After a Year of Construction, P St. Looks Forward

Washington Post Express
January 7, 2008
by Marc Zawel

Photo by Chris Combs/Express

Photo by Chris Combs/ExpressNEARLY ONE YEAR after work began, the massive reconstruction and refurbishing of P Street NW between Dupont Circle and 22nd Street is almost complete.

The streets are paved, the sidewalks are newly bricked. Crews are down to detail work now, like installing lampposts. It’s a far cry from the year the street spent dominated by concrete barriers, leaving local stores and restaurants with the awkward task of doing business in a construction zone that by its nature rebuffed customers.

And as the final pieces of the P Street puzzle fall into place, many merchants have been left wondering: Was the gain worth the pain?

Jim Townsend, owner of Capital Video Sales, said that he “never had a losing month in 20 years before the work started” in January 2007. Townsend called the economic impact “huge,” citing a 60 percent decline in business over an 8-month period.

“I’m not sure how any business could have survived this,” Townsend said. “And a lot haven’t,” he added, including his own. On Dec. 18, Townsend was forced to close down his P Street shop. “The government had good intentions and, in the long run, this will improve the street,” he said. “But some things could have been done differently.”

Some restaurants and smaller eateries were hit especially hard by the construction work, which closed stretches of sidewalks and added to the Dupont area’s frustrating parking situation. One newcomer to the block, the Fractured Prune doughnut shop, was an early victim. But more established businesses also felt the pinch.

Photo by Chris Combs/Express“It hurt us a lot,” said Orlando Hitzig, the owner and chef of Mark and Orlando’s (No. 5, see map). “We expected business to go down a little. But our weekend business was down 40 to 50 percent, and that came as a little bit of a surprise.” Hitzig cited the difficulty in parking and the disruptive sidewalk renovations as reasons that restaurant-goers steered clear. But now that the dust has begun to settle, Hitzig said that business is picking back up. “It looks great,” he said. “Was it 100 percent worth it? We won’t know for months.”

Want to check out the new P Street? Here are a few spots worth scoping.

» OLD FAVORITES: To survive the construction, it helped to have loyal customers. “Our restaurant and Obelisk are the oldest on the block,” said chef Luigi Diotaiuti of Al Tiramisu (No. 3, see map). “Luckily, during construction, we had support from our regular clientele.”

Now that the refurbishment pains have eased, Diotaiuti has seen an uptick in customers lured by a cozy dining room, a fireplace and classic Italian cooking. “I think we’re among the most authentic Italian restaurants in the area,” he said, citing his southern Italian roots and those of a majority of his employees. This month, diners who seek something special can enjoy white truffles in risotto, on veal chops or with polenta and eggs. “That’s the classic way,” Diotaiuti said.

Peter Pastan‘s top-ranked, nearly 20-year-old Obelisk (No. 7, see map) is also a sure bet for special occasions. The cozy upstairs restaurant showcases a five-course $65 tasting menu of modern takes on Italian cooking that changes daily. Diners fawn over the eatery’s first courses, cheese and desserts.

On a recent Tuesday night, Pesce (No. 4, see map) enjoyed a bustling crowd. Patrons ordered fresh seafood from the day’s chalkboard menu, which included clams steamed in curry broth, lobster consomme, sardines with mandarin oranges on frisee, and grilled dorado.

Nearby, year-old Montsouris (No. 1, see map) weathered the storm with help from fans of its Capitol Hill sibling, Montmartre near Eastern Market. Owner Stephane Lezla offers rustic French fare which includes steak tartare, duck confit, lapin or marrow for more adventurous eaters, or mussels and frites as satisfying standbys.

And crowds at Pizzeria Paradiso‘s diminutive Dupont branch (No. 6, see map) have also returned, primed for wood-fired pies, antipasto, craft brews and Tuscan sangria — made with Chianti and fruit juice.

» NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Some restaurateurs have embraced the changes forced by the construction. In the space that formerly housed 21P, Photo by Chris Combs/ExpressChef/owner Howsoon Cham of Georgetown‘s Red Ginger opened Cafe Trope last week, a shop inspired by the cooking of sunny St. Tropez in France, fused with tropical Caribbean flair (pictured at left; No. 8, see map). Signature dishes include foie gras with coconut french toast and cranberry jam or Jamaican jerk chicken lollipops with fried cabbage, potatoes and Vidalia onion hash.

While it’s not exactly new, Hotel Palomar‘s Urbana (No. 9, see map) does have a fresh face in the kitchen. The restaurant has brought in Italian-born and -trained chef Claudio Urciuoli to prepare creative Italian-inspired dishes such as wild bass and shrimp ravioli, slow-cooked calamari with white beans, or wild boar and mushroom ragu. Urbana has also been touted for its bar scene, which offers an aperitif hour from 4-7 p.m. as well as nibbles from the lounge menu.

Photo by Chris Combs/Express» CASUAL FARE: It’s not all fancy sit-down for eats on P Street. Closer to strip’s western end reside a pair of take-out options.

Family-run Legends (pictured at right; No. 11, see map) offers Greek and Mediterranean casual cuisine such as salads, spanakopita, gyros and lamb kabobs. And at Aioli (No. 10, see map), a spanking-new spot that has taken over the Fractured Prune’s vacant space, patrons can pick up budget-priced paninis, Italian subs, pizzas and homemade pastas. A few tables line the windows in case customers choose to sit for a quick bite.

One business not affected by the reconstruction work was Soho Tea & Coffee (No. 12, see map). “Construction, sleet, snow or rain, our customers came,” said manager Sami Antoine. “We were one of the few.”

Antoine said that less-established businesses on the strip were hit the hardest. “We’ve been around for 14 years. And if we could survive the arrival of competitors,” he said, nodding toward a Starbucks up the street, “we can survive anything.” It also helps to have free wireless Internet and a 4 a.m. closing time.

While the construction didn’t technically do in Alberto’s pizza (No. 2, see map) — a fire did — it’s worth repeating that the pizza joint reopened in December, giving Dupont regulars easy access to jumbo-slice pies.

Photos by Chris Combs/Express

%d bloggers like this: