One kosher eatery closing, another opening


The Char Bar, a kosher restaurant specializing in meat cooked over an open grill, is expected to open in D.C. as early as the beginning of July.

Its grand opening at 2142 L Street also marks the end of Eli’s Restaurant, which has been dishing out hamburgers, hot dogs and corned beef sandwiches since 2004. Both Eli’s and Char Bar have the same owners and operate under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington.

Currently Eli’s, on 20th Street, and the Distrikt Bistro, inside the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, are the only two kosher restaurants operating in D.C. under the Rabbinical Council, but the Bistro has been closed since last month while its kitchen undergoes major repairs.

There is a great deal of speculation among its customers on when, if ever, it will reopen. The message on Distrikt Bistro’s website states that it is closed until further notice, and its telephone message says the lunch and dinner restaurant “will be closed indefinitely.” Calls to owner Michael Medina were not returned.

Newly opened Soupergirl on M Street also is kosher, under the rabbinical supervision of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue.

While the number of kosher restaurants may not be changing, big changes are in the works. Eli’s lost its lease and the building is scheduled for demolition. Rather than close it down, owners Sina Soumekhian and Marc Zweben will relocate it and offer an expanded menu under the new Char Bar brand, Soumekhian said.

Char Bar will feature prime meats with lots of salads and appetizers and breads, Soumekhian said. He described Eli’s as more of a deli and Char Bar as more of a grilled and smoked meats restaurant. He currently is working on the new menu, which he promised would be different and fun. Plans now are for it to open in July, and Eli’s would then be closed the following week.

Char Bar will be slightly larger than Eli’s at 3,000-square-feet, seating about 75 people, Soumekhian said. There will be a private dining room. Eventually, he hopes to open a wine bar there that will feature Israeli wines.

Prices at the new eatery will range from $7 to $11 for appetizers, $10 to $19 for salads, $10 to $15 for sandwiches and $20 to $34 for entrees, Soumekhian said. There also will be a food market and a take-out area.

Soumekhian and Zweben also operate Blue Star Kosher in North Bethesda and soon will be opening a dairy cafe inside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville. It will feature a simple menu of coffee, bagels, light sandwiches, salads and yogurt, Soumekhian said. He is most excited about a frozen bar that is nutritional, pareve and gluten-free made by Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Company, which will be served in the cafe. The cafe is expected to open later this month.

When asked if he was overcommitting himself this summer, Soumekhian just laughed.

Kosher restaurants come with additional costs, like having a mashgiach and more expensive meats and other kosher products. Then there is the problem of having to close during Shabbat, losing much of the nonobservant weekend food crowd.

For a kosher restaurant to be very successful, it has to attract not just the observant Jewish diner but also anyone who wants to eat out, regardless of religion, Soumekhian said. “You want to try to be as inclusive as possible so the kosher and the nonkosher people want to come and feel like they are getting a good meal.”

D.C. has never been a hotbed of kosher restaurants, with only three or four operating at the same time. The number of kosher restaurants in suburban Maryland is greater, as is the variety, including Chinese, meat and dairy.

One kosher-style restaurant in D.C., DGS Delicatessen on Connecticut Avenue, has gained a substantial following.

The goal was to have a modern deli, with the meats made in-house, and serve alcohol, explained Brian Zipin, a partner. “It was never given any serious thought,” he said when asked if DGS ever planned to be kosher. DGS brines its meats for seven or eight days, so don’t think the deli just wanted to take an easier route, he said. But as for kosher, “with what we wanted to accomplish, it just didn’t fit,” he said.

Then there are the D.C. restaurants that try and target the Jewish eater, like Firefly on New Hampshire Avenue, which features a family recipe for chicken matzah ball soup.
“What a shame there isn’t more,” said Steve Rabinowitz, founder of Rabinowitz Communications, adding, Washington, D.C., has “a tortured history of little or no long-term success” with kosher restaurants.

David Dahan knows all about that. He’s owned several over the years, including L’Etoile, an upscale French restaurant that opened in 1999 and closed about three years later after losing its lease. Dahan also ran a restaurant at the DCJCC and the Pomegranate Restaurant in Potomac.

It is not easy to own a successful, fine dining kosher restaurant in D.C., Dahan readily admitted. First, he noted, “The prices you start off with are not competitive prices.” Also, restaurants often make most of its profits at the bar, and “my brothers are not heavy drinkers,” he said.

In New York, people don’t think twice about spending $50 for a meat dinner, but with “five kids and a wife, they cannot go out and spend $350 for dinner,” Dahan said of Washingtonians.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served prison time on mail fraud, bribery and tax evasion charges, had two kosher eateries, the elegant Signatures and a deli, Stacks. Neither of them exist anymore.

To Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president and director of the Washington office of American Friends of the Lubavitch, “the dream of many kosher restaurants is not a fantasy or an illusion. It could happen.”

He believes several kosher restaurants could be successful in the District, especially when he considers that the Jewish population in the city easily doubles during the work day. Eli’s conversion to Char Bar “is actually a sign of success,” he said, adding, “No one does it better than Sina.”

Shemtov said he knows of many people who have expressed interest in opening a kosher restaurant in the District, especially a dairy or sushi eatery. But more than interest is needed, he acknowledged.

However, he continues to be optimistic. “Let’s hope that Char Bar is so successful, it brings copycats.”

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