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Georgetown restaurants not threatened by chains

Some people have lamented that the new Paul Bakery restaurant that is to open next to the Banana Republic in Georgetown is a chain. While it's fair to complain about the lack of genuinely exciting or even interesting restaurants in Georgetown, one of the things Georgetown's definitely not is chain-dominated.


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

As of my latest count, there are 126 restaurants in Georgetown. Of those, only 20 are part of a big chain. An additional 5 more are part of a regional chain (i.e. Five Guys).

So even if you lump the regional chains in with the national chains, there are still only 25 chain restaurants in Georgetown. That's less that 20%. And the number of chains is unchanged from last year, while the number of independent restaurants has increased.

Is the Georgetown restaurant scene a little threadbare? Absolutely*. Does it seem like no new and interesting restaurants open here? You bet. But that's a product of a lot of forces, only some of which are controllable.

The two largest factors are the liquor license and the rents. With the Georgetown moratorium, unless you were one of the lucky few that snagged one of the new licenses that were issued last year, you're stuck buying an existing license, which can run upwards of $70,000.

And even if you secure a license, you've got to find a good space that you can afford (and that doesn't require much construction). There just are only so many of those spaces available, partially because there are already 126 restaurants in Georgetown!.

But neither of those factors is likely to change in the near future. Is there anything we can do to attract new and interesting restaurants (of the kind that opens up in Logan and H St. every week or so) if we can't change these two factors? I wish I knew the answer to that question, but I suspect the answer is "no".

*Are there places I still love? Sure. But most people would agree that the vast majority of Georgetown's dining fare is pretty boring.

Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and new daughter in Georgetown.  

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But most people would agree that the vast majority of Georgetown's dining fare is pretty boring.

Boring, compared to what? What do 'most people' use as their point of comparison? Other DC neighborhoods? Other cities? Some utopian ideal?

by Alex B. on Apr 27, 2011 11:03 am • linkreport

Georgetown is really going down the tubes. It started about five years ago, and it is getting worse. The place is turning into a hood.

Topher, are you counting places like Clydes's as a chain? Or Paolo's? Georgetown Cupcake? Prince Cafe? Neyla? Looking at the list on GMC it could use some updating.

I think you basic point is correct, but when people walk down M St, it does look like a mall food court. There is still a lot of diversity, but not much interesting. Very sad.

by charlie on Apr 27, 2011 11:13 am • linkreport

Good article. I propose a new rule: if a "chain" only has one location in DC, no complaining allowed. :)

by tom veil on Apr 27, 2011 11:28 am • linkreport

Sorry, but unless you count San Diego as part of the region, 5 guys just isn't regional anymore.

by Mike on Apr 27, 2011 11:34 am • linkreport

by blah on Apr 27, 2011 11:47 am • linkreport

remember to turn off italics

by blah on Apr 27, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

Part of the reasons chains proliferate is the existence of numerous arcane zoning, safety, etc rules. The chains usually know all the tricks, and have a bevvy of people to assist in jumping through the hoops. For example, if all of your food comes through the same distribution channel as all the other stores, and your menu is pretty much the same overcooked/deep fried stuff from day to day, then its a lot easier to show that you meet the food safety requirements than buying local.

Thus, if we are interested in diversity of restaurants, we need to consider what regulations meet the needs of customer health and safety without being overly byzantine.

by SJE on Apr 27, 2011 11:56 am • linkreport

@SJE; I thought it was all about liquor licenses in Georgetown.....

by charlie on Apr 27, 2011 12:08 pm • linkreport

Gah- add in an at the end of the crossposted line!

by Bossi on Apr 27, 2011 12:09 pm • linkreport

Er... < / i > (spaces added so my code doesn't disappear... hopefully)

Feel free to delete my pair of comments when addressed.

Thanks!

by Bossi on Apr 27, 2011 12:09 pm • linkreport

Why would anyone complain about a Paul bakery? That place looks amazing!

by Omar on Apr 27, 2011 12:31 pm • linkreport

The other challenge georgetown faces is that it has become a "destination" in DC for tourists and other out-of-towners, like Harvard Square and such. Chain restaurants are always going to seek out such places (even if only to the tune of 25% of restaurants) because they (a) have an opportunity to advertise their brand, which is of limited value to a one-restaurant place and (b) tend to appeal to tourists unfamiliar with local restaurants and preferring a 'safe", "known" choice. The economics favor chain restaurants as a result.

by ah on Apr 27, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

I can't speak for everyone but I consider Georgetown to be a dining destination. Maybe it is not on par with Penn Quarter, where all the big chefs are opening up shop, but it beats most other retail districts for quality and choice, at least in my opinion.

