Starting from nothing was certainly a challenge for pioneering 14th Street restaurant Cafe Saint-Ex. But perhaps the greatest impact the Rammy Award-winning neighborhood gathering spot has had is the community building its done — both among its growing band of loyal followers and former staff who continue to drive forward D.C.’s hospitality scene — over the past 15 years.
When Saint-Ex opened in 2003, its block of 14th and T streets NW was barely a blip on the D.C. dining radar. There were no artisan ice cream shops or luxury condos or crowds clamoring for global small plates and homemade Pop Tarts.
Venturing out to experience the restaurant’s regionally inspired cuisine or sip a pint of specialty beer from the bar meant passing plenty of unseemly storefronts on the journey.
“It was a pretty forgotten area. There were a couple of restaurants,” says Jonathan Fain, a longtime Saint-Ex employee who is now a manager and part owner of the business. “Most people didn’t go past 16th Street.”
Saint-Ex took up residence it what had previously been an Ethiopian restaurant and became a neighborhood source for gourmet burgers, mussels, pastas, and more. It resonated with locals who wanted a solid meal that didn’t require traveling to more popular parts of town such as Dupont Circle or Georgetown.
“There were definitely people in the area who had bought houses and were trying to start a life, and what we provided was a place for them to go and get a good meal and not have to worry about the seedy element,” Fain says.
A decade and a half later, the restaurant remains a go-to for District residents — and now out-of-towners, too. And despite it’s relatively small footprint and casual bistro fare, Saint-Ex’s influence has rippled throughout the D.C. dining scene over the years.
In 2005, Saint-Ex welcomed Barton Seaver as its executive chef. Seaver ushered in an emphasis on regional cooking and local sourcing that’s become standard practice in many D.C. restaurants today. Seaver left the restaurant in 2007 and is now an author and program director for the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at Princeton University. Fain says the restaurant’s focus has evolved since the early days, but points to sister restaurant Bar Pilar (1833 14th Street NW) as carrying on the locavore tradition.
Other notable Saint-Ex alums include Justin Bittner (District Distilling Co.), Adam Bernbach (beverage director at 2 Birds 1 Stone, Doi Moi, Proof), and Jessica Klienmann (co-owner of Lyman’s Tavern).
“It’s really awesome to see people that work for you flourish and open their own thing,” Fain says. “I can look around and see the impact of Saint-Ex being open for this long.”
More recently, Saint-Ex has faced the intense competition and development along the 14th Street corridor and in D.C. more broadly. Fain is fine with that though, noting that competition forces businesses to stay on top of their game and become better. Fain credits much of the sustained success to a commitment to hospitality-driven service and an ability to stay flexible.
“You know that at midnight you can go to Saint-Ex and get a drink,” he says. “We don’t close early.”
He recalls an evening during the “Snowmaggedon” blizzard of 2010 during which the back of the house flipped burgers until the pantry ran out of bread.
“We’ve been a place that’s small enough that we can actually pioneer things and try new things,” Fain says. That adaptability includes regularly revamping the cocktail menu or hosting lively dance nights at its Gate 54 lounge downstairs. Saint-Ex’s current chef, Joel Hatton, recently extended brunch from Friday through Sunday.
So while there have been some chef changes and menu tweaks along the way, Fain seems happy that the core of Saint-Ex remains much as it was in 2003. Even as 14th Street continues to transform, don’t expect a whole lot to change as the restaurant sets its sights on another 15 years in business.
“We are who we are,” Fain says.