Thursday, January 7, 2016

what jackie's closing says about the future of silver spring

Jackie's & The Veridian
Jackie's, not long for this world. All photos by the author.
Eleven years ago, Jackie Greenbaum took a chance on opening a restaurant and on downtown Silver Spring when she opened Jackie's. The restaurant earned critical acclaim and became a neighborhood institution. It put Silver Spring on the map and helped her build a restaurant empire.

But yesterday, she announced plans to close Jackie's and the adjacent Sidebar this March in order to focus on opening more restaurants in DC. (Thankfully, the Quarry House Tavern, which she also owns, will not only stay put but reopen in its permanent home this spring.) It suggests that Silver Spring, like Montgomery County as a whole, have a lot more competition for drawing and keeping good local businesses.

I've heard rumors about Jackie's closing for over a year. But when I heard the news for real yesterday, I was deeply frustrated for four reasons:

  • How could a Montgomery County native (she was born in Wheaton and graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School) who took a chance on Silver Spring all those years ago just give up when things are finally getting good?
  • If Greenbaum wanted to try new concepts, such as a new Italian restaurant in Petworth that will gain most of the restaurant's staff, why not do it in Silver Spring? Literally thousands of apartments have been built or are being built within a few blocks of her restaurant. Is those new residents' money (or existing residents' money) no good to her?
  • What does this say to other restauranteurs about working in Montgomery County? Greenbaum has been a critic of the county's liquor laws. While she said they have nothing to do with her closing Jackie's, she told Bethesda Beat there's "no way" she'd ever open in the county again.
  • And what does this say about Silver Spring? Many retailers and restauranteurs are already reluctant to come here, even if there's money to be made here. Greenbaum has long been a booster for Silver Spring, and notes that she isn't closing because her restaurant isn't doing well. Could her decision to focus on DC discourage others from taking a chance on our community, as she did?

Jackie at Sidebar
Greenbaum outside Sidebar in 2010.
I interviewed Jackie back in 2010, but never published it. I'd just moved to Philadelphia and the post fell to the wayside as I started graduate school. Going over my notes, two quotes stuck out at me:
  • "We still very much struggle with being in the suburbs. My friends who live in Adams Morgan won't come here. They act like they're driving to China.
  • "There's no foot traffic. You rely on your friends and word of mouth and hope you become a destination. So you have to do something special."
When Jackie's first opened in 2004, the DC area looked very different. If you wanted to go out, you had only a few choices: Dupont Circle and Georgetown in the District; Bethesda in Maryland; Arlington and Old Town Alexandria in Northern Virginia. Many of the neighborhoods that are hopping dining and nightlife destinations, from Columbia Heights to H Street, were still emerging. There was simply less competition for Silver Spring, and for Jackie's. So even if the restaurant was in an odd location, it would do okay.

That landscape looks very different today. Silver Spring is a more thriving place than it's ever been, and there are spots like Denizens Brewing Company that can draw the cool kids up from DC. But it has way more competition for residents and businesses who want an urban or urbane environment, whether it's inner-city spots like 14th Street or suburban centers like the Mosaic District.

It's something for county leaders to think about in their ongoing quest to draw Millennials and nightlife. Montgomery County's liquor laws are a real deterrent to getting businesses to open here, but that's not the whole story. Silver Spring might have people and activity and disposable income, but is there, as Greenbaum put it, "something special" that sets it apart from so many other places?

I would say yes, and if you're reading this blog, you probably would too. The key is saying it loudly enough that it can be heard above the din of dozens of other neighborhoods each trying to be the next great place.


Unknown said...

Long time QHT regular and Silver Spring resident/restaurant-goer for over a decade here, with a couple of thoughts. 1) I feel like Jackie's lost its way after chef Diana Davila-Bolden left. There was a new chef that didn't work out, and then Adam Harvey, who might have been spread too thin trying to get Bar Charley's menu right while trying to put his own stamp on Jackie's. The food was good, but just didn't have the same sense of whimsy and creativity to match the vibe, and I thought it was too pricy for what you were getting. (I don't mind paying pricy at Urban Butcher, The Classics or All Set, so it's not that I think everything is too expensive or that SS has to cost less than DC.) During the time it was open as Sligo Cafe, I preferred going there to eat -- it felt like a better value.

2) Part of what we saw after the QHT fire is the loyalty to Jackie's people, with the crowdfunding campaign raising its goal to financially support the staff until they could reopen in the Piratz location. When Jackie started opening new DC locations, starting with El Chucho, then Bar Charley, then Slash Run, they pulled from Jackie's and Sidebar staff. It was good for some of the employees who are now minority owners, and obviously you want to rely on your good people when kicking off a new endeavor, but it lost some of the "neighborhood" feel when local regulars were served by someone different every time and treated just like every other customer. It was basically down to Kurt and Mayra for a while, which was around the time I started going considerably less often. I know some others who regularly live in and/or eat out in SS regularly felt the same way and just weren't going to Jackie's nearly as much as they used to.

3) There's a lot more competition nearby in the $35-50/pp price range. Urban Butcher, Mix, Scion and Denizen's new food menu are very close and cost about the same for dinner and a drink or two. And if you want to go a little further or hang in the bar, you can still eat well at 8407, The Classics or All Set for that amount. It's no longer the only game in town or even the only option on the south side of SS.

4) It's fun to travel into DC occasionally to eat and drink, and when I do, I go to Slash Run, El Chucho, and The Airedale (co-owned by former QHT bartender Baback Salimi). (Bar Charley never did it for me, to be honest, although I've been there several times too: too crowded, hard to park, and I didn't like the cocktail menu as much as the other locations) I'm sure I will give Little Coco a chance too, and assuming I like it as much as Jackie's other locations, will at least eat there as occasionally as I did at Jackie's in the last several years, if not more often. It's not like she's closing up shop and leaving the area entirely. And if you haven't eaten at QHT lately, even that menu has improved with the larger Piratz kitchen and JB at the helm. I'm not going to stop giving money to Jackie....just will do so in a different location, that's all. And if a new restaurant opens up there, I will give it a shot too.

Or, in other words, I think this is more about Jackie's (the restaurant and the owner) own evolution than Silver Spring's in the last decade.

Unknown said...

Just to clarify: I like Kurt and Mayra....but I missed seeing Ryan, Mike D, JP, Carlo, just to name a few, and am very glad that Paul is back. YMMV

Brian Beddow said...

Spent 2 nights in the Side Bar this weekend. The service was terrible.

brainumbc said...

Also keep in mind that in Moco, you can't have a "bar". You can't have more than 50% of your profit come from alcohol so people feel like they can make more money in dc.

BtW I went to Jackie's sidebar last week for the first time ever. It sucked. Good riddance. Ordered a well done burger that came out raw. Great first impression

beerman said...

Well, clearly the county or state should step in and make Greenbaum keep the restaurant open. People who own restaurants are clearly part of the 1%.