And I would probably not consider Georgetown Cupcake and Clyde's to be "chains" even though they have multiple locations.

by Scoot on Apr 27, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport

Five Guys isn't a regional chain. They have 740 restaurants in 40 states and 5 Canadian provinces. It started in Arlington, but it's a big chain now.

by Nick on Apr 27, 2011 12:45 pm • linkreport

Charlie: I consider liquor licenses as part of the same regulatory environment.

by SJE on Apr 27, 2011 12:51 pm • linkreport

I'd like to echo Alex B.'s question as to what Georgetown is boring in comparison to. I wonder if it's boring because that author is so used to the places in the neighborhood.

I also want to point out how much people seem to look down on chains. It reminds me of a person who follows and loves a band in the early stages, but once they make it big the person says that the band has "sold out" without much proof other than the fact that they are successful. These are people who think the Olive Garden is a scourge on society. I don't know if it's a Midwestern vs. East Coast thing, but I've never really understood this mindset.

But that's beside the point, as there seem to be very few chains in Georgetown as a percentage. Granted, there are some barriers to opening a one location restaurant versus another location in a chain, but clearly the barriers aren't that formidable to Georgetown or it would be dominated by chains.

So I guess this article comes down to the fact that the author just doesn't particularly like the 126 choices he has now?

by Steven Yates on Apr 27, 2011 12:55 pm • linkreport

As a Georgetown resident, the choices just don't compare, in terms of an interesting dining experience (or a good bang for the buck) to many of the options in Penn Quarter and 14th Street, among others, or to the ethnic options in Bailey's Crossroads or Wheaton. Though the latter complaint goes for most of the DC dining destinations.

We enjoy a meal at (or takeout from) the Tombs, Cafe Divan, Mai Thai (formerly Bangkok Bistro), Leopolds, or a few others, but there are few spots--outside of the very expensive--that I would suggest as a dining destination when meeting up with friends.

@charlie, the liquor license moratorium is a big piece of it, as are the rents, and I would submit, the restrictive zoning that keeps almost all restaurants on Wisconsin or M. Not that I'm calling for a restaurant on every block, but it would be nice to have a few more options (restaurant or cafe) that are a 1-2 block walk for people in the East or West Village, much as there are options for small grocery outlets (though Griffin is now gone and Scheeles is constantly on the brink).

by Jacques on Apr 27, 2011 12:57 pm • linkreport

The chains usually know all the tricks, and have a bevvy of people to assist in jumping through the hoops.

They also have enough institutional clout behind them that they can't be easily shut down and bullied out of the neighborhood *cough* Philly Pizza *cough*

by Dizzy on Apr 27, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

I really don't give much creedence to these "chain" arguments because they are so typically hypocritical.

The same people who complain mightly about how uncool Columbia Heights is because of the lack of local business and all the "lame" chain stores, would sell their mothers into slavery for an Apple store.

Wash, rinse...repeat.

by freely on Apr 27, 2011 1:23 pm • linkreport

olive garden is a midwest staple. It has taken Chef Boyardee into a sit down restaurant.

I like some chains, I hate others. But I recognize I am eating corporate food, so run with it. I'd rather have a burger at Ruby Tuesdays (with the germ warfare salad bar) than eat the 5 guys grease on a bun.

by greent on Apr 27, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

I agree with Jacques. The really unique restaurants in Georgetown are fairly expensive. I would say the really uniquely good restaurants in Georgetown include the following:

Hook
Il Canale
Fahrenheit
1789
Bistro Lepic
Zed's Ethiopian Cuisine

Some may add others (I might add Le Pain or Leopold's, others might add Michel Richard), but either way the list is in the single digits, includes expensive restaurants, and changes pretty slowly.

by Ken Archer on Apr 27, 2011 2:08 pm • linkreport

@ SJE: we need to consider what regulations meet the needs of customer health and safety without being overly byzantine.

I love the NC system. At the door of every restaurant they need to display their inspection score in big large numbers. Result? I turn around when the score is <95. The infamous IHOP in Ballston would be dead and buried under such a system.

by Jasper on Apr 27, 2011 2:19 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I'll echo the others pointing out that there is no longer anything regional about the Five Guys chain. Also, I think that its sheer ubiquity disqualifies it from getting any kind of a pass.
To the extent that Georgetown has chain restaurants and retail, I think that, for now, there is still plenty of local flavor. It would be a shame if that was lost.

by Josh S on Apr 27, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport

What happens during redevelopment is that the first batch of newcomers are usually local owner-operated places. Once a place gets popular ownership of buildings often changes to out-of-town owners who look just at the bottom line and chains enhance the bottom line easily.

The real trick is to keep local unique businesses when a place redevelops and large new buildings come in. Large developers usually bring in the same chains they deal with other places. We're very aware of this on 14th. (and we're getting a new Dunkin Donuts and Subway next month).

