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“Critical Mass” of Bars and Restaurants Keeping Residents in Arlington

by ARLnow.com December 16, 2010 at 11:43 am 3,710 50 Comments

Watch out D.C., Arlington may be stealing away visitors.

It was just a few short years ago that Arlingtonians had to make lame excuses for why their D.C. friends should trek into the county. In 2006, one DCist writer (and Arlington resident) bemoaned “Arlington’s low bar diversity and mediocre dining choices” while trying to make the case that the Wilson Boulevard Taco Bell was a potential selling point.

Now?

“We’ve created a critical mass… we’ve passed some kind of tipping point, where Arlington is kind of a cool place to go,” said Terry Holzheimer, Director of Arlington Economic Development. He said that thanks to new dining and drinking options, Clarendon, Courthouse, Ballston Crystal City and Shirlington have all become destinations that can compete with District.

“If you look back a few years, there wasn’t much happening in Arlington,” Holzheimer said. “People have options now, they don’t have to get on the Metro, they don’t have to try to get downtown and not be able to find a parking spot in Penn Quarter or Adams Morgan.”

Indeed, anecdotal evidence of crowded bars and a long streak of new restaurant openings would seem to suggest that the dining and entertainment industry is doing quite well in Arlington, especially in Clarendon. And a poll we conducted earlier this month backs up the notion that residents are staying here rather than heading into D.C.

More than 75 percent of the 665 people who responded to the poll said “I don’t go out in the District as much as I used to.” Some cited steep parking rates in D.C. and the difficulty of taking Metro at night, but others said that new options in Arlington mean they don’t have to go to the District to have a good time.

Holzheimer says locals aren’t the only ones taking advantage of Arlington’s restaurants and nightlife.

“The demand is coming from throughout Northern Virginia, not just Arlington,” he said. “I think it draws from as far away as Reston and Herndon.”

“We might even be drawing from the District,” Holzheimer added. “In fact, we probably are.”

New retailers, like Trader Joe’s in Clarendon, will also help drive traffic to nearby restaurants and bars, he said.

Another advantage Arlington now has is the number of homegrown, local businesses that have been opening. While large chains have their place, Holzheimer said, the “unique character” of locally-owned bars and restaurants help bring in visitors.

“I think that Arlington is a contender in a way it hasn’t been a past,” said Arlington Economic Development spokesperson Karen Vasquez. “We’ve worked at these things [like encouraging local business formation] and I think they’re paying off. The tipping point — it’s a little hard to tell where it is until you’ve hit it — but I think we’ve hit it.”

(We contacted several D.C. economic development agencies for comment on this story. None responded.)

Flickr pool photos by Team Rank (top) and Christaki (bottom)

  • mehoo

    Don’t forget my theory – the smoking ban in Virginia has made it safe to breathe in Arlington bars and restaurants again, so there’s no need for Virginians to go all the way to DC any more. I’ll bet that is a small, but significant factor.

    • anon

      Some Arlington bars were smoke free before the ban.

      • mehoo

        True, a few were, but ALL DC bars were smoke free years before that. Now we have a “critical mass” of smoke-free bars.

        • Andrew

          mehoo – +1. we eat out a lot and went to georgetown to escape moke. even rhodeside w/ its massive ventilation system and modern pool lounge w/ its massive space and high ceilings would develop these smoke hazes during happy hour. kitty o’shea’s, w neither of these, was like a smoke bath. happily re-discovering arlington.

        • mehoo

          I remember going out in DC right after the smoking ban took effect there. I stayed out longer (and spent more money) and on the way home I stopped to think about why. Then it dawned on me – I was able to breathe! No stench, no stinging eyes. I went right past Arlington bars to get to DC for a while after that. There were a few smoke-free spots in Arlington back then, but not many. Happy re-discovering Arlington to you too, and happy breathing!

  • Concerned

    This is good news for Arlington. If only the people in the inspections and zoning divisions understood that it takes a commitment to customer service to attract businesses to Arlington. I have heard many business owners say that if they had to do it over again, they would not come to Arlington because of its rude inspectors and zoning people harassing taxpayers. I hope the county leaders pay attention.

