Restaurants Without Immigrants?

This article first appeared in Arlington Magazine on April 16th, 2018

Northern Virginia’s dining scene already has a labor shortage. What would it look like without immigrants?

 Sebastian Oveysi, executive chef of Amoo’s Restaurant in McLean, has big dreams for the next decade. A second dining spot offering live music and innovative cuisine. A James Beard Award. A Michelin rating.

As he talks at a quiet table near the front entrance of his family’s Persian restaurant, a glass of hot tea at his elbow, his enthusiasm is infectious. Amoo’s, which his parents bought 11 years ago, has launched a catering business and a food truck. His sister, Maria, who holds an MBA, does the books. His 75-year-old father chats up customers in the dining room and occasionally helps out in the kitchen.

The success of their family business is all the more astonishing when you consider the events that led to this point. Seb, 36, was born in Iran, where his Iranian-Kurdish father, Masoud, was an officer in the air force and one of the shah’s pilots. When the Iranian revolution erupted in 1979, Masoud was arrested, tortured and scheduled for execution. He escaped from prison and the whole family fled to Turkey.

After waiting more than a year for asylum visas to the U.S., they landed in a low-income apartment in Annandale with the help of church sponsorship in 1994. Masoud took a job as a busboy during the day and delivered doughnuts to 7-Eleven stores at night. Seb’s mother, Soghra, cleaned houses.

When Seb was 12, his parents bought a restaurant inside a motor lodge in Vienna. Every day after school he washed dishes, bused tables and helped with takeout orders. In 2007, his parents bought Amoo’s and brought him on as a partner.

By 2009, every member of their family, save one brother who lives abroad, had gained U.S. citizenship.
“A lot of people living here don’t understand what it’s like to be a refugee,” Seb says. “That’s why immigrants have a harder work ethic than most Americans. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Because they’ve gone through poverty, they’ve gone through annihilation, been thrown out of their homes. That’s why they’re here.”

Immigrants—including both legal and undocumented workers—have long been the backbone of Northern Virginia’s dining landscape. They wash dishes and chop vegetables, work as line cooks and sous chefs, bus tables, mix drinks, clean bathrooms and mop floors. Some open their own restaurants, bringing with them the cuisine of their homelands.

After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which repealed national-origins quotas and replaced them with a system based on reuniting immigrant families, Vietnamese refugees opened a string of restaurants that kick-started a renaissance in once-shabby Clarendon. Later, they helped turn a failing supermarket and strip mall in Seven Corners into Eden Center, dubbing it the new “Little Saigon.”

More recently, cafés and bakeries owned by natives of El Salvador, Ethiopia and Bolivia have sprouted along Columbia Pike.

Today, “Dreamers”—those still under temporary protection from deportation because they were brought to the United States as children—juggle waitressing and college. Green-card holders work double shifts and send money home to their families in places like India, Guatemala and Mexico. Ambitious chefs and restaurateurs are introducing Arlington’s food-curious public to Filipino street food, Uyghur noodles and Balkan small plates.

But within this tapestry of cultures, threads of worry are emerging in response to the federal crackdown on undocumented workers, a possible end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protects Dreamers, and proposals that would tighten restrictions on green-card holders and impose stricter limits on legal immigration. Some workers fear not only for their own security, but about what would happen to their families if their spouses or parents were deported.

According to U.S. Census data, 51,400 of Arlington’s 230,000 residents were born outside of the United States, and 29,400 of those foreign-born residents (about 13 percent) are non-U.S. citizens. (By comparison, about 7 percent of the American population nationwide is made up of non-U.S. citizens.)

The county has largely embraced these newcomers. In 2007, the Arlington County Board issued a resolution that read, in part: “We believe in a community…that welcomes and values all of its residents, treating them with human dignity and respect, regardless of immigration status.” Last spring, county officials publicly—and pointedly—reaffirmed that position, stating that local police have a policy of not monitoring, detaining, interviewing or investigating people solely to determine their immigration status.

A retired federal worker in Arlington recently donated $7,000 to create a scholarship fund to help would-be citizens pay the $725 application fee for U.S. citizenship. Since then, additional donors have more than doubled the fund, which is being managed by Arlington’s Department of Human Services.

