The Wash
Bar Owner Farid Nouri was set to celebrate 18th Street Lounge’s 25th anniversary in April of 2020, just before he decided to close the doors. (Heidi Kirk / The Wash)

‘This industry is defined by resilience.’ Dupont Circle business owners experience both challenges and opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dupont Circle had “significant” business turnover during the pandemic, with 25 closings and 10 openings in the last year and a half throughout the Business Improvement District.

Eighteenth Street Lounge helped define nightlife in Washington in the 1990s with multiple levels, vintage sofas and a mix of ‘eclectic sounds’ that marketed to a wide audience.

Owner Farid Nouri said he is as much a “music aficionado” as a business owner, and he takes pride in having dreamt up the idea for the lounge with his partners.

“We had a dream to open a dance club based on our taste and interests,” Nouri said.

The lounge was the first of its kind in the area when it opened in 1995 in Dupont Circle, providing the area with a range of world-class DJ talent and live music.

Nouri said he was in negotiations with his landlord about renewing his lease when the pandemic hit — leaving him with a clear choice.

After nearly 25 years, he closed the doors in March 2020, fearing what a post-pandemic market might look like.

Out of 250 businesses in the Dupont Circle area, 25 businesses inside the Business Improvement District closed their doors during the pandemic.

Colleen Hawkinson, executive director of the Dupont Circle BID, said she thinks despite the closures, Dupont Circle was one of the luckier neighborhoods, gaining 10 new businesses during the same time period.

“The recovery has been less painful and quicker than other neighborhoods,” Hawkinson said.

Hawkinson said while many areas across the city suffered due to loss of commuter and tourist revenue, Dupont Circle continued to market to the people who live in the neighborhood.

“Dupont Circle is not just a commercial neighborhood,” Hawkinson said.

Hawkinson said the BID was proactive in helping save the neighborhood by adding streateries that allowed businesses to provide outdoor seating to restaurant diners.

Between October 2020 and September 2021, the neighborhood welcomed two streateries and five other restaurants expanded outdoor dining permits, making the area more appealing for visitors during the pandemic.

When the District lifted its outdoor gathering restrictions earlier this year, Hawkinson said the BID also put on more than 20 outdoor events to increase foot traffic in the neighborhood, benefiting business owners.

While some businesses closed their doors in the wake of the pandemic, others contributed to growth in the area by opening new outlets.

Jason Berry, co-owner of KNEAD Hospitality and Design, owns and operates 13 storefronts across the District, Virginia and Maryland.

Berry’s restaurant Mi Casa was one of the 10 businesses the BID gained, opening in Dupont Circle in June 2021 during the heat of the Delta Variant surge.

Berry said he and his partner had their eyes on the location before the pandemic when they lived a few blocks away from the storefront on Connecticut and R Street.

“It was a place that we always coveted and loved,” Berry said.

When Bareburger went out of business, Mi Casa moved in, filling a need in the community for a sort of “upscale TexMex experience” that offers food from the American Southwest.

Mi Casa provides its customers with an upscale dining experience and a twist between TexMex and American Southwest cuisine. (Courtesy Rey Lopez)

Since they conceptualized the restaurant, Berry said he and his partner have faced numerous challenges, including short staffing and a slower opening process due to increased construction and design time.

Despite the complications during the opening process, Berry said the restaurant has been well received by the community now that it’s open.

“This industry is defined by resilience,” Berry said.

He said opening a restaurant during the pandemic brought a lot of mixed emotions, and is sympathetic to other business owners who struggled.

“It is a big wake-up call to everybody in this industry that no matter how good of a job you do, you never have 100% control of what is going on,” Berry said.

That’s a reality Farid Nouri recognizes.

When he closed Eighteenth Street Lounge, Nouri said he knew he couldn’t operate his business at the full potential with capacity restrictions and routine safety checks. But he kept the possibility of another location.

“I had a lot more options than other businesses in Washington,” Nouri said.

Now that vaccines are available and nightlife is coming back, Nouri has decided he will reopen the lounge in a new location next year after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

The new location of Eighteenth Street Lounge is currently under construction. Owner Farid Nouri said one aspect he is looking forward to is the addition of a rooftop patio. (Heidi Kirk / The Wash)

Nouri emphasized that he will continue to be flexible because of the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, and he doesn’t plan to open the lounge until he can safely and effectively provide the nightlife experience that he thinks the lounge deserves.

Like many business owners, Nouri said the pandemic motivated lots of adjustments for him, but at the end of the day, he is grateful for the opportunity to reopen.

“It ended up changing a lot of things for me,” Nouri said.

Heidi Kirk

Heidi Kirk is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter interested in covering human interest and politics. In the past, Heidi has reported for The Arkansas Traveler, Work It Daily and has held multiple broadcast television internships.

Heidi is currently a graduate student at American University, where she reports for the Investigative Reporting Workshop. She covers Dupont Circle for The Wash.

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