    • AllenB

      I call BS on this. No one would say that despite having a very successful business they wouldn’t come here again because of the inspectors.

      • Concerned

        Have you talked to any? I have.

        • AllenB

          Actually, I know one, so yes. And I just honestly don’t believe you when you say that you’ve spoken to successful business owners in Arlington that says they would have traded the opportunity to have a successfuly restaurant or other business in Arlington because the inspectors were supposedly rude.

          Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the UNsuccessful business owners blamed their failure on inspectors.

          • Shirley

            anyone who gets a business up and running in Arlington and it is a FINANCIAL SUCCESS may complain about Arlington Government but WOULD DO IT AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN. The naysayers are the people who don’t have successful businesses.

            a few years ago there was a business in Clarendon that complained all the time — they are gone now. They were closed Christmas Eve Day to be with their family. Nice but not a good business plan.

  • NorthAdams

    oh i miss the days of deciding between Keyhole, Whiteys or Eskimo Nells.

    • Lou

      wow, I remember Eskimo Nell’s, and that was a LONNNNNGGGG time ago.

      • Westover

        😀

      • mehoo

        I remember Whitey’s, and of course Bardo Rodeo, the original one in the giant room.

        • Cranky Crankypants

          and I remember the original Bardo (no Rodeo) that was in the Galaxy Hut space.

        • TGEoA

          I got kicked out of Bardo cos I took a leak in the ladies room.

          I walked in and saw a line of urinals so I figured I was in the right place.

        • Steve

          Good old Bardo’s and its movie night! Anyone remember the strip club in what is now Rays Hell burgers? Quality was awful, but dollar drafts kept me coming back.

          • The Noze Bros

            Sadly yes (though I thought it was closer to the end of the row of shops, where the Pho place is/was). Never understood VA’s love of the pasties.

  • Adrian Fenty

    Crystal City a “destination”? I don’t know about that…

  • Arlwhenever

    One of the useful aspects of the County’s annual financial report is that it allows one to use facts to put into perspective opinions like those expressed by the Economic Development Director and his spokesperson, who after all are employed to promote development.

    The recently released financial report reveals that meals tax revenue grew an unimpressive 1.4 percent between 2007 and 2010 ($29.2 million over $28.8 million), a period during which County population grew a more rapid 3.6 percent (212,200 over 204,800) and per capita income rose a robust 12.9 percent. These data hardly evidence an Arlington wining and dining renaissance.

    We are more likely seeing a cycling out of the old and replacement with the new. There are plenty of restaurants and bistros that have closed down in recent years, including the iconic Orleans House, which once likely was the largest grossing eatery in town.

    The new restaurants and bars are targeting a young hipster crowd, but are not generating an outsize or even a to-be-expected increase in economic activity.

    • Lou

      Good observation.

    • a’town

      I agree with most of your points….. but I will say that most of the new bars/restaurants are not trying to lure the “hipster” crowd as you call it.
      They aim more for the 26-34 single professional (yuppie) crowd. The hipsters pretty much stay in dc along U street or in Dupont. They hate Arlington, its too mainstream/commercialized for them (other than maybe Galaxy Hut).

      • Arlwhenever

        I accept the yuppie amendment. I’m kinda stuck back in the original 80’s definition of the yupsters and need to learn to move on.

      • Greg

        Along these lines, I was surprised at the Post’s recent write up of Clarendon as “easy to see as just another generic place to run errand”. Having lived in the area for 15 years, I always thought of Clarendon as somewhat hipster. But maybe that’s changed and it’s now more yuppie?

        • The Dope of South Arlington

          No, Clarendon is not “hipster” (with the possible exception of Galaxy Hut).

    • Andrew

      Does inflation and/or food price increases factor into this at all? Would they make that 1.4% increase even smaller?

