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For Montmartre Bistro, Closing Makes More Sense Than Reopening in the COVID-19 Era

The chef at the Capitol Hill stalwart says he doesn’t think customers will be able to relax inside restaurants for a while

Magazine dining column on Montmartre
Inside Montmartre in Capitol Hill
Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post via Getty Images

French bistro Montmartre and sibling spot Seventh Hill Pizza, a respected pair of long-running Capitol Hill restaurants, are permanently closing because the owners do not predict a successful return to business during the COVID-19 crisis.

The restaurants that share an address at 327 Seventh Street SE shut down on March 15, a day before the D.C. dine-in ban went into effect. Co-founder and chef Stephane Lezla says both decided not to serve takeout or delivery so they could keep their staff safe.

“We thought it was the right thing to do,” Lezla says of the closure. “We realized about a month ago the numbers weren’t making sense any more. We thought [the health crisis] would last a few weeks and we would be good to go again.”

The bar will liquidate its entire 500-bottle wine cellar during an al fresco sale today, inviting customers to peruse the French-heavy list outside.

“You’re not ready to close when your house is full,” Lezla says. “We have to clear out the place and get rid of the inventory as much as we can.”

Lezla says dining out is designed to be a relaxing experience, marked by “good food, conversation, and wine,” and he doesn’t see that atmosphere returning for long after restaurants are allowed to host customers again (by June 8 or earlier in the District).

“You’re not supposed to be twitching when someone sneezes behind you,” Lezla says. “I don’t see what’s the point of trying to go out and be stressed.”

Neighborhood regulars flocked to the bistro, an essential venue for the Capitol Hill neighborhood, for reliable versions of mussels, French onion soup, and duck leg confit. Lezla’s popular rabbit leg went on the menu upon opening in 2001, “and never left,” he says. Sautéed calf’s liver was also a destination dish.

“People love it or hate it — but we had a lot of people who loved it,” Lezla says.

He plans to use some proceeds to pay off purveyors that have supported the restaurant since Day One.

“We have bills to pay — we want to leave with a clean slate,” he says.

Lezla reports that a 25-person staff has been able to collect unemployment benefits. Some of the workers had been with Montmartre for its entire run.

The vacancies leave its landlord a 100-seat dining venue. The pair of indoor-outdoor eateries underwent renovations in 2012.

“It’s a loss of everybody,” Lezla says. “It’s a loss for the farmers, rent for the landlord, and loss of income for us and salary of our staff.”

He and his partner cashed out of Seventh Hill Pizza’s other location in the Palisades last fall.

As he sees more restaurants temporarily close due to COVID-19 infections, including hit shared plates newcomer Emilie’s this week, Lezla thinks he made the right move to close.

“People need to realize it’s a matter of life, not money,” he says. “We’re pleased to know everybody was there for us. We were very grateful to serve all of our customers for 20 years.”

In other news...

  • D.C. could make its temporary to-go alcohol law a permanent fixture in D.C. Barred in DC flagged the line inside Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget on Monday. The proposal also would also allow bars and restaurants to start serving at 6 a.m. daily.
  • Logan Circle Thai eatery Baan Thai’s new and much-bigger digs across town (425 I Street NW) will debut on Thursday, June 4, for pickup and delivery for khao soi and frozen lychee cocktails, reports Washingtonian.
  • Popville flagged a new Logan Circle liquor license at 14th and Riggs Street NW for Amazon Retail LLC, described as a full-service grocery store.

Montmartre

327 7th Street SE, Washington DC, DC 20003 Visit Website

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