One of the few Burmese restaurants in the DC area is permanently shutting its doors. Thamee, a colorful H Street Corridor restaurant popular with hospitality insiders, artists, and Burmese expats, will serve its last tea-leaf salads and catfish curries on Sunday, January 23.
Co-owner Simone Jacobson, who operates the restaurant with chef and mother Jocelyn Law-Yone and business partner Eric Wang, says: “Just simply, the sales aren’t there.”
Jacobson—along with other small, independent restaurant owners—has been a vocal industry advocate since the start of the pandemic, authoring an early Washington Post op-ed asking landlords for leniency. Like may others, the Thamee team pivoted (and pivoted, and pivoted again) over the past two years—moving from a full-service restaurant to a Burmese bodega to a community kitchen with World Central Kitchen, and then briefly closing to reimagine the dining room and patio. Most recently in July, Thamee reopened as a fast-casual, all-takeout restaurant in response to widespread staffing shortages and the delta wave. Still, Jacobson says it wasn’t enough.
“It’s been such a long grieving process that we’re at the point where we’ve been saying it’s akin to having a loved one on oxygen. You know if you unplug, they’re not breathing, but you hold out hope.”
Jacobson also points to the departure of many regulars from DC; she herself lives in Mexico, while Wang makes weekly trips to Thamee from Philadelphia. Law-Yone is omnipresent in the kitchen, but at 69—she’s a retired teacher who found cooking as a second career—Jacobson says she worried about both the health and financial risks.
“We could say: what if we got another loan? But we’re sustaining something we know can’t stand on its own. We don’t want to go further into debt.”
Thamee opened in 2019, but the mother-daughter team started their mission to share Burmese food and culture more than six years ago with Toli Moli, then a dessert pop-up selling falooda (colorful, layered cold desserts) out of culinary incubator EatsPlace. They then found a more permanent home at Union Market, where the pair launched an eclectic Burmese bodega selling more falooda—plus sundries like condoms and face masks, and savory Burmese dishes such as their now-signature catfish curry. Once in their own restaurant home on H Street—previously American spot Sally’s Middle Name—Thamee grew to be a rare, delicious Burmese destination. And also somewhat of a hip-hop and musical celeb magnet. Jacobson fondly remembers hosting (seperately) André 3000, of Outkast, Yasiin Bey (previously known by stage name Mos Def), and jazz pianist/producer Robert Andre Glasper—a repeat customer who brought in rapper D Smoke.
For all her advocacy helping small businesses stay afloat, Jacobson says one major takeaway is that it’s okay to give up.
“None of us wanted this fight. In the beginning, no one knew how long it would last. In the middle, we mustered our energy. At this phase, whatever it is, I’m guessing many restaurant owners of our size are going into great debt to keep the doors open,” Jacobson says. “But what are we trying to prove? If you’re able to do something radical, and you still have that drive, and you have the capital—go for it. But if your balance sheet is running on red and you’ve reached a point of pandemic and pivot fatigue, it’s okay to close. There may come a point when there’s nothing more to do.”
Thamee, which is still takeout-only, is offering 50 percent off wine, beer, and pantry items through January 23. Diners can also schedule orders until the final services.