    • Bluemonter

      This growth in meals tax revenue is impressive given we have faced the worse economic recession in the last 60 years…Restaurants, manufacturing, construction and retail are all businesses that get hit the hardest during a recession, especially the one we are currently going through (I don’t care if the gov’t tells us we the recession has officially ended).

      • Thes

        +1

      • AllenB

        +2

  • Aaron

    The critical mass of nice destinations is alright, I guess, but I would kill to have a Taco Bell back on Wilson Blvd again.

    • SoArlRes

      Totally agree. It was a sad day when Taco Bell closed its doors. Still an empty lot sits in its place. What are they planning to build there, anyway?

      • mehoo

        Either a bank or an overpriced “tavern” full of guys with brown flip flops, most likely.

      • The Noze Bros

        The thing about Taco Bell is that it’s a “no cook” restaurant, in that all of the food is prepared off-site and just warmed up there. Better to have a District Taco outpost of some other place that serves more edible options.

        • mehoo

          We still have low standards out here in the ‘burbs.

    • mehoo

      Hear hear!

  • Skeptical

    I liked Arlington when it was just a place to live and not a “destination.” Before everyone starts yelling at me to move, which is what happens every time I point out that the whole world doesn’t want to party all the time, that’s not an option and it’s offensive as hell when people have such thin skins about their funsies that anyone who disagrees has to be shouted down and out. I just am not sure why every inch of this county has to be “cool” and “rocking.”

    • AllenB

      I’m not sure where you live but not “every inch of this county” is “cool” and “rocking”. In most of the entertainment areas, go 2-3 blocks off of the main streets (Wilson, Clarendon, etc) and it’s quite peaceful. I live in the heart of Courthouse, 2 blocks off of Clarendon Blvd, and it’s quite calm nearly all the time.

    • mehoo

      I love how my street is still a nice place to live but now I’m really close to cool “destinations.”

    • Brandon C

      Not to mention, as I’ve pointed out several times here, that when all these newfangled restaurants, bars and nightspots open up, it increases rents by leaps and bounds. I had to move to South Arlington away from Clarendon several years ago (I love it here but I miss all the good Vietnamese restaurants). I’ve never understood how a town full of people who work in the public sector (ie, Govt. or non-profits) are expected to live reasonably close-by to the city they work in without supplemental income. This scenario just seals the deal of overpaid yuppies claiming this town and driving the rest of us to outside the Beltway.

      • AllenB

        I think it’s this type of comment that makes people yell at you. Most of us don’t think we’re overpaid… and we like those “newfangled” restaurants just fine. The neighborhood changed, you didn’t like it, you moved… stop being so nasty and insulting about it. Calling a lot of us “overpaid yuppies” just makes it okay to call you a “cheap old grouch”.

        • Bender

          Lighten up, Francis.

        • mehoo

          I was an overpaid yuppie when I moved here, now I’m a cheap old grouch. The cycle continues.

          • KalashniKEV

            Well if you’re renting and don’t own, then I would advise that perhaps the corridor isn’t for you. You’d be much better off staying inside the Beltway, but in a neighborhood with cheap rent, cheap food, cheap everything, blue collar or immigrant neighbors, and people who walk around in sweatpants all day or drive crappy cars.

            And it’s the Government that’s overpaid (and underworked), we’re just well paid! = )

    • Suburban Not Urban

      +1

    • Thes

      It is easy to find un-cool places in Arlington still! Just find the addresses where the Sun-Gazette allows itself to be delivered.

      • rft

        or where skeptical lives

  • Westoverite

    Article is correct…Arlington has many attractions…Liberty Tavern, IOTA, Whitlow’s, etc. However, some of the old neighborhood dives (Whitey’s, Royal Lee, Bardo) are gone forever!

  • We are all excited about Samuel Beckett’s Irish Gastro Pub in Shirlington Village which is poised to open in the near future. They’re putting the finishing touches on it as we speak.

  • Bender

    Wow! An Irish place?? It’s about time. Now, if only they can combine it with sports. Arlington is short on both.

    • Do you like rugby and footie?

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