But there’s still an ever-present fear in local kitchens, and the county board has stopped short of declaring Arlington a “sanctuary” jurisdiction. The executive chef of one upscale Arlington restaurant says he has had to reassure his mostly Guatemalan and Salvadoran employees that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can’t just barge into the restaurant and scoop them up for deportation; they need a warrant.
Even undocumented workers have rights, he reminds them. “Some joke about jumping in the dishwasher or hiding in the ceiling to get away,” he says. “I say, ‘You don’t need to do that.’ We’ll get someone to represent each and every one of them if needed.”

Sometimes the mere sight of uniformed officers causes panic. In March 2017, when government officials raided a pharmacy near Bailey’s Crossroads for alleged Food and Drug Administration violations, rumors quickly spread to the Salvadoran restaurant next door that ICE had arrived. The kitchen staff slipped out the back door and customers stayed away for weeks, says Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director for the Immigrant Advocacy Program at Virginia’s nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center, which has offices in Falls Church near the site of the incident.

Ever since President Donald Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Sandoval-Moshenberg says his organization has seen a drop in the number of complaints from immigrant restaurant workers who say their employers are cheating them out of wages. “They’re terrified that getting involved in the court system will somehow lead to them being put on ICE’s radar screen,” he says.

As in most major metropolitan areas, restaurants are big business here. In Arlington, 7.7 percent of all county jobs in 2016 (about 17,000) were in the hospitality and food service sector. When the the current fiscal year ends on June 30, Arlington will have received about $40 million in revenue from meal taxes—money which, in turn, funds infrastructure projects and critical county services such as schools and emergency responders.

“If the feds crack down on immigrants, via deportation and limits on new arrivals to the U.S., the impact on the restaurant industry will be devastating, both locally and nationwide,” observes one restaurant owner. “Some places would survive, but many would not.”

Restaurant work has long appealed to newcomers with limited to no English and whose skills may not match what the local economy needs. Washing dishes and prepping food can be a foot in the door; then, as those workers gain fluency and pay their dues, they can move into public-facing jobs, such as bartending or waiting tables, and eventually to management positions with benefits. Some ethnic restaurants also enjoy a built-in customer base of fellow immigrants: Think Jewish delis in New York and Chinatowns across the country.

Café Sazón, which sisters Adriana Torres and Claudia Camacho opened on Columbia Pike in 2011, has become one such gathering place, although the sisters still wince in recalling how difficult the early days were.
“Lots of people told us not to open a business. We didn’t think we’d make it past the first few years,” says Torres, who came to the U.S. as a child, from Bolivia, and holds a degree in architecture from Catholic University. Today, the café enjoys a steady stream of customers craving traditional fare such as flautas, pupusas and silpancho, a Bolivian-style steak dish. Torres and Camacho have hosted karaoke nights and Thanksgiving dinners for their employees.

And yet there have been times when they, like other area restaurant owners, have been blindsided by the latest crackdowns on undocumented workers. It hit Café Sazón indirectly last year when an employee didn’t show up for work one day. Her husband, in turns out, had been deported to El Salvador, and she and her 3-year-old daughter left for New York to stay with relatives, Torres says.

When workers quit, it’s difficult to replace them. “At one point, we advertised for waitresses and waiters on Craigslist,” Torres says. “Out of 40 people that responded, four showed up. It’s hard to find people who mesh well.” She says native-born Americans don’t apply.

A pew research center analysis of Census data found that U.S. eating and drinking establishments in 2014 employed more undocumented workers than almost any other industry, second only to the construction sector. Of the restaurant industry’s roughly 2.3 million foreign-born workers, Pew estimates, about 1.26 million are documented and nearly 1.1 million are not.

Most employers don’t knowingly hire undocumented workers. Local restaurant owners and managers say they ask job applicants to provide at least two pieces of identification, although “it’s easier than ever [for applicants] to falsify paperwork,” says one industry veteran, “so it’s a cloudy issue.”

Many local restaurants use the federal government’s electronic E-Verify system that compares information from an employee’s I-9 form with data from the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to confirm employment eligibility. Some even take it a step further. For the past year, Oveysi says he has paid a fee to the FBI to run background checks on individuals applying for jobs at Amoo’s.

