By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
When Carluccio’s shuttered its Old Town location at 100 King St. overnight on June 20, it seemed to confirm the suspicion those familiar with the building’s history already had.
The building, which boasts 6,500 square feet, a marquee address and a site one block from Alexandria’s waterfront, had to be cursed.
No restaurant has lasted long in the historic building, despite a variety of concepts occupying it in the nearly half-century it’s been used as a restaurant. Carluccio’s was just the curse’s latest victim.
History of instability
The building itself dates to 1871,when the Corn and Produce Exchange replaced an older
building that had housed its grain and produce market at the corner of King and Union streets.
The new building, designed by local architect Benjamin F. Price and named the Commercial Exchange, opened to the public in February 1872.
Though the Exchange would eventually close around the turn of the 19th century, a grocery store run by Noble Lindsey in the first floor of the
space thrived. By 1907, it was known as the “center of the wholesale district.” Eventually, Noble Lindsey would become the Lindsey-Nicholson Corporation, which by that point sold automotive parts.
The Virginia Public Service Company occupied the building in the 1930s and 1940s. There’s little known about the building between 1950 and 1970, but the Landini Brothers opened Pellicano in the building in 1976 and sold their interest in 1979, when they rented the building across the street at 115 King St. That building still operates as the Landinis’ eponymous restaurant.
One-hundred King became the Heidleburg Restaurant, which served German food, in the 1980s. The Giovanni family, which founded The Fish Market across King street, operated two restaurant concepts in the building: The Gaslight and southwestern restaurant The Alamo, which opened in the 1990s and closed in 2000. Rapidly rising rent forced The Alamo’s closure, Glenda Giovanni told the Alexandria Times in 2008.
The building was vacant for six years before real estate investor Peter Mallios and restaurateur Stephen Tedeschi opened 100 King in 2006 as a New American bistro, but the restaurant closed two years later in 2008. Thai restaurant Red Curry, owned by the same team as Mai Thai at 6 King St., moved into the building in 2010, but ceased operation in 2012.
When Carluccio’s expressed interest in the building, however, it seemed the building’s fortunes might shift: Perhaps this would be the concept to finally turn its troubled history around.
A new hope
When the upscale Italian market concept announced plans for a move to the building in 2014, news outlets speculated whether the restaurant, which was founded in London in 1999 and has expanded to several locations across the United Kingdom, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, would be the restaurant to break the mold.
After extensive yearlong renovations, the restaurant opened to much fanfare – and media attention – in May 2015. Franchise founder Antonio Carluccio himself attended the ribbon cutting, along with numerous city leaders including then-Mayor Bill Euille.
“They opened Carluccio’s and even the big owner from Europe came,” said Jay Roberts, the writer behind Old Town blog Jaybird’s Jottings, who went to the restaurant on opening day. “It was like, ‘This is it – the curse is over.’”
Two years later, though, the restaurant’s sparkle had dimmed, with reviewers on Yelp, Facebook and Google frequently leaving one-star reviews bemoaning slow service and uneven food quality. Carluccio’s quietly and abruptly closed its Bethesda location and 100 King St. this June.
Even though Carluccio’s lack of success reflects a company-wide problem, there’s a number of factors that limit restaurants’ success at trying their luck in the building, Alexandria Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joe Haggerty said.
“Just from a practical point of view, it is a big space, which means you’re paying a really high rent,” Haggerty said. “You have to have very, very strong sales to survive in that location.”
There’s also the matter of the layout. The kitchen space is upstairs, presenting a challenge for restaurants.
While other restaurants in the area have flourished, including the Landini Brothers
restaurant, the Fish Market, Il Porto, Bugsy’s Pizza and The Wharf across the street, no restaurant in recent memory has seemed able to last past two years at 100 King.
Haggerty said size may be to blame for some of the restaurants’ lack of success.
“There’s a lot of foot traffic there. If you look around, the other restaurants are doing well,” Haggerty said. “But their actual physical businesses are a little smaller. They’re paying less. Rent is one of the biggest challenges.”
Douglas Development, a D.C.-based company that owns myriad other King Street commercial properties, purchased 100 King St. in April 2009 for
$2.5 million. It’s unclear what the developer charges in rent, and Douglas Development didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Bill Reagan, executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, cited the usual suspects as obstacles to 100 King St.’s success, including a dearth of parking and the building’s unusual layout.
“My observation is that it’s been a very difficult building from a layout perspective,” Reagan said. “I don’t know what stress that puts on the business itself.”
Still, Reagan says, the building should be able to draw customers.
“The location should, by all rights, be ideal,” Reagan said. “It should be very popular.”
A silver lining
At June 24’s city council public hearing, Mayor Allison Silberberg addressed Carluccio’s closing as council discussed arguments for and against a proposed business improvement district for Old Town.
“In so many ways, the City of Alexandria is really on an uptick,” she said. “I go to so many ribbon cuttings and ground breakings, it’s hard to keep up.
“So, yes, a number of businesses have closed, but let’s not forget that each one has had its own story,” Silberberg said. “A lot of these storefronts that are empty, there are plans to fill them. Carluccio’s is a story unto itself.”
There are some signs of that speculated promise. The renovations Carluccio’s put into the building, including a complete interior redesign and the installation of a new kitchen, make the space an attractive venture for interested tenants.
Haggerty hopes a new tenant can break the two-year curse – though he said it will take someone with the “financial stability to give it a go.”
“We want to see it filled and we want to see that whole district continue to grow,” Haggerty said. “We need to keep that momentum going.”