Young and Hungry

The Restaurant Is History: New Eateries Play Up Their Buildings’ Legacies

Louie Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Billie Holiday once played in the red brick building at 14th and T streets NW.  It was called Club Bali, or simply “The Bali,” back then. In its 1940s heyday, it was one of the city’s most popular music venues—until, that is, its owner was indicted for jury tampering during a gambling ring investigation.

In an even earlier life, the more-than-a-century old corner building was an auto showroom. Before that, it was occupied by a bowling alley and billiards parlor. More recently, Arena Stage used the space.

In a few weeks, the building will reincarnate once again. This time, it’ll be the fourth local outpost of Matchbox.

“We did find a piece of the bowling alley when we demolished the space. Nothing too big, but we’ll do something with it as a little tribute,” says co-owner Drew Kim, talking over the saws and hammers as he walks past the piles of wooden beams and boxes inside the cavernous space.

The Matchbox team hasn’t just hired construction workers to pull apart the building and find what’s underneath. It brought in historians to do the same. The company contracted EHT Traceries, a research and consulting firm that specializes in architectural history and historic preservation, to track down photos, building permits, and architectural drawings to assemble a timeline of the building’s tenants.

Matchbox is one of a number of restaurants that have hired companies or conducted their own research to dig into their buildings’ pasts. For starters, understanding that history can be critical for presenting architectural alterations to the Historic Preservation Review Board.

But beyond practicalities, some restaurants are incorporating that history into their concepts and designs in order to present an outward connection to their neighborhoods’ roots. (It doesn’t hurt that vintage aesthetics are in, with restaurants taking new spaces and making them look aged and rustic using exposed brick and reclaimed wood.)

In a rapidly developing neighborhood with an upscale trajectory—like Matchbox’s U Street corridor—tapping into history is a way for a restaurant to establish instant connections between its customers, its surroundings, and, ultimately, its brand. And it works, at least if we go by Washingtonians’ sudden fervor for local beer and local baseball: People want what they consume to reflect where they live.

But channeling a neighborhood’s historical character can be a bit trickier than merely brewing within the city limits, even if both acts strive to establish some local cred.

At its best, invoking history can keep a property’s legacy in the popular imagination while adapting it to a new use. At its most cloying, it can be a gimmick. And at its worst, it can feel like pernicious act of cultural commodification. A writer for the Washington Post’s Root DC recently criticized the trend of establishments adopting and profiting from a history that’s not their own, calling it “swagger-jacking.”

For restaurateurs, nothing beats authenticity, or at least the whiff of it. They want to tell a story about where their food comes from. It’s a bonus if they can also narrate what’s happened between their walls.

“It’s just really good talking points for staff, and the customers, and for reporters,” Kim says of the 14th Street location, which will display photos and sketches from the building’s past.

It’s a strategy Matchbox has employed before. Its Barracks Row location, for example, used to house a vending company that sold pinball and cigarette machines. The previous owners left behind shuffleboard tables, which Matchbox turned into bar tops.

EHT Traceries has also helped other local restaurants unearth their pasts. The research can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 and take about a week, depending on what records exist. The consultants primarily rely on documents from the Historical Society of Washington, Library of Congress, National Archives, and local newspapers. EHT recently traced the firehouse roots of Sixth Engine, a gastropub at 400 Mass. Ave. NW: The building, constructed in 1855, was first home to Metropolitan Hook and Ladder 1 and later Engine Company 6, which inspired the restaurant’s name. The decor also pays homage to the past, with newspaper clippings about firefighters and a portrait of the building’s architect, Adolf Cluss (who went on to design Eastern Market, the reconstruction of the Smithsonian castle, and other landmarks).

Chez Billy, the Petworth restaurant owned by entrepreneurs Eric and Ian Hilton, is a nod to the building’s former tenant, Billy Simpson’s House of Seafood and Steaks. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was one of the only fine-dining restaurants for African-Americans and became a hub for people to meet and eat during the civil rights movement.

