There was a time, not too long ago, when Barracks Row was no man’s land. The strip of Eighth Street Southeast that is now known for its burgeoning dining scene once housed vacant storefronts, carryout restaurants and a video rental store.
“The only thing you would go to Eighth Street for was Blockbuster, and you’d go in and out,” recalls Ari Gejdenson, who grew up in the Eastern Market neighborhood in the 1980s. “Eighth Street was scary when I was little.”
As more and more restaurants open on Barracks Row, it is easy to forget that the strip of Eighth Street Southeast that begins at Pennsylvania Avenue and ends at the Southeast Freeway struggled for decades to find its footing.
The area that was home to oyster houses and a variety of retail stores during the first half of the 20th century fell victim, like many areas of D.C., to the 1968 race riots. During the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., rioters broke into several stores on the street and looted them. Once the riots ended and the smoke cleared, the street and the city had a hard time recovering.
“I think that Barracks Row has always been a neighborhood with great potential, and on occasion through its 150- to 200-year history, it has failed to live up to that potential,” says Martin Smith, director of Barracks Row Main Street, an organization that works to promote and rejuvenate the neighborhood.
That all changed in 2003. Crime was down in the District, and the city was on an upswing. The D.C. Department of Transportation launched a Barracks Row streetscape project, which included tearing up the road and sidewalk in an effort to create an aesthetically appealing and safe street. The project, which was completed in 2006, also involved coordinating signs that ftell the neighborhood’s history and help direct visitors.
“The street has really undergone a complete transformation,” Smith says. “Vacancies are down considerably.”
With these renovations came new businesses. Belgian chef Bart Vandaele opened his restaurant, Belga Café, in 2004, shortly after the streetscape project began. He was drawn to the neighborhood because of its European feel.
“It had potential, but was rough around the edges — just like me,” Vandaele says. “I thought it would be a neighborhood I could grow with and really make a relationship with the area.”
Now, Barracks Row is home to more than a dozen bars and restaurants that are drawing customers from all over the city. Some come for an after-work drink, while others come to grab a quick bite before heading to Nationals Park. Most recently, Ted’s Bulletin, a kitschy throwback to the diners of yesteryear, and the Chesapeake Room, a seafood restaurant with locally sourced ingredients, have opened. In addition, the Hill’s first cupcake shop, Hello Cupcake, will open its doors in the coming months.
“You could just feel the community here,” says Perry Smith, owner of Ted’s Bulletin and the nearby Matchbox. “People were saying, We don’t have dining options.’ People would go downtown to eat.”
Realizing an opportunity when he saw one, Perry Smith and his partners opened a second D.C. branch of Matchbox on Barracks Row in 2008. After that success, he and his partners opened Ted’s Bulletin earlier this year and have plans to open a third eatery, hot dog joint DC-3, later this summer. Perry Smith says he sees nothing but growth in the neighborhood’s future.
“People are starting to rediscover Eighth Street,” he says. “You’ll probably have more restaurants coming.”
Xavier Cervera, owner of Molly Malone’s, Lola’s Barracks Bar and Grill, and the Chesapeake Room, is so confident in the neighborhood that he plans to open a fourth property, Senart’s Oyster House, later this year.
Several of the street’s restaurateurs are helping to ensure that the neighborhood’s dining scene is a success. While Barracks Row is accessible by the Eastern Market Metro stop, parking is a perpetual problem. Cervera, Perry Smith and Gaynor Jablonski, owner of the bar the Ugly Mug, have pooled their money to turn a nearby parking lot owned by the Marine Barracks into a public lot. Now there are an additional 75 parking spaces available to those who visit the neighborhood. The owners also pitch in to run a shuttle back and forth from Barracks Row to Nationals Park.
With more parking and the success of the restaurants, Martin Smith says it has become easier to draw businesses to the neighborhood, as well as customers.
“I think the biggest change in Barracks Row has been the confidence in the street,” he says. “Ten or 15 years ago people did not have confidence that this was a good place to invest. I think that people now look at Barracks Row and they are confident that this is the place that they need to be.”