One thing's changed permanently for Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley in the year since Roofers Union opened in Adams Morgan. That would be the striking half-sleeve tattoo she added from a tattoo artist at Tattoo Paradise, which has a branch right down the street from Roofers Union.
Meek-Bradley's got her Adams Morgan neighborhood haunts down now: her favorite bar besides Roofers Union is a divey spot called Angle. "It’s a really great area. You feel like you’re in a neighborhood. You don’t feel like you’re in downtown D.C.," she said.
But the adjustment for the team behind Ripple to opening a spot right on 18th Street — in the home of former party spot The Reef — was a bit of a culture shock at first, coming from sedate Cleveland Park. Meek-Bradley and Roofers Union manager and beer monger Dave Delaplaine shared some of their craziest stories involving fire extinguishers and stolen jumpsuits, what it's been like to balance two restaurants and what they learned from the neighborhood that caused the menu to evolve.
How has it been balancing between the two restaurants?
Marjorie Meek-Bradley: It's been interesting. It's been good. I think in the beginning I was a little nervous about it, but they're so close together, it makes it a lot easier. I know a lot of chefs with restaurants that are spread all over the city and even to Virginia and Maryland. For me it's nice, I was at Ripple this morning and then I was able to come over here. It's not too hard to bounce between the two, which is convenient.
How do you get between the two?
The L2 is a great bus between the two restaurants. I've become friends with some of those drivers. I walk during the summer a little bit. I tried biking. I'm scared to ride a bike in D.C. I'm nervous. I usually take the bus between the two, I'll walk sometimes, or if I'm in a hurry, I'll take a taxi. It's a mile and half, it's not a lot at all. I can be at the other place in under 10 minutes.
Do you have regulars that go to both places?
Yeah. I think definitely. We have a lot of Ripple regulars who live up there and have started to discover down here, especially on the weekdays. People still have that impression of Adams Morgan as a college neighborhood, but definitely when you are here on a Monday or Tuesday night, it's a completely different world, which I think is a lot of fun.
Do you think you're drawing in the late night crowd or you are an alternative to it?
That's an interesting question. I think we are drawing a new kind of late night crowd. Friday, Saturday, it might get a little crazy but I think especially on weeknights we're attracting a new group of people. I know a lot of our bartenders here have been bartenders in the city for a long time, so either their regulars or their friends come in late night. A lot of industry people late night. We try to offer something a little different than some other places along the street.
Was your vision always to be a neighborhood place?
Yeah, I think we really wanted to embrace the neighborhood. You have places like Cashion's that I think has been here for over 20 years at this point and is in an institution, and Mintwood — that is such a wonderful place. We wanted to bring that same kind of feeling and vibe over to 18th Street.
I think people think that it's just all Jumbo Slice and sandwiches and falafel. But I think we really wanted to have that neighborhood feel. We do half-price wine night on Wednesday. That's a lot of fun. We get a good neighborhood group for that. And on Thursday, kids eat free with an adult. We want to embrace the neighborhood and be that place that people can go to during a hectic week on Thursday night. You're almost done, you have the kids in tow, we want people to be comfortable.
You've been here a year. Have you seen 18th Street change?
Yeah! I've definitely think there's a huge fluctuation of new places coming in and places that have even been around that have been revamping. Between Donburi down here which is awesome, they opened I think a month or two before us, and now the new restaurant BUL from the Sakuramen people just opened up. So I think there really is kind of an influx of new people and new restaurants. It's a lot of fun. I love it. I lived in Philly before here, and the first time I came to Adams Morgan, I felt like I was in South Philly, which I thought was awesome. There's such a good personality to the neighborhood and I think it kind of is growing up a bit.
Have you changed anything about the menu in the past year?
Yeah. I think we've kind of grown with the neighborhood ourselves. In the beginning, I really had a big focus on bar foods and fun takes on it and making everything from scratch and still sourcing it from local farms and such but that fun bar food vibe. Which we still have a bit of, but we kind of expanded to having more American comfort food. We have things like the duck pot pie on the menu.
I think that in the beginning, I thought "Oh, it would be fun, it will be bar food." And I learned that there was more to this neighborhood than that, like I learned that while being here too. It's not just a bar street. People wanted more so we added to the menu a bit.
Like for weekday diners?
Yeah, for Tuesday, Wednesday night. As good as the fried chicken thigh sandwich is, you can't really eat it ever night. We've tried to expand upon that. It's funny, I think sometimes you can get stuck in your head a little bit. It got heavy. I realized we needed to bring a little more selection to the restaurant.
Is there anything you would never take off the menu?