Though restaurants in many states, including Virginia, are not required to use E-Verify, some trade groups are pushing to change that. The National Restaurant Association supports enhanced border security and making the E-Verify system mandatory for food and drink operators across the country. At the same time, the organization has lobbied to restructure the H-2B visa program, which allows employers to hire non-U.S. workers for temporary nonagricultural jobs. It advocates lifting the annual caps on such workers, describing the current program as “broken.”

“At the end of the day, these [restaurants] are small-business operators, so we try to protect them and keep them in compliance,” says Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “If immigrants disappeared, there would be a crisis in terms of staff shortages.”

Arlington’s restaurant operators already are feeling those shortages. The county’s unemployment rate of 2.2 percent—the lowest in the Commonwealth—and the District’s higher minimum wage ($12.50 an hour, compared with $7.25 in Virginia) mean that workers are likely to quit if they can find a better-paying job just a few Metro stops away in D.C.

“We’re always hiring, and the applicant pool is thin to nonexistent,” says Nick Freshman, co-owner of Spider Kelly’s in Clarendon, which employs about 40 full-time and part-time workers. “Even if you’re unsympathetic to the plight of the [immigrant], you can be sympathetic to the plight of the small-business man.”

Paty Funegra is sympathetic to both. A native of Peru, she first came to the U.S. 10 years ago to work on sustainability projects at the Inter-American Development Bank. She was volunteering at D.C. Central Kitchen when she noticed that many Latinos weren’t receiving culinary training because they lacked English proficiency.

At the same time, she saw restaurants struggling to attract and retain good employees. She realized there might be a solution.

In 2014, she founded La Cocina VA, an Arlington-based nonprofit that is addressing restaurants’ high workforce turnover by training immigrants—mostly women, many of them survivors of domestic abuse or human trafficking—for professional culinary careers. La Cocina offers English classes concurrently with culinary training, food-handling certifications, job placement assistance and paid internships at local restaurants, hotels and catering companies, plus two years of career development support and an alumni network for graduates. More than 90 students have graduated from the program so far, Funegra says, landing jobs that pay an average of $13.50 per hour.

Maria P. (not her real name) is one of those success stories. It has been nearly two decades since she fled an abusive marriage in her native Bolivia, arriving in Northern Virginia in 2001 with her then-5-year-old son. Early on, Maria cleaned stores and ran a day care center. Then she got sick and had to close her child care business. She has battled cancer and depression.

“When I came to this country, it’s because I wanted something different for my son. I was safe,” Maria says, blotting away tears. She still fears that her ex-husband, who remains in Bolivia, will one day track her down.

Now a graduate of La Cocina VA, Maria works during the week at an Arlington bakery. She bakes in her off-hours, too, creating ethereal, pastel-colored confections that grace many a quinceanera table. Someday, she wants to open her own shop. She is remarried, and her son is majoring in microbiology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

La Cocina VA, meanwhile, has also gained more secure footing. Next year, a planned expansion will move it out of the basement of Arlington’s Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, where it has been operating for the past four years, and into a 5,000-square-foot space on Columbia Pike. The new facility will have the capacity to train triple the number of culinary students, Funegra says, plus an events area, technology resources, a “kitchen incubator” for budding entrepreneurs and a café.

“The café will bring the community in to see what we do and help move La Cocina VA toward financial self-sufficiency and away from being primarily grant-based,” says Freshman of Spider Kelly’s, who in April became board chair of the nonprofit. (He’s also founder of Mothersauce Partners, an incubator and consultancy that brings new restaurant concepts to market.) “We intend to make the café a significant revenue generator.”

La Cocina gives back to the community in other ways, too. Many of the meals students prepare daily as part of their training are donated to affordable housing residents and shelters serving the local homeless population. Over three years, the nonprofit has donated 22,600 meals and recovered 18,500 pounds of food from area farms and food banks, Funegra says.

Ironically, Arlington’s explosive growth in recent years has pushed some immigrants away, in spite of the county’s inclusive stance. The culture is welcoming, but the real estate prices and cost of living aren’t. Although children in Arlington Public Schools represent some 96 countries, the percentage of county residents born outside the U.S. has actually declined over the past decade and a half—from 27.8 percent in 2000 to 22.7 percent in 2016, according to an analysis of Census data by George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research.

A federal crackdown on undocumented workers and new restrictions on green-card issuance could cause more to flee. Funegra says the economic impact of their absence would be palpable: “Even undocumented immigrants pay taxes, and removing them will leave a huge hole in our tax system.”

