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April 29, 2014, Washington, DC: It doesn’t take long after meeting local business owner Matt Weiss that we’re deep in conversation about the power of a good location and a belief in this neighborhood. We’re sitting in a Capitol Hill basement known as the Elixir Bar within Weiss’ new establishment, Barrel, a whiskey joint on the 600 block of Pennsylvania Ave. SE. We’re in agreement that this is a curious block. For years, the turnover on this stretch was rampant despite its geographical allure as a strip of the city that connects the bars and restaurants closest to the US Capitol with those on Barracks Row and at Eastern Market. The block is home to a post office, an old mattress store and a realtor’s office, but hasn’t been much of a hub for good food and drink. And yet within the last two years, there’s been a noticeable shift. This stretch is now offering a bit more connectivity with the addition of new bars and restaurants including Hank’s Oyster Bar, Beuchert’s Saloon, Sona Creamery, and now, as of three weeks ago, Barrel.
“This promenade between 6th and 7th was always kind of no-man’s land, but it’s a beautiful promenade with a wide street,” Weiss says. “This building in particular is beautiful and there’s a lot of character. I hope you’re right about this block. We’re bridging the gap pretty well here; you’ve got a bunch of good places here and more to come.”
Weiss is no stranger to the neighborhood. Nineteen years ago, he opened Red River Grill on the north side of Capitol Hill, a business which has since become Union Pub. Other nearby opportunities soon presented themselves, including the opening of Politiki, now The Pourhouse, and Bar 201. Barrel is the latest establishment on Weiss’ roster in collaboration with business partners Mike Schuster and Mark Menard.
I’m intrigued by these successful business owners who commit to one neighborhood rather than spread themselves farther afield, so I ask Weiss why, as a DC native who grew up on the northwest side of the city and rarely ventured to the Hill, he’s drawn to this neighborhood above all others.
His reasons for sticking around are driven by both business acumen and heartstrings.
“Once I started opening places here on the Hill, I stayed here on the Hill,” he says. “I really believe in this neighborhood.”
“It’s tight knit,” he explains. “What I like about it is that it has that small-town feel in a larger city. People remember your name. You can become a regular at a place. If you live in a condo on 14th Street, is it the same feeling? Capitol Hill is home.”
And yet that homey feeling is combined with a transience that’s good for business. With staff constantly moving in and out of nearby congressional offices, businesses can simultaneously rely on neighborhood regulars and a continuous crop of newcomers.
“What I love about Capitol Hill is people go out every night — obviously on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but it’s not like a Monday or Tuesday is dead. People who work in Congress and anything auxillary to the government, they’re here and they want to get a drink. I really like the market here. I really like the people that come in and I really like that there seems to be some liveliess to Capitol Hill on a nightly basis.”
Though thoroughly invested in the neighborhood, Barrel draws its inspiration from the power of another locale that drew Weiss in. Barrel is inspired by the city of Charleston, SC. Its kitchen offers southern cooking, its bar boasts 125 types of whiskey, its lab perfects barrel-aged cocktails, its architecture is historic, and its culture is one more typically found 500 miles south of Washington.
“I just really fell in love with Charleston,” Weiss says. “It’s such a nice town. Their main street is King Street and there’s so many places opening. A lot are like Barrel – cool, historical townhouses. The food scene is great. There are so many artisans that are doing their thing. But I never sensed any attitude: it was real southern hospitality. They don’t care what you order and they are never pretentious about it. This is what we talk to our staff about. This is our culture and that’s what we want.”
“I really do love it here on Capitol Hill. And I love having businesses here. For all the things we’re hoping to achieve, the first and foremost is to be a great, solid neighborly place to go. What we care about the most is that the people who live and work here like coming here. I think we’ve done a great job of creating that feel because it’s genuine.”