Monday, January 18, 2016

ten months after a big fire, kefa cafe is back

Kefa Cafe Is Back!
All photos by the author.

Better late than never: I missed the grand reopening of Kefa Cafe, the venerable Ethiopian coffeehouse on Bonifant Street that suffered a big fire last winter. But when I stepped in around 4pm Saturday afternoon, its first day back in business, it seemed like the last ten months hadn't happened. Everything looks as it was: yellow walls, green chairs, menu board rendered in gorgeous cursive handwriting, steady stream of Silver Springers eager for caffeine and a warm welcome from owners/sisters/awesome people Lene and Abeba Tsegaye, who opened the shop twenty years ago.

Inside the Reopened Kefa Cafe

Kefa Cafe Menu Board

Abeba + Lene at the Reopened Kefa Cafe

In the year since the fire, Kefa opened a stand at the Silver Spring Library a block away, which will remain open. But there was "no question" that the cafe would come back, Lene told me Saturday afternoon, adding, "This is home. It just feels right."

It does. If you've had coffee with me over the past several years, chances are it was at Kefa Cafe. (Of course, I will also happily meet you at Zed's, Kaldi's, or Bump 'N Grind.) I'm proud to call it my second office, and I'm far from the first person who'd say that. Kefa's also been an indispensable venue for community events, local artists displaying their work, or for anyone who just wants something to eat.

I'm not just glad to have it back. I'm relieved. Between Kefa and Quarry House Tavern, which also suffered damage in last year's fire, two huge chunks of Silver Spring went missing. With Kefa back and work at Quarry House starting soon, this community can be whole again.

If you haven't already, check out Bill Turque's excellent profile of Kefa Cafe, the Tsegaye sisters, and Silver Spring's growing Ethiopian and African communities in the Post.

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.