Georgetown has got to be one of the more agonizingly introspective D.C. neighborhoods. Though it's by no means down on its luck, Georgetown long ceased to be the buzzy must-be place for the next hot new thing. Throughout a recent branding process, during which residents and businesses questioned how they could compete against the up-and-coming strips to the north and east, you could almost hear the undercurrent: Why do they hate us?
"They" means a few people. The younger, hipper consumers who prefer U Street and H Street, to be sure. But it's also restaurants: You rarely hear of an edgy, new concept planning to put down roots in Georgetown, which is loyal to its stuffy standbys.
At a panel last night put on by the Georgetown Business Association, neighborhood fixtures chewed over the question of how—and whether—nightlife ought to be encouraged. On the issue of quality restaurants, a few main views emerged.
Theory number one: Georgetowners themselves wouldn't be terribly excited about new offerings. Linda Greenan, vice president of communications for Georgetown University, noticed that the newly vibrant corridors of 14th Street and Penn Quarter are filled with people from the neighborhood, while Georgetown's restaurants are more often filled with tourists."I think it has a Rodeo Drive image," added D.C. Nightlife Association President Skip Coburn.
Theory number two: Georgetown makes it too hard to open a business, with all its layers of review and resistance. Capital Restaurant Concepts President Paul Cohn, owner of Paolo and Neyla, compared Georgetown to places more welcoming to late-night activity—especially the younger set, or "people with iPhones." "I think there is a lack of support for nightlife. And there used to be more than there is now," Cohn said. "If you look at 14th Street today, that reminds me of M Street years ago. They're creating an environment in that street that's vibrant and alive."
Theory number three: It's the landlords' fault! EastBanc President Anthony Lanier blamed owners—himself excepted, of course—who let their buildings deteriorate and still charge exorbitant rents, while developers in Logan Circle and Chinatown will build to suit and not charge any more.
"The bulk of competitive, cutting edge restaurants that attract Paul's friends with iPhones, why that is the case is that they are dealing by and large with first class real estate," Lanier said, in his Swiss way. "It's almost self defeating to open up a restaurant on M Street, because you know that the rents are going to go up."
Of all of those, I'd say Coburn's pithy statement comes closest to the truth. Georgetown just seems too far away, too crusty, and too expensive for the younger set that's flocking everywhere else. Which may mean that Georgetown Citizens Association president Jennifer Altemus has it right when it comes to Georgetown's image: Don't fight it, embrace it.
"We don't need to be edgy," she said. Which is as self-fulling a statement as any.
Why Aren’t Better Restaurants Coming to Georgetown? was originally published by Washington City Paper on Jul 14, 2011