Chew on this: As landmark D.C. eatery Eli’s closes, Char Bar opens

Owner Sima Soumekhian, left, and Rabbi Levi Shemtov point out the mezuzah on the new Char Bar kosher restaurant. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Owner Sima Soumekhian, left, and Rabbi Levi Shemtov point out the mezuzah on the new Char Bar kosher restaurant. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Levi Shemtov

Eli’s – a place to see and be seen in our nation’s capital. The kosher restaurant that dished out New York-style sandwiches, burgers, steaks and salads for the past 10 years shut its doors at 1253 20th St., N.W., last week.

But fear not, owner Sima Soumekhian may have closed one of the only kosher restaurants in Washington, D.C., but he just opened one of the only kosher restaurants there as well. The end of Eli’s marks the beginning of Char Bar, 2142 L St., which some already are referring to as an up-scale Eli’s.

As Eli’s regular William Daroff explained, “Eli’s was the place to see and be seen in Jewish Washington. On any given day you’d see local rabbis, visiting dignitaries, Supreme Court justices,
lobbyists, Knesset members, tourists and the whole mosaic that makes up Jewish Washington.”

Washington Jewish Week reached out to other Eli’s regulars for their gustatory memories. Here is a sample of their responses:

• Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad)
I sat in the corner, on the left of where you walk in. I sat there every time.

I got to meet a lot of people for the first time. It’s where the Jewish Washington world pulsates at lunch, and the community comes back at dinner.

(Although he usually ordered salad, the menu item Shemtov Ribeye was named for him.)

• William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America
When I went vegan four years ago, Eli’s, which after all was a kosher delicatessen, went along with my dietary change by adding a veggie burger to the menu. They called it the “William’s Burger,” a play on my name as well as the heavily-Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood. Having a veggie burger named after me on the Eli’s menu was very cool. To be included with such greats of the Washington community as Rabbis Shemtov and [Barry] Freundel, the only two others with named items, was an honor.

Having the William’s Burger on the menu also made clear that one could be a vegan and still be included in the kosher deli scene – in the big Jewish tent. It’s saying: you can hang out in Jewish delis, and still participate in “Meatless Monday.”

There was a time when I would post on Facebook and Twitter that I was eating lunch at Eli’s. It was a time when I would eat there at least four times a week, if not more. So it sort of became a joke among my social media followers about my being at Eli’s, which I played along with by being sure to “check in” at Eli’s at every opportunity. When I would mention eating at any other place, inevitably someone would comment, “Eli’s is jealous” or “Is Eli’s closed?”

• Rabbi Jack Moline, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council
Just like memories, Eli’s isn’t gone. Just relocated. My most memorable visit was on the day I met a local Jewish professional for lunch. He [previously had] recruited me and my congregation for a new project that was being promoted thanks to a large pledge from a generous donor. I needed to agree to put up what was a significant amount of ‘good faith’ money – significant because it was not budgeted for the synagogue’s program year. As we waited for our meals (mine: the Western burger), we talked about a breaking news story. It seems a trusted investment manager named Bernie Madoff had just confessed to running a Ponzi scam.

As we ate, a group of young men and women took their places around the tables in the center of the restaurant, presided over by their host, [U.S. Supreme Court] Justice Antonin Scalia. You never knew what would happen at Eli’s.

• Steven Mostofsky, judge on the New York City Civil Court
I was in Washington for a meeting. Our group was going to Eli’s for lunch. A few months earlier, I became a judge in New York. My friend called me while I was on the way by cab and told [me] to hurry. Justice Antonin Scalia was sitting next to our table together with [attorneys] Nat and Aliza Lewin. Justice Scalia took a photo with me and agreed to sign it. I display the signed photo in my court chambers.

• Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac
Since I live in Potomac, I did not get to Eli’s that often. However, I have a number of fond memories of riding my bike downtown with my parents to go see the monuments or sightsee. Since we were on a bike ride, we would get very hungry and Eli’s would always be our pit stop before we returned back to Potomac. They always helped us find a place for our bikes, feed us a scrumptious meal, and then we had enough “fuel” to bike back to Potomac.

• Sarah Stern, founder and president of EMET 
Eli’s became a Washington-Jewish institution. Rabbi Shemtov had his usual table at the door, where he would greet everyone (and which I used to refer to as his “office”). I would meet everyone there from Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer to David Makovsky from [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] to Jonathan Schanzer of [Foundation for Defense of Democracies], to my neighbors and friends from Kemp Mill. I ordered their California Salad so much, the waitresses started calling it “Sarah’s salad.” I will miss it, because it signals the end of an era, but to be really honest, Char Bar has a much cooler ambiance, and I think the food and selection are far better, as well.

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