Empty chairs

President Obama’s pledge to embrace the capital’s social life and dine out more often may prove to be a boon for some Washington-area restaurants, but it’s come too late to save several well-known eateries from succumbing to economic indigestion.

The latest victim of the financial meltdown that is crippling every segment of the national economy is the venerable Market Inn, a Capitol Hill landmark that closed its doors on New Year’s Day after 49 years of catering to several generations of lawmakers, aides and lobbyists.

Tucked away in a hard-to-find alcove under the Southwest Freeway and a still-active railroad, just down the street from the Ford House Office Building and the Federal Center Southwest Metro, and about a five-minute walk from the Rayburn Building, the restaurant was so popular with members of Congress in the age before BlackBerrys and iPods that it rang bells to alert members to quorum calls and votes.

The Market Inn’s demise comes on the heels of a host of other recent casualties on the D.C. dining scene, including Gerard’s Place on McPherson Square, Brasserie Les Halles on Pennsylvania Avenue, Butterfield 9 on 14th Street NW, Alison Swope’s Restaurant K and the Fourth Estate, as well as Colvin Run Tavern and the Ritz-Carlton’s Maestro in Tysons Corner. And, just this week, Le Gaulois in Alexandria took advantage of the economic slowdown and closed for renovation until April.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that a number of other restaurants are struggling, including celebrity chef Yannick Cam’s Le Parador and the Caucus Room, both in Penn Quarter. Johnny’s Half Shell on Capitol Hill, which replaced the popular La Colline after it closed in 2006, is holding steady.

Even the huge Inaugural crowds didn’t help most D.C. restaurants ease the pain of the normally slow month of January. Except for high-end eateries near the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, like Charlie Palmer Steak, the Source and the Capital Grille, many restaurants were hampered by street closings and the oppressive security measures.

“All of our clients have cut back,” said Linda Roth of Linda Roth Associates, which represents some of the area’s top restaurants. “The smart restaurants are pumping up their marketing efforts, and everybody is just being a little more mindful of costs.”

Ironically, one of the most talented chefs who suddenly finds himself out of work is Maestro’s Fabio Trabocchi, who took over the kitchen at Manhattan’s three-star Fiamma after Maestro closed, only to have Fiamma close this month.

Trabocchi summed up the gloomy restaurant scene in New York in words that could apply equally to Washington or any other city, telling The New York Times that “there are some tough conditions ahead, and over the next months, it’s going to get worse rather than better.”

However, there are signs that what Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), calls the “Obama bounce” could have a positive effect on the D.C. restaurant scene in the months ahead.

“There’s more optimism than you might think,” said Breaux, noting that Obama has already graced several restaurants with his presence, including visiting Ben’s Chili Bowl with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty; celebrating his wife’s 45th birthday at Todd Gray’s Equinox at Farragut Square; and attending a cocktail reception for new members of Congress and the Chicago press corps at Bobby Van’s Grill on New York Avenue.

And while Obama didn’t take his meals in the LaFayette Restaurant while staying at the Hay-Adams Hotel before his inauguration, he and his family were served up some of the best room-service food in town from the kitchen of Executive Chef Peter Shaffrath.

“President Obama’s embrace of Washington has definitely been good for Washington restaurants,” said Breaux. “While the numbers remain pretty constant as far as closures and openings, there are a lot of success stories.”

Breaux cites the fact that two of the area’s most exalted chefs, Jonathan Krinn and Ris Lacoste, are about to open new restaurants.

Krinn, who won rave reviews from this critic and others after launching 2941 in Falls Church in 2005, has teamed up with Jon Mathieson, his chef de cuisine at 2941, to open Inox Restaurant at Tysons Corner next month. Fans of 2941 will be glad to learn that Krinn’s father, Malvin, will continue to provide the delicious breads he made for 2941.

As for Lacoste, who made Georgetown’s 1789 restaurant a favorite of the culinary cognoscenti from 1995 to 2005, she’s preparing to open her own restaurant this spring at 1101 23rd St. NW, in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel complex, after a two-year planning process.

“I think we’re more fortunate in this metropolitan area than most cities,” said the ever-optimistic Breaux. “There’s definitely been an Obama bounce, and I think we’ll see a resurgence of restaurants in 2009.”

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