But there are those who leave with hopes of coming back.

Another board member of La Cocina VA tells the story of an assistant general manager at a local restaurant who confessed to his boss that his employment documents were fake. The Salvadoran man had spent 17 years working his way up, from dishwasher to management. He told his boss he was working with a lawyer to try to gain legal status but needed to go back to El Salvador to get his paperwork in order. He left Arlington in December, scared and unsure about his future.

He and his boss kept in touch, and March brought news that the man had been cleared to return to the United States—another immigrant pursuing his own version of the American Dream.

Lisa Lednicer is a first-generation American. Her parents are World War II refugees from Belgium.


 

Bar Elena Founder’s Dream Restaurant Heads to NoMa

This article first appeared in Eater DC on January 30, 2018

Adam Stein redirects bowling-themed Eleanor from Ivy City to former Union Social spot

Budding restaurateur Adam Stein is installing the bowling lanes, bar, and video games he originally envisioned for Ivy City inside short-lived Union Social instead, telling Eater that his new entertainment complex, the Eleanor, should be here by late spring.

Stein, a hospitality vet who last fall converted H Street’s Boundary Road into game-filled Bar Elena, is excited about remaking the 5,100-square-foot space at 100 Florida Avenue NE into the home he’s always wanted for multi-layered Eleanor. T

The biggest modification: putting in four mini bowling lanes — ”Think ¾ size duck pin-style lanes, from AMF,” Stein says — a renovation that’s projected to take up to three months. He’s hoping the significant remodel will still allow for around 180 seats inside (current occupancy is 250), plus room for 70-odd people on the outdoor patio.

Perks include access to a neighboring parking garage (Stein plans to validate), as well as access to potential customers ranging from residents of the Elevation apartment building up above to the surrounding businesses and government offices.

“We look forward to being the lunch and happy hour spot for the ATF, DOJ, XM radio, and many other office buildings in the area,” Stein says.

No word yet on final menu options — though he previously described Bar Elena’s raw bar-centric food as the “incubator/test kitchen for the Eleanor.” But Stein did share that he’ll have 20 beer taps, many of which are expected to feature local brews.

Raising The Bar-ista: Pouring Over The State of D.C.’s Coffee Culture

This article first appeared in Washington City Paper on January 5, 2017

The District got coffee for Christmas. The Cup We All Race 4 opened inside The LINE DC Hotel on Dec. 20. So did two fresh locations of Compass Coffee downtown. Two days later, the biggest Dolcezza to date opened at The Wharf, and New York-based Gregorys Coffee debuted at 19th and L streets NW on Dec. 12.

The growth in coffee shops D.C. saw in just 10 days in December is not an anomaly. Coffee—specifically third-wave coffee and speciality coffee—is booming locally and the industry as a whole is maturing.

“Seven years ago when I started, people in D.C. didn’t know what specialty coffee was,” says Daps Salisbury, a barista at Georgetown’s Blue Bottle Coffee. Salisbury recalls, while working at Dolcezza back then, coaxing customers out of sticker shock and explaining why pour-over coffee takes time.

Specialty coffee accounts for a small percentage of the java sipped around the world. It’s defined by the Specialty Coffee Association as hailing from geographic microclimates and having unique flavor profiles that score at least 80 out of 100 points in the organization’s cupping test.

After coffee’s popularity spread in the 1960’s with the advent of instant coffee from companies like Folgers, major chains like Starbucks made drinking coffee an experience for the masses with customizable espresso drinks. Following these two “waves,” the third wave brought about heightened interest in quality and artisanship that can be compared to craft beer’s meteoric rise. Professionals today carefully roast and brew specialty beans to draw out the best flavor.

“Now D.C. has become a city for young working professionals,” Salisbury continues. “People flocking to cities have a greater awareness of specialty coffee. They have an idea of what they want when they come in.”

Statistics back the idea that a more youthful population begets better coffee for all. At a 2014 coffee conference, Tracy Ging, chief commercial officer at S&D Coffee & Tea, offered some data: millennials started drinking coffee earlier in life (between 15 and 17) as compared to Generation X-ers, who held off until 19. Those between 18 and 35 also drink more coffee away from home.

