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The Golden Era Of D.C. Dining, Or An Age Of Terror?

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After 37 years, Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria’s flagship location in Tenleytown shut its doors at the end of June.
Rebecca Sheir
After 37 years, Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria’s flagship location in Tenleytown shut its doors at the end of June.

Since Memorial Day, we've seen nearly 20 eateries shut their doors in the D.C. region. Capital Q Barbecue, Buddha Bar, Casa Nonna, Restaurant 3, Meatballs, Ireland's Four Fields... the list goes on and on.

Some plan on relocating, others plan on re-opening with a new concept, but others are simply saying, "So long, and thanks for all the fish."

Or the barbecue.

Or the meatballs.

Or, in the case of one long-time institution in Northwest D.C., all the deep-dish pizza.

After 37 years, the Tenleytown location of Armand's Chicago Pizzeria has closed its doors. Armand's has several other locations in Maryland and Virginia; they'll remain open.

But Armand's co-owner Ron Newmeyer says the flagship store had to call it a day. Monthly rent has shot up to nearly $2,000 dollars a month, and business has slowed down from the days when Tenleytown was a nightlife hub.

"There was [sic] nightclubs and live music and we stayed open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and midnight Sunday through Thursday," Newmeyer recalls. "But it's a completely different scene now. So the writing was on the wall; we've been losing money. So we just figured we would stop now."

Another restaurant that's decided to "stop now"--or a week ago, to be more precise--is Zola. Washington City Paper food editor Jessica Sidman interviewed one of the Penn Quarter eatery's managers, who said "the reason they were closing is because the owner, who actually owns The Spy Museum next door, didn't want to be in the food and wine business anymore."

An exploding industry with many closings

The restaurant industry is tough, and in the District, Sidman says, it's getting even tougher.

"D.C., is an increasingly popular place to do business and as a result, real estate is expensive, because the restaurant scene has exploded, and you have so many more restaurants, it's not good enough to just be 'good' anymore."

In short, she says, if you're a new restaurant owner in D.C., "If you make it a year, that is an achievement."

If you make it two years, says restaurateur Constantine Stavropoulos, "that's like a miracle. If you get to five, you're an institution. And we've been blessed and lucky that we've got going on almost 14 years now, with Tryst."

Indeed, Stavropoulos is the driving force behind Tryst in Adams Morgan and at the Phillips Collection. He also owns The Diner in Adams Morgan, and Open City in Woodley Park. He's currently building a new restaurant, at 11th and Monroe Streets, in Columbia Heights. He predicts the opening will come by the end of the summer.

"I've invented a few months," he says. "I keep saying 'Jaugust' and 'June-ly,' but we're hoping end of summer - that's kind of what we're shooting for."

When asked whether "Auptember" might be possibility, he says with a laugh: "I hope not! But possibly!"

The as-yet-unnamed eatery will be part diner, part coffeehouse and part bar. And it'll be open 24 hours.

"This place I see more like a diner you'd find in a Brooklyn neighborhood," he says. "We're not expecting a big graveyard crowd like at The Diner."

Stavropoulos says he certainly bemoans the recent restaurant closings. But he celebrates the numerous openings, especially on 11th Street. Meridian Pint, Kangaroo Boxing Club, Maple, El Chucho's... they're several of the many eateries that have recently hit the D.C. dining scene.

"So I don't think we're at a net loss of restaurants," he says. "I think we're at a net gain right now."

Eater D.C. editor Amy McKeever agrees. Like Jessica Sidman at the City Paper, McKeever says D.C.'s dining scene is "exploding."

"I think it's been exploding for a while," she says. "And maybe just continues to accelerate."

Though that doesn't mask the fact that we're still seeing so many restaurants close. In fact, in late June, McKeever wrote an Eater D.C. post titled "Thirty Days of Terror," in which she listed all the restaurants that had either announced or carried out closures, since late May.

"I just found myself writing more about closings than usual," McKeever says. "And then finally that one week happened where like every day I was writing about at least one or two restaurants closing. And they were not just all small ones, but it was pretty big-name and beloved restaurants."

McKeever attributes the closings mainly to the economy and rising rents. And sure, quality could play a role, too.

"When these shutters happen, what I immediately see after I post about it is people saying, 'Oh, no surprise. The food there was terrible. Everything sucked.'"

While they may be right, she says, you have to remember one thing: lost restaurants mean lost jobs.

"There were some former employees at Buddha Bar who were trying to reach out and help these people," she says. "Like a guy [who] works with a bunch of restaurants and he had worked at Buddha Bar, and was trying to hook up all of his old friends with new jobs by doing a Facebook campaign and emailing all the restaurateurs that he knew.

"One can only hope that all the people who lost their jobs in the thirty days of terror were able to find new jobs," she says.

A second family

For some, working at a restaurant is more than just a job. Ron Newmeyer says that at Armand's Chicago Pizzeria, it's more like being part of a family.

That family first and foremost includes staff.

"A lot of the long-term employees have been here 20, 25 years," he says, "And there's been at least 10 marriages from employees, just that we know of!"

But it's also a family that includes customers, many of whom flocked to Armand's in its final days, to devour one last pizza.

"We had a father and son drive five hours from Northern New Jersey," Newmeyer recounts. "He had been telling his 17-year-old son since he was born about Armand's Pizza and the son had never tried it.

"I said, 'How long are you going to be in town?' He said, 'We're driving back tomorrow afternoon.' I said, 'What else are you going to do while you're in town?,' figuring he'd say Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian. 'Well, we're coming back for dinner tonight.' I said, 'That's amazing! What are you doing tomorrow?' 'We're coming back for lunch tomorrow.' So it takes some of the sting out of having to leave after this long."

Because the way Newmeyer sees it, at Armand's Pizza, the dishes aren't the only things that run deep.

The memories run pretty deep, too.

[Music: "Tom's Diner (Remix) V1 [set 5] Suzanne Vega" by icehouseindustries from [2009] Summer Chill Remixes]

Photos: Armand's Pizza Closes

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