- 'Old Restaurant Row' in Crystal City. (Photo: TBD Staff)
For as long as anyone can remember, U.S. Route 1 has served as a sort of “great divide” between the high-rise office buildings and condominiums in Crystal City and the small businesses west of the highway.
Now with a plan in the works to redevelop certain parts of Crystal City and create even more residential development, “old restaurant row,” as the businesses along the stretch of 23rd between South Eads and Fern streets refer to themselves, is hoping to raise its profile.
The strip is a hodgepodge of low buildings with different colored awnings and wide, landscaped patios. Among them are a gay bar, a sports bar, a tavern that hosts live musicians on weekends, three Italian restaurants — one of which, Portofino, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year — and several others focused on international fare.
Although quiet during lunch, 23rd Street bustles at night between people dining in restaurants or picking up take-out, sports fans at the Crystal City Sports Pub, and those checking out live music at Tortoise and Hare.
But they're mostly from the neighborhood, and not from the other side of Route 1, where high rise office and apartment buildings have become largely self-sufficient with so many restaurants, bars, and shops closer by.
Business owners on restaurant row are hoping to promote themselves more as the smaller, local alternative to the many chain stores and restaurants along Crystal Drive. So far, they haven't really found the right formula for marketing themselves across the highway.
"It does seem like all the attention goes to the other side, and it’s sad because a lot of people will come over to this street and they’ll say 'I didn’t know that this even existed,'" says Katherine Glorioso, owner of Gossip boutique on 23rd street. "And they love it."
"This is definitely where the nightlife of Crystal City is," says Tortoise and Hare owner Brian Montgomery. "But this is also what gives Crystal City character."
"This side is more mom-and-pops. The business owners pretty much run their businesses," Glorioso says. "I think you get a warmer feeling than if you go across Route 1."
She opened Gossip three years ago and moved to the area six months later because she "fell in love," with the community. "It’s a really fun place to live and hang out," she says. "The way people treat each other is amazing." As she talks and mans her store, a server from Tortoise & Hare stops by to drop off an order of shrimp for her dinner, free of charge.
Several of the owners think some improvements to the streetscape could help the district's businesses, although they all have different ideas, and no one knows who will pay for them.
“We would love for this street to have some kind of beautification project, you know, make it more feel like Shirlington or more like Old Town,” says Montgomery.
John Finlay, whose Crystal City Sports Pub just celebrated its 16th anniversary, said two things could help improve restaurant row: better lighting, and more parking. In general, though, the small, independently owned businesses on the street don’t have the kind of money to invest in those kinds of projects.
For its part, the Crystal City Business Improvement District has advanced some such projects on the street, says director Angie Fox. "We do our best to be very focused on that side of the street," she says. "We did the banners, and flower baskets, and we put tables and lights in the park."
One thing they can all agree on, says Freddie Lutz of Freddie’s Beach Bar, is that they’d like an archway with a sign, or some other way of clearly defining the street as "old restaurant row."
"As a street we kind of keep coming back to that archway, something at the end of the street that says something like historic restaurant row that draws attention to the street," Lutz says. He sits on the board of the Crystal City BID, and also serves as president of the lapsed 23rd Street Business Group.
The idea sort of fell by the wayside, however, after the group abandoned its meetings. "We haven’t met for the past few years, we just haven’t gotten a chance to get together," he says. "Chances are in the fall we’re going to get it going again."
Lutz doesn’t believe the 23rd Street businesses ever made any official requests to Arlington County for improvements, but with the county set to take up the Crystal City Sector Plan this September, now could be the time.
"There’s going to be so much development with apartments and condos and office buildings, that there will be enough people coming over here," Lutz says of restaurant row. "It would be nice if we could get some of that in [the plan]."