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Ushering in a restaurant renaissance: 14th Street spot celebrates 15 years

Cafe Saint-Ex opened on 14th and T Streets NW in 2003. Since then, several other restaurants and businesses have followed. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
'People know that they can come here and it’s not pretentious'

WTOP's Rachel Nania

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WASHINGTON — With its popular coffee shops, retail shops, restaurants and bars, it’s hard to imagine the intersection of 14th and T streets in Northwest D.C. as anything but a bustling city corridor. But Jonathan Fain said 15 years ago, it was an “uncharted area.”

“People tended to go as far as maybe 18th Street or even 17th Street — that was kind of the emerging neighborhood — but once you got here, it was pretty sketchy,” Fain said.

“There was just a lot of abandoned stuff.”

That is until Cafe Saint-Ex opened at 1847 14th St. NW in 2003. At the time, it was one of the only restaurants on the 14th Street corridor. Now, it’s one of dozens.

Compare the intersection of 14th and T streets NW in 2007 (first map) and 2017:

Cafe Saint-Ex and its modern-day neighbors might not appear to have much in common. Unlike many of the newcomers, Saint-Ex doesn’t have a flashy build-out or a menu made around trends (you can always count on a good burger and a grilled cheese sandwich), but the influence it has had on its contemporary counterparts is indisputable.

“Sometimes when you go to those places, you can see a slight hint of our place there,” Fain said.

Saint-Ex was one of the first restaurants in the city to adopt a farm-to-table approach to food during a time when Fain said the majority of chefs “were just using normal suppliers,” without careful consideration for the environment and local growers. (Former executive chef Barton Seaver, who came to Saint-Ex in 2005, eventually left D.C. to lead the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University.)

Saint-Ex was also a pioneer in the craft beer boom and the craft cocktail resurgence. (Adam Bernbach of 2 Birds, 1 Stone use to manage Saint-Ex’s bar.)

Several former employees have even gone on to open their own bars and restaurants — some, just down the street. And these days it’s rare to come across a concept that doesn’t have “local” or “house-made” typed on its menu.

“Saint-Ex is the OG (slang for ‘original’). They are the guys that really pioneered this sort of bistro, sort of drinking spot, neighborhood spot,” Fain said.

“It’s funny to watch things evolve. I can just remember there being this very interesting vibe. The city 15 years ago was different, it was smaller, and I felt like people hung out. It wasn’t as crazy as it is today.”

The basement at Cafe Saint-Ex has also played an important role in the city’s music scene, serving as homebase for many local DJs. (If you’re over a certain age, chances are you’ve closed down a night — or two — in the restaurant’s lower level.)

But just because Cafe Saint-Ex is the area’s anchor, doesn’t mean the restaurant has had an easy ride. Competition is stiffer than ever, and Fain said staff are constantly on their toes in an effort to stay one step ahead in a continually evolving neighborhood.

“There is a charm to the place. People know that they can come here and it’s not pretentious; everybody’s welcome and they’ve been welcome for 15 years,” he said.

On Sunday, May 13, Cafe Saint-Ex is celebrating its 15th birthday with a “BBQ Blowout,” from 4 p.m. to close. Attendees can purchase a $15 food wristband, which includes all-you-can-eat food from the grill on the patio, and a $15 beverage wristband for pours of Brooklyn Beer and Sam Adams. Downstairs, there will be karaoke from 7:30 p.m. until 10, and then a DJ until close.

“I want the neighborhood to come back,” Fain said, referring to the upcoming party.

“It’d be nice to see the old faces.”


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