The founder of Hyattsville-based roastery Vigilante Coffee agrees with Salisbury. “Before it was like, ‘That’s fancy coffee,’ and now it’s, ‘This is good coffee, this is what I’m going to drink most days,’” Chris Vigilante says. “We pay for great quality beer. We’re accustomed to that. Coffee is more of a learning curve, but you have to think about the labor that goes into it.”

To understand D.C.’s coffee culture, Young & Hungry spoke with a variety of professionals to learn what we’re drinking, where we’re drinking it, and who’s making it.

What We’re Drinking

When the term third-wave was first used in 2002 by Trish Rothgeb, there were three major specialty coffee roasters in the U.S.: North Carolina’s Counter Culture, Chicago’s Intelligentsia, and Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

“When I first moved here, most cafes serving speciality coffee were serving Counter Culture,” Vigilante says. He founded his company in 2012, giving D.C. specialty shops the opportunity to brew locally roasted beans. “At the time it was just me and Joel Finkelstein at Qualia.”

Fast-forward five years and you can find Vigilante Coffee at more than 100 businesses. “We roasted just over 150,000 pounds of coffee in 2017,” Vigilante says. His company gained three new wholesale partners in October alone.

The D.C. area is now home to several additional local roasters, including Compass Coffee, an offshoot of Peregrine Espresso called Small Planes Coffee, and Rare Bird Coffee Roasters.

Chad McCracken, who co-owns The Wydown on 14th Street NW and H Street NE, is happy to have variety. “Five or six years ago it was a Counter Culture heavy town,” he says. “Having more diverse options in terms of roasters is really nice.”

“Specialty coffee is booming in the region, but is still way behind other cities,” argues Bruce White. He owns Baltimore-based Perfect Brew Services and has been the main coffee equipment supplier and mechanic in the Mid-Atlantic for a decade. “There are lots of people starting to do their own roasting nationwide. Lots of people can make green beans brown, and some are pretty good, but the challenge is how to make it consistent.”

D.C. is also experiencing an influx of major out-of-town roasters. Philadelphia’s La Colombe already has five D.C. locations and the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee planted a cafe in Georgetown.

“It’s not quite validating, but it recognizes that there’s a specialty coffee market here in D.C. that’s been overlooked for a long time,” says Reggie Elliott, the coffee director for The Cup We All Race 4 and A Rake’s Progress from Spike Gjerde inside The LINE DC Hotel.

Where We’re Drinking It

“Over the past five years there was a boom of shops,” says Potter’s House barista Adam JacksonBey. He’s worked in coffee for six years and plans to launch two coffee businesses this year—Avalon and Tell Coffee. “You see a lot of shops clustering in an area. The biggest example is 14th Street [NW].” The corridor has The Wydown, Colada Shop, Peet’s Coffee, Peregrine Espresso, Dolcezza, and Slipstream.

“There are plenty of neighborhoods in need of specialty coffee,” Vigilante says. “There are coffee shops, but I don’t think there is world-class coffee on a widespread level yet.” He points to Colony Club in Park View as an example of a shop that took a chance on a neighborhood instead of only eyeing established coffee hubs.

Because it takes significant capital to open a coffee shop, there are very few proprietors who can make decisions free from investor input, and the result is areas cut off from specialty coffee, according to JacksonBey. “Investors will want you to put it somewhere with quick growth potential,” he says. “Maybe the second or third shop, you take a shot somewhere.”

McCracken set out to open both locations of The Wydown in dense neighborhoods with foot traffic and a mix of commercial and residential surroundings. “The affluence of the population is also a possible factor,” he says. “Our coffee is not cheap. We know that.”

Who’s Making It

Just as bartenders gained name recognition and new career opportunities with the craft cocktail movement, baristas are finding their way to financially viable careers within their field. Competitions, educational opportunities, and the diversification of the profession are contributing factors.

When Salisbury started as a barista there was a high turnover rate. “Back then there was no career path, so you had to cut your own,” says Salisbury. “As the industry has grown and demand for skilled baristas has increased, many experienced coffee pros won’t stick around for a job that doesn’t provide a living wage. It’s an employee’s market.”

There are also now jobs outside of the traditional coffee shop, including consultant gigs or positions within full-service restaurants. “Restaurants give baristas another avenue for expanding our skill set,” Elliott says. “With the cocktail and food scenes reaching out to the coffee scene more, that will help the coffee scene grow.”

