The Rape of the Union Station Food Court

Washington DC’s Union Station used to have restaurant services that made “Meet me for lunch [or dinner] at Union Station” a common local saying. On the main floor were several high-toned restaurants. Downstairs, in a former baggage facility, was a food court that featured many locally grown fast-food services, including Indian, Japanese, Italian, and many other ethnic foods, plus a very nice local bakery.

Today, almost all of them are gone, replaced by chains such as Taco Bell and Chipotle’s. Union Station’s finest restaurant has been turned into a Shake Shack. A large part of the downstairs food court has been turned into a Walgreens.

Apparently, back in 2007 the station’s retail leases were taken over by a company called Ashkenazy Acquisitions. Ashhenazy must have decided that chain restaurants paid more than locals. The company ordered the local restaurants, which were regularly paying $16,000 to $20,000 a month to lease their spaces, to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars remodeling. Those that didn’t, which included most of them, were evicted.

Today, all that I could find of non-chain restaurants were ones specializing in crepes, Japanese, and Cajun foods. Meanwhile, it doesn’t appear to me that the restaurants that replaced them spent any money on remodeling. Instead, many simply sit in the spaces once occupied by local restaurants.

This isn’t news for DC residents. But for someone who used to ride Amtrak a lot, it is a shock. I can’t imagine anyone local saying, “Meet me at Union Station for lunch.” It is also unappetizing for people who are just traveling through, especially those who aren’t interested in food they can get anywhere.

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9 thoughts on “The Rape of the Union Station Food Court

  1. pokep

    Wow! How to lose all credibility as the “Anti-Planner” in one post. What, pray tell, is the difference between demanding trendy restaurants in the food court and demanding trendy transportation modes in the urban plan?

    They both start with the misconception that mars this post. The Anti-Planner says, “Ashhenazy must have decided that chain restaurants paid more than locals”, as though the company can decide what the customers really want and how much they can pay for it. (The restaurants, after all, are the landlord’s actual customers.) The Pro-Planner says, “[Insert Agency Here] must have decided that people prefer cars and buses over light rail and trolleys.”

    It’s one short step from this misconception to the mis-prescription. In PDX, the airport has an explicit mandate to favor local, funky restaurants over the national chains. It scores points with the travel writers, but my observation has been that the longest lines are in front of the Starbucks and McDonalds, while the local restaurants go in and out of business with monotonous regularity. The only difference between this and transit funding is that light rail and trolleys are never allowed to go out of business.

  2. CapitalistRoader

    “It is also unappetizing for people who are just traveling through, especially those who aren’t interested in food they can get anywhere.”

    Thing is, people who are just traveling through are probably looking for familiar food. Myself, when I’m sitting in a airport for a layover especially before a long overseas flight, I’m more likely to stick with the familiar. I don’t need an upset stomach or worse six hours into a flight over the Pacific with another seven hours to go. Yeah, when I get to where I’m going I go for directly for the local food knowing that I’m close to my hotel in case I have to deal with something that didn’t agree with me. Which actually seems to happen once a trip in Asia.

    I’m not saying that Taco Bell or McDonalds are always safe choices for travelers–Chipotle’s problems last year comes to mind–but nothing wrong with going for bland food when on the road.

  3. pokep

    Frank . . . I have a good friend named Franco who was born in rural Italy, post WWII, and came to America about forty years ago. He’s wealthy, highly educated, and very, very Italian. When he wants something that reminds him of his home, guess where he goes. Olive Garden. To him, your “good Italian food” is overwrought and inauthentic.
    Denigrating a restaurant simply because it’s part of a successful chain is the most banal form of elitism. Insulting the folks that eat there is nothing but trollery. Franco and I won’t miss you at the Olive Garden.

  4. Frank

    Pokep . . . I had a good friend named Jessica whose grandparents were born in Sicily, post WWII, and came to America about seventy years ago. They were very, very Italian. When I started dating Jessica, she showed me how different fresh Italian food is from the manufactured bullshit that is Olive Garden. I’d never had fresh pasta. Only the boxed canned and boxed crap served at Olive Garden; you know, the same stuff you can make at home from a can or a box. Your good friend seems made up to me as “good Italian food” is indeed made with fresh ingredients rather than pre-packaged bullshit.

    “Denigrating a restaurant simply because it’s part of a successful chain is the most banal form of elitism.”

    I have done no such thing. I’m denigrating Olive Garden for being nothing less than prepackaged crap that you can prepare at home. I’m denigrating Red Lobster for serving low-quality frozen seafood that you can prepare at home.

    I have no issues with chains in general. I only have an issue with chains that produce shit products.

  5. Hugh Jardonn

    This post is a tempest in a teapot. It goes against the whole “antiplanner” concept, which is generally libertarian in outlook. And if you really want to piss and moan about DC restaurants, why not complain at high prices at the Museum of American History?

  6. The Antiplanner Post author

    An Olive Garden at Washington Union Station would be an improvement. What is most noticeable is that the crowds that once occupied the food court are gone. I don’t know if Walgreens is paying more than the restaurants that preceded it, but I doubt Taco Bell is. I haven’t looked at Ashhenazy’s finances, but I strongly suspect this was a mistake.

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