor stores and other loosened alcohol rules.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham convened a hearing on the controversial proposal on Tuesday that ran even later into the night than the new hours at Black & Orange.
Which is ironic, because it turns out the main thing that’s holding late-night dining back in D.C. right now is booze.
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At The Hamilton, the experiment in staying up all night was going pretty well for the nearly four months that it was going on. Demand was strong, says Tom Meyer, president of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which operates The Hamilton. The hours between last call and breakfast racked up nearly $30,000 in food sales each week on average during the hours between last call and breakfast. “We were really busy,” Meyer says. “It wasn’t for lack of interest—that’s not why I stopped it.”
So what was the problem? “People came to us in such an intoxicated state, it really made it untenable,” he says. “Every night, there would be an awful fight. I had a policeman there and two security guards. And the policeman suggested that I get another policeman. It’s just unfortunate. I just thought it would be a good place for people to go and get something to eat when the bars let out. I wasn’t anticipating the state that people would show up in.”
The apparent inability for fitshaced patrons to behave themselves over $23 plates of flat iron-steak poutine at The Hamilton also helps to explain why I can’t now get a fancy $5.50 burger at Black & Orange on my way home from work late on Monday nights.
That’s because Black & Orange owner Raynold Mendizabal also wants to serve beer and wine to go with his fanciful beef patties. The added liquid component opens him up to a whole other layer of public scrutiny of his business plan.
District regulations allow neighbors to protest any liquor license application on the grounds that it may disturb peace and order in their communities. In some parts of town, nearly every application that comes up, in fact, is challenged by neighbors—not so they can stop a bar or restaurant from opening, per se, but so they can have a say in how it’s run, through what’s known as a voluntary agreement. In essence, operators cut a deal with neighbors: In exchange for abiding by additional restrictions that the law doesn’t require, the liquor license application goes through faster and more smoothly. Of the 1,169 licensed bars, restaurants and nightclubs in D.C., nearly 40 percent are operating under voluntary agreements, according to figures cited by Councilmember Graham. Of those, some 267 place restrictions on hours above and beyond D.C. law.
On 14th Street, Mendizabal had to sign an agreement stating that he would shut down his outdoor patio by 11 p.m. and operate no later than 2 a.m. Sundays through Wednesdays. For logistical reasons, Mendizabal says he had to close even earlier in order to make the mandated shorter hours sync with scheduling and staffing concerns. He further agreed to stop serving alcohol at 2 a.m. on weekends—a full hour earlier than the law would otherwise permit.
Closing at 11 p.m. during the week instead of staying open until dawn meant Mendizabal had to cut five jobs from the restaurant’s staff, he says. It also had ripple effects on his other location in Dupont Circle, which is now following the same reduced schedule. (Mendizabal says he wanted both locations to be consistent.)
The earlier school-night bedtime puts Mendizabal’s otherwise graveyard-shift operation more on par with existing late but not all-night kitchens in the area, including Fast Gourmet, which similarly closes at 11 p.m. on weeknights, and Busboys & Poets, which wraps up food service at 11:45 p.m. Nearby Ethiopian spot Dukem, meanwhile, dishes out its signature tibs until midnight, while historic Ben’s Chili Bowl cranks out half-smokes until 2 a.m. (All of them stay open much later on weekends.) For an even later bite, there’s still The Diner in Adams Morgan and IHOP in Columbia Heights, two of that rarest breed of D.C. restaurant that manage to sell food around the clock.
Black & Orange could have dodged the whole fight and stayed open as late as it wanted, but only if it didn’t serve any alcohol. The burger joint could then operate unfettered into the early morning, just like neighboring pizza and subs take-out Manny & Olga’s, which stays open until 4 a.m. on weekdays. Manny & Olga’s also doesn’t serve alcohol, which allows it to operate at these odd hours no matter what the neighbors think.
The downside to that alcohol-free compromise: Black & Orange would be just like Manny & Olga’s.
“We are a casual fast-food place, with a fine-dining approach,” says Mendizabal. “We use a high quality of product. We compensate our staff at a higher level than the average fast-casual and so alcohol sales help us level out our margins. That said, we think that beer and wine is a proper flavor pairing with the flavors of our food as well and want our diners to enjoy that.”
Mendizabal complains that the current regulatory system unfairly gives neighbors the power to make demands even before any mayhem has occurred. “All they’re pointing out is the possible bad things that could happen without taking into consideration all the good things that could happen,” he says.
Mendizabal’s fellow would-be night-owl operators at The Hamilton aren’t doing much to help him win that argument.
But there is still hope for a return to the way things once were at Black & Orange: In six months, Mendizabal says his agreement will allow him to go back to city regulators and request the reinstatement of his original 5 a.m. daily closing time. “If,” he adds, “we can get no complaints from the neighbors.”
In a town where residential-nightlife clashes seem practically inevitable, that’s wishful thinking.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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