There's definitely a few staples. The fried chicken thigh sandwich is definitely one of our most popular items. It's one of my favorites. The sausages themselves change, but there's always going to be at least three housemade sausages on the menu. The wings are another one, I think I'd be fired if I took those off the menu. The pig ear salad has been on since the opening. I'd never take that off just because it would make me sad to take it off. I love the pig ears.
You opened in February. Was opening the patio a game-changer too?
Yes, that was a bit of a whirlwind. It's so exciting doing a new restaurant. You get so excited and pumped for it and sometimes the reality can just crush down on you a little bit. It's a good thing. It was a very hectic May and June. There was a lot going on, the World Cup and so many different things going on but it was fun.
My whole thing about this place was that I love both the restaurants, and Ripple is who I've been raised to be as a chef in a way, and this is what I like. I think it's fun. I probably hang out here twice as much as I hang out at Ripple if I'm not working. Definitely a lot in the summer on the roof. The bartenders here, we just have such a good core group of people that have been here since we've opened. It's fun. It kind of feels like family when you open a restaurant with people.
[Dave Delaplaine joins the conversation]
Did it evolve to be a beer restaurant?
Dave Delaplaine: It definitely has. The more beer you buy, the more buying power you have, the more you can get your hands on some really cool stuff. We've definitely been evolving quite a bit. The biggest thing that was a surprise to all of us in having three different floors is cleaning these lines after every beer change. But it's been a lot of fun.
I read on Eater that you were having a problem with people stealing photos off the walls. Did you figure that out?
DD: We figured out how to fasten them to the wall a little better. We've had one of these jumpsuits disappear.
MMB: I just don't understand how they did it without us noticing.
DD: It was very unsafe. They stood on a chair on that table there behind you. They reached up and pull this off.
MMB: How did we not see this happen?
DD: I don't know. It was crazy. I came out and I saw the chair on there. I thought what was going on. You couldn't really tell, is one missing, is one not missing. Later we found the hanger. They pulled it off and ran into the bathroom and put it on. I don't know how our security team missed it.
MMB: Or maybe they took the hanger off and they stuffed it in a bag?
DD: It did happen right around Halloween.
MMB: There was definitely some adventures in the beginning. As much as the neighborhood is evolving, especially during the week, you definitely get the Friday, Saturday night — in the summertime especially — party crowd. Dave and I coming from Ripple in Cleveland Park, it was culture shock. I would read a closing email and be like, "They did what? They took the fire extinguisher and had a party with it?" They set it off a couple times, didn't they, the fire extinguisher?
DD: Somebody actually got arrested for this. He came in from the outside, saw the fire extinguisher and started throwing it up the stairs.
MMB: Someone actually used it though, right?
DD: They thought it would be funny. It actually makes a big mess. It's ashy, it's like did something light on fire, what's going on?
But somebody else just came off the street, threw it up the stairs and did a little bit of damage. It wasn't that traumatic for us, but the guy then went outside and got in a fight with a police officer and ended up getting arrested for that. That was really not his best day.
Definitely like you were saying, it's great to see that the neighborhood is coming around. Coming in, our goal was not to be the place that had shot specials. You have places on the block that still do that, and some of them are awesome dive bars that will be here forever, and that's what gives the neighborhood personality. But it's really important for us, being new to represent, hey it's okay to go out and drink to enjoy something good, rather than just to get drunk. It's okay to have a good time, have a good bite. Being as big as we are in this neighborhood to show people that you can have a lot of integrity and do it the right way.
MMB: And I feel a responsibility to the community. Yeah, there is still all those different bars. That's part of the identity of this neighborhood.
But as someone coming in who is new, it's your responsibility to embrace where you are but also help it evolve as a neighborhood together. I think that's what has been fun. I love going to different places around here and hanging out. What is the one here? Angle. That's my favorite one. It's a block down, kind of quiet, super dive-y but I love it. It's a cool place.
There are really fun places on this street to go to and that's part of what Adams Morgan is. Everyone knows each other. Their bartender comes in here, we go in there. It's nice, you know?
What can people expect next from Roofers Union?
DD: Being so big, there's a lot of opportunity for the space.
MMB: We want people to have a good time, because we have three floors we can kind of be adaptable to what people want. Like when we lengthened the menu a little bit and added a little more variety to it. Yeah, I think the chicken sandwich is still the number one seller, but you have a lot of options and I think that's fun...It keeps it interesting for us too. It's easy to get bored.
DD: Two restaurants and you still get bored?
MMB: I know, there is something wrong with me. I was thinking about that the other day. I was talking to someone about this project and I was like, "Yeah, totally!" and then I was like "No. What is wrong with me?"
But it is fun. D.C.'s such a great city to grow and be part of the growth. You just don't want to say no to anything. I've definitely grown to love D.C. It maybe took a little while but it's such a cool city.