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Chinatown Restaurants and Bars Fear “Black Hole” of Capitals and Wizards Departure

Businesses in the neighborhood have already been struggling to recover from the pandemic

Photograph by Evy Mages .

Restaurants and bars around the Capital One Arena in DC have been eking their way back to some kind of normalcy since the pandemic, when canceled events and empty offices turned the neighborhood into a virtual ghost town. This week, they got another blow: the Capitals and Wizards are poised to move their games to a new arena in Virginia.

“Since the pandemic, Chinatown has really not bounced back. So many places have closed, the places that are coming in are chains, and the crime is really bad. There’s a lot of drug activity,” says Hilarey Leonard, co-owner of Free State bar, located just behind Capital One Arena. After the last couple years of barely breaking even, the bar recently started to see some profits return, particularly with strong holiday party bookings. But Leonard notes the business is still highly dependent on what’s going on at the arena, and Caps games in particular are “huge” for bringing in customers. “When the Caps won the [Stanley] Cup, it was our best year, obviously, ever.”

As of now, there are no actual plans to shut down the arena. Monumental Sports CEO Ted Leonsis says in a statement that the goal is to “update” the arena and bring in more entertainment programming, including concerts, comedy, and Washington Mystics games. Still, the news of the Capitals’ and Wizards’ departure has unleashed some fear that the venue is ultimately doomed.

“There’s no way we would survive if the arena goes away… We really can’t afford for it to get any worse,” Leonard says. Free State’s lease comes to an end in two years, and Leonard says renewing  it “definitely will be something to think about hard.”

Clyde’s Restaurant Group may also close its longstanding Gallery Place location if the teams move. In an email statement, the group says it’s “heart broken” by the potential departure of the Capitals and Wizards.  “We feel our Gallery Place location has been arm and arm with the two teams and the great arena experience over the last 18 years. While we are certainly hopeful that the District can change the trajectory of Penn Quarter such that we would want to continue operating there, it is unlikely that Clyde’s would remain at Gallery Place should the teams relocate to Virginia,” the statement reads.

Other local operators around the arena have recently announced closures. Bar Deco owner Noe Landini cited rising crime for declining foot traffic when he shuttered his eight-year-old bar in November. Meanwhile, Flight Wine Bar will end its decade-long run in Chinatown at the end of December. Co-owner Kabir Amir told Eater that even on busy game nights, the business was doing half the covers it did pre-pandemic. The problems were compounded by thinning happy hour crowds and safety fears from regulars.

Still, the neighborhood remains home base to DC’s most famous chef: José Andrés. The arena opened a few years after his flagship restaurant Jaleo debuted in 1993, and Zaytinya, China Chilcano, Oyamel, and Minibar/Barmini all operate in the vicinity. On Twitter, Andrés seemed to be holding out hope that DC’s sports teams would remain. He wrote that DC welcomed the Wizards and Capitals “with open arms…just like it accepted me. I hope these teams & [Monumental Sports] can stay in the city that’s shown so much support.”

Restaurateur Daisuke Utagawa—whose Chinatown restaurants include Daikaya, Bantam King, and Tonari—was hesitant to speculate too much until the sports teams’ move was officially a done deal. But he says it would be “terrible”: “The area is going to be kind of a black hole. I know they’re saying that they’re still going to have concerts and so on. But, you know, the regular games are a big, big part of draw to the area.”

At the same time, Utagawa says that it’s not like the neighborhood turns into the “badlands” if it’s not a game day. His group recently opened a daytime Japanese-Italian cafe at Tonari, which gets its business from people working and living in the area—not so much from what’s happening at the arena. Utagawa also notes that even if the Virginia deal happens, a new sports complex will take years to build.

“I’m hoping during that time, maybe this area can reinvent itself to be an attractive place to go,” Utagawa says. “You can’t just let this this car crash in slow motion.”

This story has been updated with comment from Clyde’s Restaurant Group. Correction: Clyde’s incorrectly stated how long its Gallery Place location has been open. It’s 18 years, not 28.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.