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 27, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

Generic chain retail stores deserve generic chain restaurants. Seems to be a match made in commercial heaven.

by snowpeas on Apr 27, 2011 3:52 pm • linkreport

When will Serendipity open?

by mc on Apr 27, 2011 4:56 pm • linkreport

@Tom,

and we're getting a new Dunkin Donuts and Subway next month

If we're going to have chains, those are 2 great convenience type places to have! And honestly, I can't think of any local place they'll be competing with on 14th. There used to be a great coffee place down where the wine bar is nowadays, but that's been long closed. And while there's Caribou down the street, Dunkin Donuts is different ... much better coffee and more convenience and less pretense. As for Subway ... there's nothing like it there.

by Lance on Apr 27, 2011 9:25 pm • linkreport

Dunkin Donuts is different ... much better coffee and more convenience and less pretense.

This may be the wrongest thing you've ever said here at GGW, Lance. I'll never understand the DD coffee fetish. It's indistinguishable from gas station coffee, and arguably worse than what you get at McDonalds. Just terrible stuff.

by oboe on Apr 27, 2011 9:54 pm • linkreport

Ironically, the photo is of Chez Mama-san, a restaurant that has been closed for some time now.

by Chris in Eckington on Apr 27, 2011 10:53 pm • linkreport

Yum ... gas station coffee ... !

especially good when it's been sitting on the warmer all day!

NOT!

;)

by Lance on Apr 27, 2011 11:28 pm • linkreport

"The place is turning into a hood. "

Seriously? I'm pretty sure a good portion of housing in Georgetown costs more than most "hood" folks will make in life.

by Martin on Apr 28, 2011 10:31 am • linkreport

@ Lance " As for Subway ... there's nothing like it there".

There's a Subway at 12th and U. And JJ's across the street.

Anwyay....

by funtimes on Apr 28, 2011 11:09 am • linkreport

@Chris - While you are correct that Chez Mama-san used to be in that building, it is (and has been) a chocolate shop, which I think is not a chain. Check it out!

by RosRes on Apr 28, 2011 4:22 pm • linkreport

1. Paul actually is seriously good, even by French standards. I've been happy to see it more than a few times, notably at train stations in provincial France and Japan just before long trips. DC is even more starved for bakeries than your average mid-sized Japanese city, so I'll probably also patronize it here.

2. The economics of bakeries just don't favor actual corner bakeries anymore. The immense start-up capital costs require big economies of scale -- something readily achievable with central facility feeding multiple retail outlets. Parbaking (freezing when partially baked, then finishing on site) has led to even more centralization, but also to wide availability of pretty good bread & pastries.

3. @Ken Archer: Pain Quotidien is also an international franchise.

4. @Tom Coumaris has it partly right. Even local developers, or in this case local restauranteurs, will opt for chain concepts with proven returns (or copies thereof) when there's a lot of money at stake. Georgetown rents, especially on the highest-visibility streets like M & Wisconsin, will mean that developers will take big risks on unproven tenants.

Jane Jacobs wrote approvingly of old buildings as a way of ensuring price diversity, but that was before "historic" became a selling point. Daring new retail concepts are going to have to either migrate to secondary locations (side streets, upstairs), provided that proper zoning and access are in place, or get subsidized by something else.

5. Instead of complaining about people who do take a chance and open a business (which even franchisees are doing), a more constructive approach might be to open our own, superior new businesses -- or else identify the barriers that prevent people from doing so. Financing? Regulation? Technical assistance? Recently, I was talking to someone in Milwaukee who wanted to open a bakery; to solve the financing problem, he formed a co-op that opened a tavern, which will spin off enough capital for other co-op enterprises like the bakery. Do, people.

by Payton on Apr 28, 2011 9:55 pm • linkreport

I remember the Georgetown of the 70s and 80s and well, that was just a series of college bars with occasional "hole in the wall" restaurants (some quite good).

I don't think it's as bad of a situation as some seem to think, but I do agree that the zoning laws could def. be a way for the city to try to control a bit what is happening.

For example, the Georgetown Park Mall...is the biggest waste of space I've ever seen. One idea, might be to have the city push the "chains" to inhabit that mall (sort of like the Old Post Office downtown), so if tourists want a quick "safe" snack from a greasy spoon or chain they can just hop in there (most of them probably want to be inside in the A/C anyway), and then reserve the more eye catching M street spots for independently owned shops/stores and restaurants that serve local food.

Old Town has preserved a bit more of that "local" feel, although that is quickly changing as well.

But at least Georgetown has this huge indoor space (the Gtown Park Mall) that is not being used to the best advantage in my view--and could actually help improve the overall "feel" of Georgetown while still allowing the chains to exist for the tourists or whoever wants to eat there.

by LuvDusty on Apr 29, 2011 11:08 am • linkreport

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