Downtown D.C. restaurants are still hurting while neighborhood eateries bounce back It's a tale of two recoveries: restaurants in D.C.'s downtown core are worse off than those in residential areas.
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Downtown D.C. restaurants are still hurting while neighborhood eateries bounce back

Washingtonians have mostly returned to dining close to home, but not so much downtown, data show. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Restaurant sales in the D.C. area's residential pockets are starting to recover from the pandemic. But tumbleweeds are still rolling in the central business district.

That's according to recent data from the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, a nonprofit that provides services to businesses, residents and landlords across 138 square blocks downtown. Sales data analyzed by the BID and restaurant management software firm MarginEdge show an uneven recovery for restaurants, depending on their proximity to hollowed-out downtown.

The DowntownDC BID is bounded by Massachusetts Avenue to the north, Constitution Avenue to the south, Louisiana Avenue to the east and 16th Street to the west. Courtesy of/DowntownDC BID hide caption

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Courtesy of/DowntownDC BID

On average, eateries outside of the BID's boundaries have seen their sales bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. But as office workers continue to do their jobs from home, sales at downtown restaurants in August 2021 were still 21% lower than they were in August 2019.

That's an improvement over the height of the pandemic, though, when downtown restaurant sales plummeted 97% below pre-pandemic levels, data show.

Restaurant sales within the 138 square blocks encompassed by the DowntownDC BID remain well below pre-pandemic levels. Courtesy of/DowntownDC BID hide caption

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Courtesy of/DowntownDC BID

But it's still not enough to make restaurateurs like Ashok Bajaj declare a return to normalcy.

"Downtown is rough right now," says Bajaj, whose Knightsbridge Restaurant Group operates 10 restaurants in the District, including the famed Bombay Club near Lafayette Square and Rasika, which has one location in Penn Quarter.

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Sales at Bajaj's downtown restaurants are down between 20 and 30% over pre-pandemic sales, he says. The Foggy Bottom location of Bindaas, Bajaj's Indian street food venture, is down 40%.

"My main business at Bindaas was from around the city, but especially from the World Bank, IMF [International Monetary Fund] and GW [George Washington University]," the restaurant owner says. With so many people still working remotely, he says, the loss of foot traffic has been devastating.

In August, the daily population within the downtown BID's boundaries was 39% of what it was in August 2019, according to the BID. Hotel room occupancy was down more than 50%. Weekday Metro ridership totaled just 21% of pre-pandemic levels.

Those missing people "made up the lunch trade. They made up the bar business. All that is missing," says Bajaj, who owns restaurants both within and outside of the Downtown DC BID's boundaries. Staff shortages, rising food costs, and the uneven distribution of Restaurant Revitalization Fund dollars are making matters worse, he says.

The picture is a little different in Cleveland Park, where Bajaj owns Israeli restaurant Sababa and another Bindaas location. He says customers began to return to those dining rooms as vaccination rates went up over the summer. Indoor dining has since declined with the onset of the Delta variant, the restaurateur says, but sales have been decent for outdoor dining and takeout.

"They're certainly better than the downtown restaurants," he says.

Foot traffic downtown is still a small fraction of what it was pre-pandemic, according to the BID. Courtesy of/DowntownDC BID webinar hide caption

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Courtesy of/DowntownDC BID webinar

Dan Simons, co-owner of Farmers Restaurant Group, has seen a similar trend at some of his restaurants. At Farmers & Distillers on Massachusetts Avenue, weekday sales are down nearly a third some weeks, with a surge on Fridays and weekends. He says the challenges of the last 18 months have forced his restaurant group — and other downtown restaurant owners — to rethink their strategy.

"We used to have all of this walk-by traffic. [It was about] total convenience, people in their office upstairs. Now, I think we have to be better than we were," Simons says.

That could mean investing more in hospitality, he says, or trying to lure more breakfast customers, as many Washingtonians have ditched the commutes that used to gobble up their mornings. Perhaps now, traveling downtown for lunch is more appealing to some people than it was before, he says. And these days, being a tourist downtown is more pleasant than it used to be, because the crowds aren't as intense. Restaurant owners should use that as a selling point for locals, he says.

"We have to be a part of whatever this new downtown is," Simons says.

But the Founding Farmers owner believes the future of downtown remains bright, even if it could take a while for business owners and residents to figure out how they relate to it in the era of remote or "hybrid" work arrangements.

"I'm a believer in cities and downtowns," he says. "I think it is a mistake to bet against the kind of enthusiasm and value that gets created when people are together with density. We just have to figure out how to make it exciting between now and when cities get dense again — in whatever form they'll get dense."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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