Flags are furiously flapping in the warm breeze outside Tony & Joe’s Seafood Place in Georgetown’s Washington Harbour. Every outdoor bar stool is occupied on this Wednesday evening in late September. The Orioles game flickers on a mounted television. Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” plays in the background.
A quartet of brunettes in dark pantsuits settle at the bar and head for a candlelit table overlooking the Potomac River. Thunder rumbles in the distance, followed by flashes of lightning. The bartender just sighs. “Mother Nature’s been giving it to us all year,” he says.
That’s one way to put it. Certainly there are more graphic expressions to describe the painful violations that nature has inflicted on this particular dining destination.
Never mind September’s substantial rainfall, the August earthquake and tropical storm Irene. Back in the spring, heavy showers caused the Potomac to swell nearly 12 feet above its usual level. On April 18, the rising waters overflowed, swamping the entire Washington Harbour complex.
Barstools were reportedly floating around inside the Gelateria Dolce Vita. Tony & Joe’s, located one level below the gelato shop, was submerged in some 10 feet of river muck.
One report initially identified Tony & Joe’s as the hardest-hit of all the tenants. Officials later suggested that neighboring eatery Fishers & Farmers got it even worse.
A $5 million class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of a Farmers & Fishers bartender, blamed the landlord, MRP Realty, for not raising the floodgates.
Nearly six months later, Farmers & Fishers remains boarded up. “We hope to reopen in Spring 2012,” says the restaurant’s website.
But Tony & Joe’s, alongside sister restaurant Nick’s Riverside Grill, reopened over the summer. Well, sort of.
Given the massive flood damage to the restaurant’s interior, indoor seating is still not happening. But, outside, diners can bask in the same striking riverfront scenery as always -- albeit with a limited number of options to eat and drink.
There’s no Alaska king crab legs, or whole Maine steamed lobster, for instance. But you can grab a crab cake sandwich -- generously described on the Tony & Joe’s menu as "Washington’s best" -- served on a cold roll with a half ear of corn and a bag of Miss Vickie’s salty potato chips for $15.
Co-owner Greg Casten, who also operates his own multi-million-dollar wholesale seafood company, Profish Limited, rather tellingly recommends the burger.
“I think the hamburger down there is the best one in the city,” says Casten. He points out that the beefy patties are cooked on a charcoal grill sprinkled with mesquite wood chips.
The grill is one of two (the other, used to sear chicken, runs on gas) operated under a big blue tent on the patio. The dual-pronged cooking apparatus is shared by both of Casten’s riverside restaurants.
“I’ve put on at least five pounds, probably 10, since we had that grill,” Casten says. “I can’t get enough of [the burger]. It’s eight ounces of pure joy.”
Talk about accentuating the positive. When it comes to his supposed seafood restaurant’s signature items, however, the place is really struggling. Swordfish, catfish and crab options are listed on Tony & Joe’s makeshift menu. But that’s it.
“It’s really a shame we can’t do more fish down there,” he says. “But the problem is we don’t really have the facilities to keep the fish properly cold. Rather than do it wrong, we just elected to become a hamburger joint. And that’s a trend, right? Hamburger joints are in.”
Even more limited than the menu is the staff. Before the flood, Casten employed about 200 people between the two riverside eateries, he says. After the flood, his remaining crew isn’t even half that size.
“Right now, with the weather the way it is, there’s probably 15,” he says. The disaster cost “a lot of jobs,” he adds.
Customers can be scarce, as well. “What we’re getting is a lot of walk-by people and the people who call us and we’re able to explain,” he says. The restaurant’s website currently functions mainly as a clearinghouse of frequently asked questions, ranging from the basic (“What happened?”) to the skeptical (“It looks like rain. Is it safe to venture down there?”).
From an owner’s purely dollars-and-cents perspective, Casten says the limited patio service over the past few months probably isn’t worth the effort: “Am I making money? No. I definitely lost money in September. I think I made money all the other months.”
The upside is the personnel. Maintaining some semblance of operations means his management team can remain largely intact.
“It has allowed me to keep my key people employed,” Casten says, “which is pretty important to me and the place. The place is the people.”
There’s talk of putting in big new attractions at Washington Harbour -- a wintertime ice rink, for instance -- that would bring customers back. Investing a bit now to keep key staff in place would help Casten get ready for that bright future.
Casten declines to say exactly how the new limitations on space have altered his lease arrangements with the landlord MRP. “Let me put it to you this way. They’ve been very cooperative in that regard,” he says.
As long as the weather holds out, Casten intends to continue the outdoor service. But, given the chilly fall temperatures now gripping the region, that limited revenue stream is fleeting. The patio was entirely dark, with not a customer or staffer in sight, when I dropped by around 8 p.m. on Monday night, when temperatures dipped to 50 degrees.
Interior renovations are scheduled to begin this winter. Part of the holdup involves the proposed $30 million makeover of the entire harbor complex, a process currently under scrutiny of neighbors and regulators.
“They’ll have to close down the fountain area to do their construction,” Casten says. “So for us to have built our place and then have the fountain area closed for three or four months while we were reopen didn’t make any sense.”
The overhaul could also require changes to the former storefront. Inside, though, Tony & Joe’s will seem much the same way it did before the flood. “It will be all new finishes and a whole new look,” Casten says. “But, by and large, the layout will be the same.”
While the flood certainly took a toll on his wallet, at least it hasn’t washed away Casten’s espoused love for the location.
“Hopefully, with a new design and a new skating rink and some of the other changes they’re talking about at the Harbour, we’ll no longer be looked at as a spring, summer and fall destination, but people will realize it’s great to be on the river four seasons out of the year,” he says. “There’s really no place like it in Washington.”
Tony & Joe’s Seafood Place, 3000 K St. NW, (202) 944 4545
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Underwater Seafood: Six Months After a Flood, Tony & Joe’s Seafood Place Serves Burgers -- But Not Much Fish. was originally published by Washington City Paper on Oct. 5, 2011.