Saturday, March 14, 2009

~Barracks Row: A Not Very Main Street Main Street

by: Sharon Bosworth

Over at the US Capitol the stimulus package was finally passed, but according to newscasters in the rest of the country, a financial cure is still far away. Main Street, USA, they report, is barely hanging on waiting for the salvation of stimulus dollars. However at Main Street, Barracks Row, we seem to be out ahead of the curve. “February was like Christmas … business is great!” Manuel Cortes beamed when I took him aside to learn how bad things were at his 2-year-old Eighth Street card and gift shop, Groovydc.

“February was better than Christmas – we love it here,” agreed Yolanda Vaughan, owner of 6-month-old Sweet Magnolia, a decidedly feminine boutique that flirts shamelessly every day with its across-the-street neighbor, The Unites States Marine Corps. In fact, Barracks Row vacancies are few, new businesses are opening, and many Barracks Row old favorites are sprucing up like its boom times.
Possibly 10th anniversary magic is in the air? In 1999, George Didden and Linda Gallagher founded Barracks Row Main Street on the blighted Eighth Street corridor. Even before that, Margot Kelly began the Barracks Row Business Alliance. The three of them saw the future clearly: the Eighth Street corridor would become a hip neighborhood favored by moms with strollers, bike riders, dog walkers, couples in love, tourists and the Marines. They envisioned one-of-a-kind retailers and charming boutique eateries. This year finds Barracks Row Main Street mixing up new businesses with old favorites just as the founders had in mind. New places open every month while other businesses have been on Eighth so long it’s time to redecorate.

This February even old-timer The Ugly Mug got bit by the makeover bug. A cross between college hangout and Marine watering hole, this pub facing the barracks is one of those places where too much cleanup might not be such a good thing … after all, it’s not Applebee’s. At risk of losing its tough vibe, the walls were painted, the booths got fresh vinyl, the tables were revarnished, and there’s new bar art. But the menu and atmosphere remain unchanged – hefty pizza and sliders covered with explosions of fried onions. The music is loud, the TV’s are on, and the service is a happy coincidence of timing and beer buzz that almost always turns out just fine. Best of all, no one interrupts with constant inquiries of, “How are you folks doin’? ” (Did we mention this isn’t Applebee’s?) Both serious conversations and serious game watching continue to thrive at The Mug despite the new paint!

Near The Mug, rough-and-tumble bad boy Finn McCool is being transformed into an upscale Irish lass named Molly Malone. Clearly this is very private matter; no one is allowed to watch. It’s going on behind locked doors, but we bet that owner Xavier Ceverra, who created Lola’s from Tapatinis last spring, will unveil another stunner at his March 17 launch.

On the other end of the Eighth Street corridor, just a few steps from the Metro plaza, upstairs from Popeye’s, a brand new business opened in mid-February, seemingly oblivious to the economic doom mongers. Called “DC Ink,” the sailor man from downstairs must be pleased … this is tattoo artistry at its finest. “We really wanted to get in on the happenings around the Eastern Market Metro,” explained the DC’s Ink’s PR guy, Mitch. “Business has been excellent!”

Midway on Eighth Street where Marty’s used to be, an everything-must-go rehab is unfolding. On April 1 this site will open as Cava, Barracks Row’s Greek mezze restaurant. Meanwhile, the owners, a talented extended family, are applying their carpentry and design skills to create a polished, contemporary interior. We got a sneak preview. Sexy comes to mind – so does sensuous and intimate and Euro. The design is driven by three 30-something childhood friends. One of the three is the chef; the others manage the business. Their first location in Gaithersburg draws raves from food critics. Here at the Capitol Hill Cava, the interior eye candy is being crafted by fathers and uncles of the principals. If the food of the sons is anything like craftsmanship of the fathers, Eighth Street is about to be transported to whole new level of international cool that might even amaze our founders.

New Parking Options
Those three visionary founders were also realistic business people; they may have thought it crazy to think new 60 parking spaces would ever materialize on the street that they loved. But as our 10th anniversary year opens, we find ourselves actually planning the ribbon cutting for this parking breakthrough, compliments of the District of Columbia! Inside this 2009 Valentine there is another miracle: the ugly, black 12-foot chain link fence that “protected” the former military parking lot under the Interstate-295 freeway has been removed! The entry signs, meters and striping will be installed by early March, but the new lighting is already in. With the fence now removed and the little park beside the lot cultivated and groomed by Jeff Gannon and fellow Eye Street neighbors, the corner of Eighth and Eye streets SE is beginning to look like the safe and handsome urban crossroads it actually is. The only question left is who will be our first civilian parker?

Neighborhood thanks and a big high-five go to Damon Harvey at the District Department of Transportation for making this Barracks Row parking dream a reality. Further thanks and a standing ovation go to Captain Antony Andrious of the United States Marine Corps. Captain Andrious generously released the under-freeway parking area back to DDOT when the new Marine Corps parking lot at Fifth and L streets SE was completed last year!Sharon Bosworth is events and marketing manager at Barracks Row Main Street.

For questions or to volunteer, call 202-544-3188 or e-mail

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