By Alexa Epitropoulos | firstname.lastname@example.org
The concept for Del Ray’s Evening Star evolved from a law school assignment.
Michael Babin was taking a class on small business law while a student
at Georgetown University in the 1990s. His grade was based on writing a business plan, so he found a real-world application: a space at 2000 Mount Vernon Ave. that was being vacated by longtime occupant The Snuggery Café.
By the time he had written a business plan for his supposedly hypothetical restaurant, Babin found himself thinking more and more about how the concept could work. His then-wife, Stephanie Babin, was excited about the concept. They were Del Ray residents, and they wanted to be part of the neighborhood’s growth, which was gaining momentum in the late 90s, after St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub opened down the street.
“St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub had just opened when we first started talking about opening. It was the first place in the neighborhood where people really wanted to go,” Babin said.
The Babins and a third partner, Christi Hart, decided to give it a try. Their new restaurant, Evening Star, opened its doors in 1997. The restaurant celebrated 20 years in business with a block party on Saturday, filled with live music, barbecue and beer.
“When I started working on the [law school] paper, I certainly didn’t anticipate the direction things would go,” Michael Babin said. “But that was the beginning of it.”
When Evening Star opened, Del Ray was still a neighborhood in flux economically.
Evening Star and St. Elmo’s became pillars of the revitalization taking place along Mount Vernon Avenue. That was at a time when crime was still high and when the Babins thought twice about raising children in the neighborhood. That would soon change.
“The seeds of it were already there, but we thought a business like the Evening Star could really provide for the community to provide that third place, that place outside of work and home where people meet and get together and where a community starts to become a more self-conscious place where all of these people know each other,” Babin said. “It was really amazing to be in the middle of that and kind of helping it along.”
Nora Partlow, who opened St. Elmo’s in 1996 with business partner Scott Mitchell, has a unique perspective on the Evening Star, having worked as a waitress and bartender at its predecessor Snuggery and later becoming its neighbor.
She knows firsthand how hard it was to turn around the neighborhood.
After working at Snuggery for four years and then at Bread & Chocolate, Partlow was approached by Mitchell, who had recently purchased 2300 Mount Vernon Ave. and wanted to convert it into a coffee shop.
The concept aligned well with Partlow’s previous plans to open a diner.
Partlow recalls moving into a building that was “practically abandoned.” Combine that with a neighborhood that hadn’t emerged from its down period yet, and people were skeptical that the concept could succeed there.
“Everyone was in disbelief. All the people I went to for advice, they said ‘are you crazy? You’re opening up there? There’s just junkies and streetwalkers. There’s nothing there. You’ll never make it.’” Partlow said. “The people who I thought were going to back me [tried to talk] me out of it.”
Partlow and Mitchell, however, had a vision of providing something new that filled a need in the neighborhood.
“We knew there were really good people who wanted a change and they wanted something nice,” Partlow said. “We were opening an upscale coffee shop in a time when that was really unheard of, because we came on the coattails of Starbucks.”
When St. Elmo’s opened, it was immediately successful, Partlow said.
“Because of the demand in Del Ray for a coffee shop or an alternative from a honky tonk kind of bar, we were successful from day one. We actually had lines,” Partlow said. “We opened in April and by December we had already expanded another thousand square feet.”
St. Elmo’s proved a harbinger of Del Ray’s potential, Partlow said.
“Once that happened, it brought notice to other people, who thought ‘if a coffee shop can make it, we can too,’” Partlow said.
“Very quickly, you could see these people coming to St. Elmo’s and the Evening Star people, Stephanie and Michael and Christi, we knew because they were neighborhood people.”
By that time, Partlow’s former employer the Snuggery was experiencing a
decline in business. By the time the space was on the market, the Babins were ready to take over.
“[The Snuggery’s] business was going down. They were old style and they didn’t have the vision that the Babins had of attracting other people,” Partlow said.
Once Evening Star moved in, Del Ray’s renaissance was in full swing. Soon, Barbara Mancini opened Mancini’s Café & Bakery, the space that Junction Bakery and Bistro now occupies, and Fireflies opened nearby in October 2002.
