The warm butter-yellow interior with artfully placed black-and-white photos of old Anacostia (which used to be called "Uniontown,") has a homey familiarity to it.
The area now known as the Anacostia historic district was once among the first suburbs in the District of Columbia. In 1854, it was incorporated as Uniontown and was designated mainly for Washington's working class, many of whom were employed across the river at the Navy Yard. Because of its once isolated location outside of the real city, property was both inexpensive and attractive. But the initial subdivision of 1854 carried a caveat; it prohibited the sale, rental or lease of property to anyone of African or Irish descent. The "sage of Anacostia" abolitionist Frederick Douglass changed all that when he purchased Cedar Hill, the estate once owned by the developer of Uniontown, in 1877 and lived there until he died in 1895. The home is still maintained as a historical site in Anacostia, and other turn-of-the century Victorian style houses in the area has made the neighborhood attractive to new homeowners who then patronize Uniontown Bar and Grill, turning it into the local watering hole.
Eisha and Lawrence weren't locals from around the block, but had heard about Uniontown through friends, so the newlyweds from Fort Washington dropped in for a pre-theater bite. Thirty-three-year-old Eisha sipped on her Blue Monkey, commenting that the eatery was "nice, small and quiet," despite the crowd gathered in front of one of the large plasma televisions broadcasting a basketball game. "We've seen louder." But the couple, who are parents of five children, were both originally from Southeast, so coming back was a nostalgic return to the place of their childhoods. "I adapted to where my wife was living," said 38-year-old Lawrence. "We are socially compromised living in the 'burbs," he commented while noshing on some Louisiana wings and Crab Dip. "We like living in Fort Washington, but it's good to come to DC to socialize."
Hometown Girl Makes Good
Uniontown Bar and Grill has enjoyed its position, conveniently located within walking distance to the Anacostia metro station, and has stayed the course under the hands-on direction of owner Natasha Dasher. A petite woman who looks much younger than her 35 years, Dasher is herself a returned Washingtonian, having grown up in Southwest before moving to Houston. When she decided to come back to Washington to start a business, it was important that she locate it in a place of need, Ward 8, where unemployment is 26 percent eleven of her twenty-one Staff members are from Ward 8 and she works with DC Empowerment for At Risk Teens to make sure she is giving back to the neighborhood that so warmly welcomed her business. How much they welcomed Uniontown came as a surprise to Dasher.
"When I started the business, I thought it would be a neighborhood bar where people would stop in. I grew up in Southwest, and my mother would go to Pier 1 once or twice a week, and all her neighbors would be there. They would do happy hour, have a drink and that's what it was. People knew each other, and all their kids had grown up together. That's how I envisioned this place to be," she said, taking stolen moments from frequent knocks on her office door, a small room in the back of the restaurant which was more the size of a storage closet.
"I had no idea what would happen. But the market said there are more than 8,000 people who travel this road daily. I should have listened to the market!" Ironically, Dasher's background is in marketing and general contracting. "When I did my business plan and presented it to the building's owner, I thought I might get one-fourth of that traffic," she adds, remembering that she anticipated a rough first year, and made sure she had her capital in order to face a profit-less first six months.
"I had all the bill money to be ready for that. Now I have sticker shock because it is everybody; regulars and a lot of repeat business. I would like to say it was the media, but it is really word-of-mouth and really people who live in the community. People in the area that walk in, they come back for happy hour and they set up meetings. I have had several book clubs; the Sierra Club and garden clubs. Today, we had a table of GSA team workers who are building the Department of Homeland Security campus. They are all here!"
And even those who did not like their first experience, she exclaimed, will come back for a second try. Dasher noted that at times, like during happy hour, it is too crowded. "I did obtain the second floor, but I wanted to wait to expand. We wanted to let a council member move in, but by week two, people were asking when we were moving upstairs," she said. "During a recession, it's hard to say that my volume is that much. They (the community) were completely ready when we opened. In the ANC meetings, they (community leaders) noted that this business is what they really wanted. People had to go over to Barracks Row," she said. "Is it ever going to die down? I don't think so."
A Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name
The fare at Uniontown is simple, and fresh. Sandwiches, salads and appetizers serve as the foundation for a happy hour that features innovative colorful cocktails like the French Maid Fetish, a blend of vodka, pineapple juice and raspberry Chambord; or the Blueberry Cobbler, which takes blueberry vodka, vanilla vodka and blueberry juice and crowns it with a rim of graham cracker crumbs. The website describes Uniontown as featuring a "menu infused with Cajun style cuisine and all natural ingredients. Pairing a natural ingredient menu with a vibrant atmosphere brings an urban inspired ambiance with deliciously fresh foods."
Fifty-seven-year-old musician Medoune from Senegal lives in Anacostia, and said he comes in three times a week, "or until my pocket says 'No'. The food is good, the place is clean and people need to feel like there is some place nice to go, a place for regular people," said the drummer, who spent 18 years working with hometown African dance company, Kankouran, and now works in the schools teaching kids how to drum, along with math and science. "Nothing like this has ever happened here," he said over a plate of wings with sweet potato fries, his favorite along with the crab cakes. "We want more of this."
As Dasher stepped out of the office to check on a ruckus in the dining room, she saw one of her regulars and gave her a big hug. A few moments later, a middle-aged woman in a fur-trimmed coat came in looking for a place to sit, but every barstool and table was full.
Marcia, a resident of Anacostia, sat at her table alone, sipping on a glass of white wine while waiting for her order. "I come in once or twice a week," she said, "I am a resident and I want to support the business. I am really excited about this type of business, and I love the cocktails. You just come here and people know you. It's our own Cheers (the fictitious Boston bar from the television series). It's a nice gathering place for the community, and I am a regular. Definitely!"
Uniontown Bar and Grill is located at 2200 Martin Luther King Ave SE. The now famous Happy Hour is between 4-7 p.m. on weekdays, and the restaurant closes at 9 p.m.