Young and Hungry

Let The Bad Times Roll: H Street NE’s Most Hated Restaurant Closes After Tax Troubles, Lawsuits, and a Food Fight

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Just before midnight on July 19, a dispute erupted at TruOrleans on H Street NE over whether a large party was overcharged for its margarita-heavy tab, which totaled about $1,000. “Fuck this bill,” one patron in a teal tank top told a manager as the group started to leave, the manager says in a report filed by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. The patron then allegedly pushed or punched the manager in the face, causing him to fall backward.

A melee of grabbing, pushing, and shoving ensued as patrons started leaving the Cajun and creole restaurant from its French Quarter–inspired second-floor veranda, then downstairs through the kitsch-filled dining room. The man in the teal tank top allegedly threw food in the face of another manager and punched him in the face. As the crowd spilled out onto 4th Street NE and into the alleyway, police reported three employees left the building from the kitchen and attacked the man in the teal tank top—one allegedly beat him with a broom, while two others punched him around his body.

At least five police cars arrived at the scene, and three employees of TruOrleans were arrested. Two are being charged with simple assault and one with assault with a dangerous weapon.

“It was an insane chaos,” says David Prestwood, who lives across the street with his wife and 2-year-old. “This was not a ‘hold me back, I want to fight, but I don’t really want to fight’ kind of thing. This was people taking full haymakers at each other and connecting, and when somebody went down, inevitably there was somebody else kicking them while they were on the ground. I saw one guy walking back with a metal broom that was broken at a 45-degree angle because somebody had been beaten with it.”

For neighbors like Prestwood, the brawl was just the latest—and by far most violent—in a series of disturbances at the property since it opened in July 2011. It was also just one of the restaurant’s many troubles. The D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue shut down TruOrleans on Tuesday. A tax lien filed with the office’s Recorder of Deeds on July 12 shows that the restaurant owes more than $101,000 in sales and use taxes, penalties, and interest accumulated since 2011.

Several other forces have also been vying to shut TruOrleans down. This year, the restaurant faced eviction from its landlord and a liquor license protest. Owner James “Tru” Redding has his own set of problems, too. The local developer, who also owns Langdon strip joint/steakhouse Stadium Club, recently filed for bankruptcy and faces fraud charges in Nevada. His company has been sued more than 20 times in the past year alone for breaches of contract. He didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The restaurant’s website also names Brad Howard and Hans Christensen as investors. Neither they nor any manager of the restaurant responded to requests for comment, either.

Neighbors say TruOrleans operated more like a nightclub than a restaurant and complained of noise, operating after hours, public urination nearby, cups strewn outside, and parking issues, among other problems. Those issues violate a settlement agreement the restaurant signed with the neighborhood, which restricts its hours and other operations. ABRA has cited TruOrleans for 18 violations over the last two years, including 10 in 2013. The violations include multiple noise complaints, operating beyond approved hours, and not having an Alcoholic Beverage Control manager on duty.

Transcripts from a March ABRA hearing that focused on TruOrleans’ failure to provide parking services (another violation of its agreement with neighbors) shed a little light on the ownership’s attitude toward the neighborhood conflict. At the end of the hearing, Redding said his business is harassed by neighbors and blames “one individual house” for calling the police 25 times a week. “I can’t do valet parking, because I have police cars in front of my establishment. I can’t get customers in because they are there…” he says. “This has been such harassment, and we put in money, we pay our taxes, we employ 50 people in the neighborhood. We do everything possible we can possibly do, and I’m losing $30,000 a month since I opened up this business because of what this one development does.”

It wasn’t just one neighbor, though; the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission says it’s gotten complaints from many. The group had become exasperated by TruOrleans’ disregard for its concerns (and ABRA’s inability to provide meaningful enforcement or punishment). “We’ve been booed by people from the restaurant who are in [Redding’s] party when he’s outside,” says Prestwood, who’s become the neighborhood’s informal leader for all problems related to TruOrleans and was involved in the initial negotiations over the settlement agreement. One time last year, Prestwood says he went over to ask the restaurant to turn down its music, which he says can hear over the TV in his living room. Redding refused. “He said, ‘Go ahead, call ABRA, they won’t do anything,” Prestwood says.

ANC commissioner Mark Eckenwiler, an attorney, calls TruOrleans’ behavior “studied disregard” for the law. “One thing I think we can safely say about TruOrleans is that unless or until they’re hit in the head with a two-by-four, they will not modify their activity,” he says. “They clearly just do not care.”

When TruOrleans’ liquor license came up for renewal in the spring, the ANC voted unanimously to protest it. (It was the only restaurant license renewal in the bar-heavy neighborhood the group protested.) The ANC hired a lawyer to represent its constituents, and a hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18. (It’s unclear whether it will continue in light of the tax suspension.)

But TruOrleans’ undoing ultimately came from financial problems, not its liquor license.

Landlord Darryl Pounds filed a lawsuit seeking to evict the restaurant this spring. His complaint says TruOrleans failed to pay $40,773 in rent, taxes, late fees, and more between September 2011 and March 2013. A month after the filing, Pounds said he hoped to come to a resolution to avoid eviction, but he has since decided to proceed with his lawsuit. He declined to comment further on the record. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18, according to court records.

The owner, Redding, has money problems that go beyond TruOrleans. His company James T. Redding, Inc., for which he is the sole shareholder, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Maryland, where he resides, on July 18. Bankruptcy filings indicate the company owes more than 100 creditors somewhere between $1 million and $10 million. The papers also reveal more than 20 lawsuits against the company for breach of contract within a year of its bankruptcy filing, primarily by various construction-related businesses in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. Three contractors filed additional lawsuits specifically against TruOrleans for unpaid bills. Among the biggest hits to Redding: The court ordered him to pay Eagle Bank more than a million dollars ($999,000 plus late fees, interest, and attorney fees) in “unpaid principal balance.”

Meanwhile, Nevada authorities are extraditing Redding on charges of fraud—a felony.

A spokeswoman at Clark County Courts in Las Vegas says a warrant was issued for Redding’s arrest in May 2011, after he allegedly wrote three bad checks at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino totaling more than $75,000. The Metropolitan Police Department arrested Redding this March, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled in Las Vegas for Nov. 20.

Eckenwiler said he was unaware of Redding’s bankruptcy or legal troubles. Ultimately, he didn’t care how it happened; he just wanted TruOrleans out. “They bring less than nothing to the neighborhood,” he said last week. “They are a pox on us. And I would celebrate the day they shut permanently.”

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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