Upshur restaurants are doing fine, and would do better if you went out more

I’m a huge fan of DCist, but not so much with their article that wonders, with two recent restaurant closings, if the “much-ballyhooed Upshur Street” is in trouble, with closings instead of openings.

It might seem there’s a problem, what with Ruta del Vino suddenly shutting down on November 10th and Hank’s Cocktail Bar moving to Dupont on December 14th. Domku closed a few years ago. Cuzzin’s closed, as did Bentley’s Antiques, Philip’s Shoe Repair. Are these closures foreshadowing something, as DCist seems to want you to think?

Screen capture of DCist website.

I don’t think Upshur is in trouble.

I think what’s happening is a natural ebb and flow of businesses. As Timber Pizza owner Andrew Dana told DCist, “The closures are more happenstance and one-offs rather than ‘Upshur Street doesn’t work.'”

Domku closed for many reasons, the increase in rent being only one of them, but off-the-record conversations at the time painted a more complex picture of what happened there. That space is now the successful Taqueria del Barrio, which renovated the location and is now heavily involved in Petworth community events.

Ruta del Vino was a very cool, expensive concept (which looked constantly busy), making us wonder if the cost to run the business for a new restaurateur was too high, too demanding. A recent off-the-record conversation with a local business owner said that Ruta’s owners were looking for buyers as early as this past summer, meaning the closure likely wasn’t as sudden as it seemed.

Bentley’s closed because the rent went up when the lease expired (it was really low before the lease ended). The owners of Cuzzin’s still own their building and the now defunct barbershop on the corner of 9th and Upshur, and both locations are slated to have new tenants soon.

Philip and Lauretta Calabro said they decided to close the shoe repair store after 51 years because they wanted to retire, it’s set to become a flower and crafts shop. Lulabelle’s is temporarily closing, set to reopen a couple weeks later in January; owner Julie Wineinger says she is fully committed to Lulabelle’s and to Upshur Street.

Kilroy’s Cleaners was definitely a victim of the area’s growth and economic popularity, having their building sold out from underneath them (just as Lighthouse Yoga did) in order to make room for more condos. There’s definitely a down side to these changes.

Looking west along the 800 block of Upshur Street

But something IS going on in Petworth. Talk to the owners of restaurants around the area, especially along Georgia Avenue, and they’ll tell you that business is slower than it used to be. Places like Qualia, Homestead and DC Reynolds, now mainstays of the neighborhood, are getting by but could use more local business. Part of the blame is there are more options for people to choose from than there were a few years ago.

Petworth has always been a bedroom community, where people buy for the long-term, nest, have kids. Going out for expensive dinners and pricey cocktails is great when you have disposable cash. Kids kind of suck that cash out of you. But across the board, residents say they want nice places to go here in Petworth; they also want middle-of-the-road restaurants where they can get affordable meals. Maybe the increase in condos will change that economic mix, bringing young, double-income couples to the area.

Restaurants come and go, depending on positive economics, experience, and popularity. Ruta was popular, the food was good (oh the ceviche!), the wine list was interesting — I think the concept would have done really well downtown. Likewise Hank’s Cocktail Bar with the $15 drinks — they have fun names for sure, but with no real kitchen, Hank’s was a date night destination, not a place for locals to come regularly. It’ll do well in Dupont.

The closed gate over the Ruta del Vino entrance.

For sure I miss the Scandinavian food at Domku, Mr. Duffy delivering dry cleaning from Kilroys, and the friendliness of Cuzzins. I look forward to the new flower shop coming where Philip’s was located, am curious about the new cigar bar opening next to Slim’s, and toward whatever takes over the now empty Ruta and the soon-to-be empty Hank’s. They won’t be empty for long.

And don’t forget that 9th Street is on the way for redevelopment and growth, with El Torogoz renewing their lease and looking at facade improvements.

What keeps Upshur and Petworth going strong is that it offers options that local people are looking for — places they want to visit and spend money. Asking what’s happening when there’s a closure is a valid question, but perhaps it’s how the question is asked that matters as well. Alarming people into thinking doom and gloom is on the horizon can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this case, one that isn’t true.

If you want Upshur Street, and Petworth, to continue to offer interesting retail like Willow, Fia’s and Lulabelle’s, restaurants like Homestead, Taqueria del Barrio, Petworth Citizen, Timber Pizza and Pupuseria Miraflores, you have to go out to them, spend a little and share the great experience with your neighbors. It’s a win-win.

Now, let’s get the 200 block of Upshur busier…