Partlow said Evening Star has had a commitment to the neighborhood, even when it wasn’t necessary for their bottom line.
“They’ve hung in there, which is very important. As they grew, they could have said ‘we’re doing much better in D.C., we’re doing much better financially somewhere else,’” Partlow said. “Since they didn’t own the building [until recently], they could have picked up and left.”
Instead, Evening Star grew alongside the neighborhood. Its menu started
out with southern and Cajun inspirations, drawing from the Babins’ Louisiana roots, something new for Del Ray. It didn’t take the restaurant long to expand.
About a year after opening, their landlord presented them with a new opportunity: The convenience store next to Evening Star was moving out and the Babins had right of first refusal.
The Babins welcomed the chance to take over the space. The convenience store had long attracted a crowd that spent days drinking in front of it and hurling comments at those passing by. Babin described the payphone in front of the building as a hub for illicit activities.
“It wasn’t because we had a brilliant plan, but we wanted to control it,” Babin said. “It contributed to what we were trying to do and what other businesses like St. Elmo’s were trying to do.”
The space soon became Planet Wine, which now serves an array of wine and beer selections. The payphone, needless to say, was removed.
Over the years, the restaurant has expanded further, including a bar tucked at the back, the Majestic Lounge. The rooftop restaurant and bar, the No.
9 Lounge, was added about five years ago, while Front Porch at Evening Star, a patio next to Planet Wine that serves drinks and food, opened about four years ago.
Evening Star’s chefs have all made their mark over the years. Michael Babin said the restaurant’s menu has always been chef-driven.
“I think it’s evolved, just because the restaurant was conceived less with a specific menu in mind and more as a place for a chef to have a stage,” Babin said.
“We wouldn’t have allowed a chef to do something that was inaccessible, that was too expensive, or too out there for the community. At the same time, we always had the plan to hire a chef and let them do their thing.”
He credits one of the restaurant’s longest-serving chefs, Brian Hooyenga, with helping the restaurant achieve success. Though Babin had planned to have Hooyenga return for Saturday’s celebration, he recently passed away unexpectedly.
“It’s hard to imagine the Star lasting this long without Brian,” Babin said.
Evening Star’s serving chef Keith Cabot is carrying on the tradition, Babin said.
“He has a commitment to great ingredients. We put the rooftop garden in a couple years before Keith arrived, but he’s really built it into producing a lot of food. That all ends up on the menu of the Star,” Babin said.
Babin’s restaurant group, Neighborhood Restaurant Group, now has 18 eateries across D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
“The company, we’ve always been chef-driven. I can tell you how it hasn’t
happened: It hasn’t happened because we [developed] a concept and we open 20 of them,” Babin said. “We’ve done it by hiring great people, talented people that
we love to work with and, gradually, when they do a great job in a role, whether they’re a chef or a manager, we start talking about a new project.”
“We discover a neighborhood that we really love and we really want to do something in,” Babin said. “With the combination of a talented professional we love working with and a neighborhood we really like, it all comes together. It’s been really organic.”
The restaurant group’s leadership hasn’t, however, forgotten where it started for them. Babin says founding the restaurant led to countless friendships in Del Ray.
“It’s been really amazing in an age when people aren’t as connected to their neighborhood and the people who live around them, we’ve been really lucky that the restaurant has been such a big part of the community and allowed us and
our team to really get to know people and make relationships that have lasted,” Babin said.
Don’t be surprised if there’s more to Evening Star’s story. It’s likely, Babin says, not the last expansion for 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., which they now own.
“It’s the only one of our properties that we operate in that we actually own, and that’s really great because it gives us all kinds of flexibility,” Babin said. “I think there will be more chapters in the history of the Star. We’re looking right now at what we might be able to do to the building, to the space next to where Front Porch is. We’re thinking about how we can add more food and beverage dynamism to what’s happening there and grow it.”
“The Star is really, for me and for a lot of the people who matter most to me, it’s where so many good things started.”