Hill Restaurant Group has permanently closed Finn McCool’s, the popular two-level Irish pub on Barracks Row that had a long run as a neighborhood go-to for game days, karaoke, and trivia nights.
Managing parter Tom Johnson says another operator has negotiated a new lease the 713 Eighth Street SE with plans to make a few cosmetic changes and open a new bar serving American fare. The hospitality group was also able to get out of its lease for the space that held gay bar Orchid, which HRG closed in 2019 but planned to flip into a high-end steakhouse. It’s now home to a franchise of Extreme Pizza from Bombay Street Food owner Asad Sheikh.
Johnson says his company is losing $60,000 a month just “to get through” the pandemic, largely because D.C. limits indoor dining to 25 percent capacity right now.
Despite a downsized portfolio, Johnson still holds out hope for the neighborhood where HRG continues to run restaurants like beloved dive bar Hawk ‘n’ Dove, Ophelia’s Fish House, Tortuga Caribbean Bar & Grille, and Lola’s cocktail bar. Johnson says the group recently assumed full ownership of Boxcar Tavern, the old English-style staple in Eastern Market. A partner at HRG formerly owned 60 percent.
“We’re sticking with the same menu — it worked well over there and did good numbers. So if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” he says.
Hill says he picked up the aging Barracks Row restaurant group in October 2018 in “a state of disrepair,” noting that one upside of the COVID-19 downturn was getting more time to perform repairs.
“We worked hard to turn all the concepts around and as we were turning that corner, Covid-19 hit everybody hard,” he says. “We had a hard decision to make, continue on or give up and run away. But being stubborn or stupid or both we decided to push on ... with the hopes that when this is over we will be stronger on the other end.”
He says businesses he owns in Florida, which have been allowed to operate at full capacity since late September, are doing swimmingly. A newly remodeled Pompano Beach resort he co-owns is reporting $30,000 days off food and beverage, he says.
In D.C., he plans look to other neighborhoods, like U Street NW, to pick up “one or two” more restaurant spaces.
“I [had] too many place on this street [in Barracks Row],” he says.
Meanwhile, its lone Navy Yard property has big changes to report: Willie’s Brew & Cue closed after Labor Day and reopened this month as Stadium Sports, a bar with lamb lollipops and beet hummus on the menu.
“We felt that we needed to offer a more upscale modern ambience along with a more sophisticated menu to stay competitive,” he says. “Barbecue was too blue collar for the Yards — it got to be too bougie.”
The meaty menu refresh is the first order of business for chef Jay McCarthy, the new culinary director for Hill Restaurant Group. The respected U.S. beef expert was most recently a corporate chef at a dominant restaurant group in Beaver Creek, Colorado.
Now sauces and dressings get made on-site, and Stadium grinds its meat blend and spices for hamburgers. He also relies on its 1,000-pound smoker to prep wings, brisket, ribs, New York strip, and cold smoked barbecue salmon.