The Carry Out Deli on 14th Street NW. All photos by the author.
Carry out restaurants have been part of the fabric of Washington for decades, prized for their low prices, speed and long hours. With menus that run on for pages and pages, many break norms, serving Chinese food, fried seafood and sandwiches under one roof.
And although development has brought in new restaurants and businesses along the U Street corridor, on 14th Street Northwest, and in Logan Circle, carry outs are holding on. Of the those listed on the popular user review site Yelp, at least 24 carry outs are still operating in Northwest.
"We’ve been here since 1968. I don’t plan to go anywhere,” said Henrietta Smith, who owns Henry’s Soul Cafe on U Street.
Named for Smith’s father, Henry Smith, the restaurant is famous for its stick-to-your-bones comfort food and sweet potato pie, which was profiled by The Washington Post in 2007. “Mr. Henry can’t cook, so he had to have other people cook,” Smith said. Her brothers own the store’s 2 other locations, at the intersection of 4th and K Streets NW and in Oxon Hill, MD.
While she said that the new restaurants are competition for her business, Smith sees the changes on U Street as a good thing. “The neighborhood is more diverse now,” Smith said. “You’re dealing with all walks of life.” She has been able to rely on a steady flow of regulars, who come to 17th and U from all over the DC area for her smothered pork chops, fried chicken and ribs. “You don’t forget where home is,” she said.
One of those customers is Darren Snell, 47. Snell has been coming to Henry’s for 21 years, and said that not much has changed. “The meatloaf still tastes the same today as it did back then,” he said.
Smith said that gentrification has made the area more diverse, which bodes well for Henry’s prospects going forward. “The regulars are still coming and the newcomers are coming too,” he said. “[Henry’s] isn’t going anywhere.”
In Logan Circle, Chong Hu, 58, has no plans to close her business, The Carry Out Deli. Like Smith, Hu said that loyal customers have helped her stay afloat for the last 27 years.
Lily Pilgrim, 84, lives two blocks away from the Deli and stops by 2-3 times per week. “[It’s] much better and cheaper than any other restaurant on P Street,” she said.
Pilgrim is bullish on the Deli’s chances of staying open. “[Hu] has the same customers over the years. They go out of their way to come here. It should be here for a long, long time,” she said.
Hu sees both the pros and cons of development. As office buildings on 14th were replaced by condos in the last few years, the lunch crowd has died down dramatically, cutting into her profits. “My business is real slow,” Hu said. “Now everyone goes to coffee shop.”
But, on the positive side, there are “no more drunk people,” Hu said. In the 1980s, “every day I called the police,” she said. For her part, Pilgrim, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said that she used to avoid walking down 14th Street because it was too dangerous.
Brendon Miller, public affairs director for the city’s department of small and local business development, said that new development does not automatically result in an outward flow of small businesses. “You’ve got small businesses that come in and you’ve got small businesses that depart. It’s cyclical,” he said.
And some small businesses, like Henry’s and the Carry Out Deli, have reached “institution status,” which helps them stay open in a changing landscape. “The business owners take the time to identify with the folks coming through the door, and to sort of cultivate repeat customers,” he said. “It’s got to attract people from the neighborhood.”
A few carry outs have left the area for various reasons. Yum’s, which used to sit at the intersection of 14th and Wallach streets NW, was recently demolished to make way for an upscale apartment building. It will reopen soon in Pleasant Plains, a neighborhood east of Columbia Heights. And the Mid City Deli, which neighbors The Carry Out Deli, closed its doors in June 2012.
City health inspectors have played a role in shutting down some carry outs, at least temporarily. Before becoming a hole in the ground, Yum’s was cited for two health hazards and closed for a day. And in April, the Mid City Deli was closed twice for a variety of health hazards.
China Dragon Carry Out, which sits at the intersection of 11th and P Streets NW, was recently closed “for gross unsanitary conditions, operating without a license, [having] an improperly trained manager and failure to minimize insects.”
Alicia Davis-Coates, 39, said that she looks for information about health inspection-related closings in the newspaper when deciding where to eat. Her carry out-of-choice is Yum’s II on 14th Street. A resident of Fort Totten, Davis-Coates said that Yum’s II is worth the drive.
"The food is fresher. You can actually see them make it,” she said on a recent Friday night, take out bag in hand. “And they’ve never been shut down.”