Beuchert’s Saloon, opening later this fall near Eastern Market, aims to be a reincarnation of the saloon and speakeasy of the same name that operated there beginning in the late 19th century. Co-owner Nathan Berger and his partners worked with the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and dug through the Library of Congress to piece together their building’s history. Opened by the commercial land baron John J. Beuchert, the bar continued into Prohibition: Beuchert’s son Theodore ran it as a speakeasy, while his wife ran front businesses like a sewing machine store and a gramophone shop.

The new owners of Beuchert’s Saloon are bringing back both the name and the aesthetic with turn-of-the-century finishes like vintage bar hooks,  soda fountain taps, and a restored 1918 Berkel hand-crank meat slicer.

“We’re hoping to render the establishment in such a way that when people walk through the door, they say, ‘Has this been here the entire time?’” Berger says.

Neighborhood Restaurant Group wants to create a similar sense of timelessness at the historic Iron Gate near Dupont Circle, where it will open a Greek/Italian restaurant early next year. It’s dug up old menus, photos, and newspaper clippings thanks to its landlord, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The Iron Gate, built in 1875, was most famously home to General Nelson A. Miles, who fought in the Spanish and Indian Wars. GFWC bought the house and its stables in 1922 and converted it into the Federation Tea House, a restaurant and “homemaking center” where women could learn about the latest kitchen equipment. Horse stalls were converted into booths, and people could drink coffee and eat waffles while also learning how to use electric coffeemakers and waffle irons.

Iron Gate operated for more than 87 years before shutting down in 2010. Undated dinner menus, likely from the late 1920s or ‘30s, include a 75-cent shrimp cocktail, broiled lamb loin chops for $3.50, and breast of chicken baked in cream for $2.75.

Chef and co-owner Tony Chittum says he’s already got his eye on the Iron Gate’s most famous recipe: butterscotch rolls. “I’m not really familiar with an old school butterscotch roll; I’m going to have to do some research,” Chittum says. “But yeah, we’re going to play with that.”

The wisteria in the garden, which was planted in the late 1800s, will still be there when the latest iteration of Iron Gate opens. And the horse stalls-turned-booths retain the original nameplates of General Miles’ horses, Golden Pebbles and Rappahannock.

Entrees for $3.50, however, are one historical trend Chittum has no plans to adopt.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo via the Historical Society of Washington

  • Guest

    Excellent article.

  • Mario

    Nice piece.
    The problem I see is more existential: having an affinity for old timey stuff is great. But with old-timey decor should come old timey values. Entrepreneurs today are trying to impart 21st century marketing into historic locations that are so divorced from the previous century that it’s comical. The result is what we see: shallow "talking points." There's no REAL connection to the past; only the desire to profit from it. In fact, if the past were present, these new firms wouldn't exist, not in their current form at least.
    The challenge for these businesses--which they have so far and will ultimately fail to accomplish--is to put their hearts where their money is. You want to call your joint Busboys and Poets? Fine, make it AFFORDABLE for those groups. Brtixton? How about some cheap south London curry goat then? But, there’s no goal to be inclusive. These folks only care about their bottom lines, not being torchbearers for the real history of DC.

  • er

    mario,
    who is to judge another? you? so how do you know what the owners feel connected to?
    the notion that people only care about a bottom line falls in line with a stereotypical narrative and aids in finding and encouraging divides in this city, but how true is it?

    do you see businesses opening that you approve of? how do they do it?
    what prices points should busboys and poets have? give us specific examples. here is their menu: http://www.busboysandpoets.com/menu/lunch-dinner

  • Treyevshev

    Who cares? Who cares if the Brixton serves "real" London fare or something else? I don't care if it's a London-pub-looking setup that serves ramen. If it's good, it's good. If it's funky, fine. As long as it works. I'm not relying on a fucking restaurant to act like a cultural archive. That's what museums, books, and documentaries are for.

  • ThisIsBullshit

    If Sixth Engine is a gastropub, I'm an astronaut. They're food is middling and their prices are anything but pub prices.

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