November 12, 2007

The Terrace Is Closed

I was in the swamplands of Washington, D.C., last week for work, and met a friend for dinner at Tako Grill, a great sushi place in Bethesda (Md.) and, conveniently enough, just a few blocks from my hotel. Before dinner, I walked by a favorite restaurant from our past life, Café Europa. Curtains cloaked the windows. It was closed. For good.

As one-time regulars at Café Europa (in our pre-children days), we got to know the owner, Jack. In the spring and summer, my wife and I often would walk to the restaurant from our one-bedroom condo -- or after catching a movie at our usual theater in Dupont Circle -- for a late meal on the terrace (or, in the guise of Jack’s accent, “tear-AUS,”). Once there, we would slowly consume a bottle of wine, with a simply prepared piece of fish, ravioli with rock shrimp in a saffron-laced cream sauce, or, one particular meal that has always stood out, flank steak with a creamy mustard sauce. Often Jack would bring us a limoncello to have with our desert -- on the house -- and sit down for a brief chat.

A native of France (Toulouse, I believe), Jack could never be confused for a businessman. He initially was a co-owner, but his partner, who I’m fairly certain led the shop when it came to the financial and other managerial aspects of the restaurant, left after a few years to take over an Italian-American restaurant in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. where he had once been a manager. It was a successful restaurant, I remember Jack telling me, gently suggesting that his partner had, in effect, opted to take a step down in cuisine—lots of pasta and red sauce, little else—for the security of a tried and true business.

Even before this parting of the ways, though, Café Europa had an unsettling existence. Weekend business was typically brisk, although not overflowing like many nearby restaurants, but getting eaters into its cozy confines during the week was clearly a challenge, as was attracting younger diners, who tend to eat and, cha-ching, drink more.

The turning point, when things went from troublesome to terrifying, arrived in the form of a retail rejuvenation of a three-block neighborhood of Bethesda just a mile or so away from Café Europa. In went a new stadium-style movie theater and a host of new restaurants with plenty of bar space, including several family-friendly places with good food.

This portion of Bethesda also was an easier walk from the Metro, had a huge Barnes & Noble always buzzing with lots of customers, and, at the time, in the dawning days of the new decade, more condos and townhouses in close proximity, housing well-off singles and young families with lots of expendable income.

Suddenly, the foot traffic in “Bethesda triangle,” as the portion of Bethesda where Café Europa resides is called, began to drop off. More and more restaurants — and there were many from which to choose — had a disturbing number of empty tables on weeknights and perhaps only a full house for the first seating on weekends. In the matter of a year or two, spring and summer nights in “the triangle” went from bustling to barely breathing (it’s since been revived, with the arrival of many new luxury condos and the addition of even more, including some very well-reviewed, restaurants).

Jack tried various remedies: updating the menu (although probably not enough – it was, truth be told, never a very exciting menu); getting rid of the brick-oven pizzas; bringing back the brick-oven pizzas; reinvigorating the interior with new tables and seductive lighting (Jack had made some of the original tables himself) and the exterior with stark red awnings that proclaimed “crepes” “steak” “pasta;” sinking a huge chunk of change into adding a swanky lounge, with live jazz on the weekends.

But nothing seemed to work. From its earliest days, there were problems with the service, something that plagued Café Europa ‘til its end. I believe there were issues with some temperamental chefs, including a soup chef who was too drunk to make it in one busy Saturday night when we were there. I know that friends and colleagues who had eaten there complained about the food being uneven, although I can honestly say that most of our meals there during the years were quite good.

The stress of trying to keep the restaurant afloat clearly got to Jack. The last few times I saw him, he was slightly drunk and overwrought by stress, running his hands through his hair as he recounted the latest attempts to revive the business. “I don’t know, you know,” he would say, mashing a hand through his thinning black hair as if he couldn’t push hard enough.

The very last time I spoke with him he was clearly inebriated. "Let me tell you something, I think I just made a huge mistake," he said, as I sipped a Bombay and tonic at the lounge bar, not quite sure what was about to follow. He had sold his condo in Bethesda and, using money he took out of the restaurant, had bought a house in Chevy Chase, where the lowest range of any house is at least $1 million. He wasn't even sure why he had done it.

The red awnings were still there when I walked by last week. A small orange sign in the window indicated that the new inhabitant of the corner of St. Elmo and Norfolk would be a sushi restaurant, which was in the process of getting its liquor license.

Despite all of its troubles, Café Europa made a respectable run of it. It lasted for approximately 8 years by my count, which in the kill or be-roasted world of Bethesda restaurants, is no easy task. The owners of this new sushi joint should hope to be as fortunate.

Cheers, Jack. Thanks for the meals and memories.

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