“I’ve been able to live in D.C. for six years on a barista salary,” JacksonBey adds. “More people will be able to do that.” The coffee shop boom has created hundreds of jobs and most major cafes have a dedicated staffer to swiftly train-up new employees. McCracken says 80 percent of people he hires have no coffee experience. “I can teach you how to make coffee,” he says. “I can’t teach you to be nice and kind.”

Diverse baristas make D.C.’s coffee culture distinctive. Take the U.S. Coffee Championship preliminaries that were held in September in D.C. as a litmus test. “There’s women and queer people and people of color,” Salisbury says. In contrast, Salisbury noticed that heterosexual white males dominated winners circles in other cities. Men made up the top eight in both Colorado and Seattle.

JacksonBey, who is African-American, plans to compete in New Orleans this year. “Traditionally it’s been a lot of white males that have won or done really well for reasons like money,” he explains. Those with the funds can hire a coach or afford better beans. “When two or three points separate 3rd from 4th place, that all comes into play.”

The tightly bonded D.C. barista community is on display at monthly Thursday Night Throwdown (TNT) events. Elliott, JacksonBey, and Salisbury are the current organizers of the decade-old, monthly latte art competitions. The next one is Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. inside Takoma Beverage Company.

“Looking at the baristas I interact with at TNTs and other events, there is no typical D.C. barista,” Dawn Shanks says. She’s the head coffee quality manager for Peregrine Espresso. “A lot of baristas are focused on inclusivity in a way that I used to take for granted.”

Shanks wears a special “Force Majeure” pin at work. She and two other baristas, Sarah Rice Scott and Lenora Yerkes, made and sold them to almost 150 coffee professionals in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. “It’s a statement pin worn by baristas who oppose the SCA’s decision to hold a competition in a country where some participating baristas may feel unsafe,” Shanks says. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is the host of the 2018 World Coffee Championships. “Of course we all think this is wrong and we want to brainstorm a solution,” Shanks says.

The SCA is moving ahead as planned, but adding an option for competitors to defer. JacksonBey says the backlash they got was important. “It got a lot of voices heard that wouldn’t have been heard two or three years ago.”

JacksonBey, Salisbury, and Elliott argue the next important step is promoting LGBTQ baristas and baristas of color into positions of leadership. “We need a wider range of people who run these shops,” Elliott says. “There’s more to coffee than tattooed white guys, and with D.C.’s gentrification issue, it’s even more important to embrace diversity.”

 

Bar Elena Opens on H Street With Arcade Games and Two Happy Hours a Day

This article first appeared in The Washingtonian on November 9, 2017

Chef Adam Stein is an H Street hospitality veteran, having opened the Queen Vic and the Big Board and been a regular at Boundary Road. When the latter seasonal American restaurant closed this summer, owner Karlos Leopold (Nido, Mola) asked Stein to create a new concept for the space. His idea, now come to life: Bar Elena, a neighborhood-oriented spot with daily happy hours, arcade games, kids’ menus, and a few splurges like raw bar platters and lobster pasta.

We’re really trying to carve out multiple niches over here,” says Stein. “Not everyone can be Rose’s Luxury. I feel like it’s super important to offer several different kind of things for people.”

Bar Elena still looks a bit like its predecessor—all that exposed brick hasn’t gone anywhere—but the team created a larger bar area, plus space in back for two skeeball machines, pinball, arcade games, and tabletop Pac Man. Two televisions were added above the bar, and there’s a large projection screen for showing major games or events. Stein says the concept is like a miniature version of the Eleanor, a bar/restaurant/bowling alley he’s opening next year in Ivy City.

Even more diverse than the games is Stein’s menu. The raw bar—a first for the neighborhood—offers fresh-shucked oysters and clams, head-on shrimp cocktail, and chilled lobster. Many appetizers are hybrid snacks, like elote-style hushpuppies showered with chilies, crema, cilantro, and queso fresco, or “clam chowder poutine,” where fries and curds are smothered in chowder-gravy. Patrons will find both seafood and snacks discounted during daily happy hours, which run early (4 to 7 PM) and late (11 PM to close). Drink specials include $5 wines, beers, and cocktails.

Games are intended for the young and young at heart alike. Stein says he’ll launch a children’s menu in the coming weeks and that kids are welcome to play while their parents eat; he expects an older crowd later in the evening. There’s a nod to his own childhood on the menu: a pasta sandwich. 

