Distrust and desire: When a neighborhood and a restaurant collide

The future home of Castello Restaurant and Lounge, recently painted black.

The future home of Castello Restaurant and Lounge, recently painted black.

Most people in Petworth love the idea of a family-oriented restaurant nearby, and having a place to walk to and get a good meal at a good price. That said, here's what happens when business owners don't understand how to connect to their community, and the community doesn't trust the business owners.

Amadouh Bah and his wife Wafa Harrag own the Red Lounge Bar & Grill, a nightclub and hookah bar at 2013 14th Street NW. They want to open their second restaurant, Castello Restaurant and Lounge, at the vacant property at 931 Hamilton Street NW. According to Bah and Harrag, Castello will be a family restaurant, serving the local community, and won't be a nightclub. For their liquor license they're asking for the full range of legally available hours allowing them to stay open and serve alcohol until 3am. They want to have live entertainment inside the restaurant, and music via speakers on a patio with a covered outdoor seating area of 10 tables. 

The residents who live next to and around the future location want a family-focused restaurant -- they don't want a nightclub. Sounds like a win-win, right? Not so fast. 

This is a very complicated story that I'm going to try to simplify.

Architectural rendering of proposed Castello Restaurant and Lounge (Georgia Ave on the left). The grey rectangles are actually residences next door to Castello. The alley on the right is only 14 feet wide. Photo courtesy Castello.

More than 20 neighbors along with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4D (spearheaded by Commissioner David Sheon), began to have concerns about Castellos after several planned community meetings with the owners fell through, and communications with the business failed. After much back and forth, missed meetings and angry emails, ANC 4D and the 23 residents decided to protest the granting of the liquor license with ABRA (Alcohol Beverage Regulatory Administration). 

The alcohol license Castello is pursuing is known as a Tavern license, which allows the business to earn all of their revenue from alcohol (a Tavern license isn't unusual for a restaurant.). A Restaurant license, which the neighbors think is more appropriate, requires an establishment to garner 60% of revenue from food sales. The residents didn't see why the restaurant needs to stay open until 3am if it is family-focused -- they think it'll attract the type of late night activity they want to avoid in an establishment that sits feet from residential buildings. 

Residents are wary of businesses like the Trinidad & Tobago Association (aka "the Club House"), which was the location of a massive fight that spilled out onto Georgia Avenue in January last year. The Club House has been, in the words of many residents, a poor neighbor, as noise, littering and drunken loitering take their toll on the neighbors who live next door. And they are concerned about history and precedent. 

Red Lounge Bar & Grill, 2013 14th Street NW

The Red Lounge Bar & Grill, the other restaurant owned by Mr. Bah and Ms. Harrag, also originally opened as a restaurant under a Tavern liquor license. It quickly changed into a nightclub and hookah bar with a stated mission, as written on their website, "To be a highly desirable destination that exceeds the boundaries of normality."

The owners tried to break their existing Settlement Agreement (made with ANC 1B) that limited their hours of operation at Red Lounge -- limitations that are bad for any nightclub. According to one of the Alcohol Board members, there's been 17 ABRA violations in the past three years at the Red Lounge, with several violent incidents occurring at the club in the past year. The neighbors' fear, what they couldn't get a straight answer to, is if Castello would do the same thing?

Protest hearings take place at the Reeves building, 2000 14th Street NW, under the auspices of the Alcohol Beverage Control Board.

Fast forward many, many months to last week's protest hearing with the Alcohol Beverage Control Board. Here the owners had the chance to present their license request, and the residents and ANC 4D to present their reasons for protest. The meeting was long, with testimony from Mr. Bah, the owner, an ABRA inspector and from multiple residents. To simplify things, I think it's worthwhile to look at several of takeaways from the ABRA hearing.

What was clear to me as an outside observer who had the opportunity to review the case evidence is that the community really wants to support Castello and likes the idea of a local family restaurant -- they just want to know their concerns are being heard. I don't get the impression they're being obstructionists, but they don't trust the owners for a few reasons: they haven't been able to meet, even after multiple requests; the history of the Red Lounge; and the slippery types of answers they have received from the owners' representative. Something feels off to the residents.

As for Mr. Bah and Ms. Harrag, they seem to want to do right by the community and want to impress everyone with their family-friendly restaurant -- they're just not very good at communicating and expressing their vision. They never scheduled a meeting with neighbors to discuss what the neighborhood wanted / needed, and according to their representative, Dee Hunter, they have no plans to do so now. Both the owners and Mr. Hunter have failed to respond to requests to meet by ANC 4D and residents. On the other hand, frustrations have created a situation where the owners feel any concession they make won't satisfy the community. "Wait until they see it," Ms. Harrag said to me, when we spoke about the residents' concerns. "They will be impressed. They will like it."

If the owners had sat down at the outset of this process, even for an hour, and honestly explained their plans to residents and responded to concerns, this would have been a quiet affair. Instead, it's a mess. 

The small alley off of Hamilton Street, separating Castello and the neighbors.

According to Mr. Hunter, the owner's representative, the owners did try compromising with the residents, offering a long list of concessions, and the sticking point was the hours of operation. Yet in conversations with Commissioner Sheon, I understand that owners' concessions were made only for the mediation session -- a session that Mr. Hunter did not attend so the concessions were never formalized. 

At the protest hearing, Mr. Hunter asked the Alcohol Board to implement the "Witness Rule," which requires all witnesses to wait outside the hearing room so they don't overhear testimony. That's the owners' right, but it feels wrong. In this case, all it did was to show how consistent each resident was in their opinions: they welcome the restaurant, they really don't want a nightclub, and they want it to close by 1am.

Even Mr. Bah, in sworn testimony, said that the restaurant only needed to be open until midnight, maybe 1am. He said there's no plans for a dance floor or a DJ, and they don't want to be a nightclub. He said they wanted the 3am limit on their alcohol license to give them flexibility for the future (in case they decide to sell the restaurant). Being tied down by a settlement agreement to midnight/1am would make changing the restaurant difficult.

Mr. Bah explained that the Red Lounge on 14th Street was originally supposed to be a restaurant, but because of a bad deal by a friend for the rental space upstairs from Red, a deal that Mr. Bah co-signed, they had to take over the space. Their only option to generate enough revenue was a bar, so they changed from a restaurant to a club. They don't plan to do the same with Castello.

Commissioner David Sheon preparing to present the community's concerns at the protest hearing.

Time will tell. From the questions the Alcohol Board members asked Mr. Bah and the residents who gave testimony, I think Castello is going to get their license, and perhaps a Tavern license. And I think it will be limited to serving alcohol no later than 1 am. 

In a follow up interview, Mr. Hunter said it was his opinion that this whole affair was due to Commissioner Sheon being obstructionist. For his sake, Sheon says he tried to work with and support the owners, but their lack of participation made that impossible. He still holds out the possibility that the owners will work with the community. 

After reviewing the evidence and interviewing both Mr. Hunter and Commissioner Sheon, I think ANC 4D and the residents did try their best to work with the owners. I think the owners may have meant well, but their actions made them suspect in the eyes of the community. Naïve as it may sound, I still think a simple sit down with honest conversation would do wonders. I told the owners as much after the hearing. 

I look forward to writing about Castello Restaurant and Lounge, a new family restaurant on Hamilton Street that is part of the community. Hopefully the neighbors like the place, too.

(Feb 27, 2016 Update: Castello Restaurant on Hamilton Street gets its alcohol license, with restrictions.)

Amadouh Bah and Wafa Harrag, owners of the upcoming Castello Restaurant and Lounge.