“Both of my parents worked long hours, so we ate spaghetti a lot as kid,” says Stein. “I remember splitting rolls, jamming a pat of butter in there, and stuffing it with spaghetti.” 

Toddler tributes aside, Stein also offers a few chef-y entrees like shellfish stew or that same spaghetti dressed up with lobster and brown butter. Still don’t expect the dishes to get too precious.

“The mantra is, ‘We make it in-house if it’s better than what we can get.’ But I always tell the staff: no one wants the chef’s version of ketchup. We have Duke’s mayo and Heinz.”

Bar Elena. 414 H St., NE; 202-450-3265. Open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 4 PM to 2 AM; Friday and Saturday, 4 PM to 3 AM. Weekend brunch starting soon (11 AM). Closed Mondays. 

Peek Inside H Street’s Playful New Bar Elena

This article first appeared in Eater DC on November 7, 2017

Atlas District restaurant unveils comfort food and games November 7

There’s no shortage of entertainment options at Atlas District newcomer Bar Elena, the neighborhood restaurant opening Tuesday, November 7, that fulfills chef/co-owner Adam Stein’s dream of bringing fun food, local brews, and engaging games to his former stomping grounds.

Stein, an alum of local eateries including pubby Queen Vic and beer-friendly Big Board (among others), tells Eater he has longed to see more laid-back restaurants crop up along the drastically evolving strip.

“It’s time this side of the street got some love,” he says.

Stein’s contribution to that cause involves offering up funky comfort foods, a number of electronic diversions, and a slate of intriguing drinks. He’s joined in this mission by Sharon Wetteland, who followed Stein over from his most recent stint at Red’s Table in Reston, Virginia, to serve as general manager at Bar Elena, and by Lindsay Parsons, a Radiator alum tasked with overseeing the bar.

Bar Elena chef and co-owner Adam Stein.
Stein tells Eater that friends created most of the art featured all around Bar Elena.
Photo by Rey Lopez for Eater DC

 

The front of the new restaurant should look somewhat familiar to those that visited its predecessor, Boundary Road. Stein says he’s moved some things around, but wound up keeping roughly the same number of seats. The major difference in terms of design — yes, the mattress chandelier is hanging around — is the mini-arcade Stein has installed in back.

Twin Skee-ball machines at Bar Elena.
Photo by Rey Lopez for Eater DC
Two pinball machines and two “multicade” machines — one of ‘em’s even got Space Ace (watch out for that infanto ray) — are primed and ready to siphon quarters from every pocket.
Photo by Rey Lopez for Eater DC

 

The bar boasts two pinball machines (Indiana Jones, The Sopranos), two Skee-ball machines, and two video game cabinets that feature over two dozen classic games (think: Arkanoid, Ms. Pac-Man). Don’t get too attached to any high scores, though; Stein says the company that owns the games — and which he’s working with on larger scale entertainment complex, the Eleanor — is cool with swapping out the machines “as often as we need based on customer wants.”

Those interested in more tangible investments should give the menu a once over. Parsons has stocked the drink list with four evergreen(ish) cocktails — including a modified version of the Campari-fueled “Vespa” cooler served by Boundary Road — as well as a handful of seasonally inspired selections (a rum-mezcal creation is mesmerizing).

Staff mixing drinks at Bar Elena.
Photo by Rey Lopez for Eater DC

 

Wetteland, meanwhile, has brought together wines from around the globe. There’s crisp whites from America (Adelsheim Auxerrois), bold reds from Europe (Familia Montana Rioja Reserva), and dueling rosés (France versus Washington state).

Back in the kitchen, Stein has a blast with everything from briny oysters to “fancy nachos” flanked by fiery arbol chile sauce. (See the full menu below.)

The General Tso’s wings at Bar Elena.
Photo by Warren Rojas / Eater DC
A sampling of fresh seafood at Bar Elena.
Photo by Warren Rojas / Eater DC

 

Bar Elena is projected to operate from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Tuesday through Thursday, from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m., Fridays, from 11 a.m to 3 a.m., Saturdays, and from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sundays. The plan is to run two daily happy hours (4 p.m. to 7 p.m, and again from 11 p.m. till closing). Stein says brunch should follow “in a couple weeks.”