It's 8:15 p.m. on a Friday night at the 18th & U Duplex Diner and the joint, as they say, is jumpin'.
The bar area to the right is packed with casually well-dressed men, many of whom sip oversized martinis. And there isn't an open seat in the restaurant area to the left, where even more men -- and a healthy smattering of women -- are enjoying everything from hand-made fresh Angus beef burgers to blackened tuna steak to a velvety rich, baked macaroni and cheese prepared with penne pasta. Occasionally, a customer will get up to table hop and glad hand friends at neighboring tables.
The atmosphere at the Duplex is social, warm, inviting and, most of all, fun. The staff is quick, conversational, and delightful. And the food is, well, just about as good as homestyle food gets.
And at the center of this social hive buzzes its host -- and its heart and soul -- owner Eric Hirshfield.
The 35-year-old, soft-spoken New Jersey native has become a highly recognizable figure in our local gay world -- and his Duplex Diner, open since 1998, has become one of its brightest social centerpieces. It's the place you go to eat and be seen, to network, to spot a local gay celebrity or two.
Best of all, its eclectic, vibrant atmoshpere is anything but pretentious. And it has helped to revive the corner near the intersection of 18th and Florida Avenue NW, an area once beset by burnt-out buildings and now thriving.
As much as he's known for his irresistible char-broiled burgers, Hirshfield is similarly known for his generosity. And next Thursday, March 11, he continues a tradition begun several years ago by joining more than a hundred and thirty participating restaurants donating anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of their revenues to Food & Friends' Dining Out for Life annual event.
Hirshfield is one of three restaurateurs donating a full one hundred percent of the till. But then, anyone who knows Eric Hirschfield shouldn't be surprised. After all, the guy is what we call a real mensch.
METRO WEEKLY: What got you into the restaurant business?
ERIC HIRSHFIELD: It kind of was a secondary thought, opening a restaurant. I used to work in civil engineering -- I worked on the big Ronald Reagan Building downtown, I was one of the project engineers on site. And I would walk to work every day. During my walk, I'd pass these stores here [on the corner of 18th and U] -- six stores, all boarded up, vacant, distressed, trees growing out the front windows. And I'd peer in the window and say "Wow, what a great location. Somebody should really do something with this." At the same time, I was a little disenchanted with my career in the corporate world. So those two sentiments collided -- being disenchanted and then seeing this really exciting new opportunity.
For me, it was more of just the idea of developing and renovating a space at a great location. So I contacted the landlord, who lived in Jersey, and got talking with her. She knew it as vacant stores -- she always had bad tenants, she had a lot of headaches. She had no idea what she had down here. In fact, during one of our discussions, I said, "Shelly, you really should come down here and see Adams Morgan." And she said, "Who's he?"
She owned the real estate, she'd inherited it from her grandparents, she had it forever. She called them the stores and to her all they were was a rent check. And a headache. I was able to impress upon her that I was not going to be a headache, that I was going to do this right and that I was not a fly-by-night operator. We developed a good phone relationship. You know, we still haven't met. We've still done this whole thing over this phone.
MW: Well, she certainly must be happier now.
ERIC: She's very happy. I'm happy as well. We worked out a really good rent agreement. I'm paying way below market rate. But I dumped all these renovations into the building and I took the headache off of her hands. I take care of everything for her.
MW: I remember back when you started working on it. It was an empty shell.
ERIC: It was. And it was a pretty abrupt segue, coming from working with a tie in an office to being down here in a grimy, greasy site, fixing it up. But you know, it was somewhat of a continuum. My secondary thought was "Well, I guess I'm opening a restaurant." That was always in the back of my head. But it wasn't my passion. My passion was not to open a restaurant and bar. It was to develop a business, to create a space, to renovate, to take advantage of an opportunity.
MW: How did you decide on what type of food to serve?
ERIC: Since I didn't have a driving passion to open up a certain type of restaurant with a creative cuisine and a certain type of elegance, I went for the basics. Everything we do, we do very simply. We don't try to reinvent cuisine. It's all about keeping it real simple.
MW: Were you cooking originally?
ERIC: No, no. I've never cooked.
MW: So I'm guessing we should all be thankful.
ERIC: [Laughs.] Yes.
MW: Who developed the menu?
ERIC: I worked with a friend of a friend who was a chef in a similar American bistro type restaurant. I had an idea for what I wanted. I wanted standard American fare -- meatloaf, mashed potatoes, good sandwiches, salads, entrees, soup. So we worked for about two or three weeks coming up with recipes and a menu.
MW: You became known for your burgers pretty quickly. What's the secret?
ERIC: High-quality Angus beef. Not frozen, but fresh meat, delivered fresh. The patties are hand-made every day.
MW: Any of these recipes from the family? Meatloaf maybe?
ERIC: Meatloaf, I think I say it's mom's recipe, but --
MW: What? It's not? You mean that's a marketing ploy?
ERIC: [Laughs.] Well, mom's sounded good.
MW: How did you come up with the name?
ERIC: We originally had been using the name New Columbia Station, but three to four weeks before we were set to open, I came across the sign from the old 18th & T liquor store, where the Lauriol Plaza is now. And I thought, "This is perfect. 18th & T -- I'll change the T to a U. And then I took the word liquor and started rearranging the letters.
MW: Like a word game. But somehow or another you ended up with the word Duplex. There's no "X" in liquor.
ERIC: Well, they were installing these duplex receptacles all throughout the restaurant. And I kept hearing the electrician say, "I need a duplex over here! We need a duplex over there!" And I was probably doing the word game and I was like, "Duplex! That has an l, that has a u, the p could be the r. Duplex Diner!" So it kind of just happened. I'd been working real hard on coming up with a good name and good names just happen.
MW: That is the most convoluted naming story I've ever heard. I'm still not sure I understand it, but I applaud you on finding a great name, however you did it. It's a great restaurant design in that you really do get a wonderful separation of bar and dining area, yet there's a circular open flow to it.
ERIC: That was the core element of my whole business plan. It was a diner style restaurant with a neighborhood bar atmosphere. And it always was to make it so the two played together but still had some demarcation. You could be sitting at a table and drinking or you could be sitting at the bar and eating dinner. There's a lot of interplay between the two.
MW: Did you have any trouble with the neighborhood at all when trying to open?
ERIC: No. Quickly, up front, they were the first people that I went to. Knocked on doors and made myself available and went to condominium meetings and told them what I'm doing here. I would ask their ideas. So I immediately scored points with them for doing that. No problems up front.
MW: Do you have a voluntary agreement?
ERIC: I do have a voluntary agreement that has a lot of kooky language in there about how I have to take my trash out and which direction my exhaust needs to blow and when I can open my windows and doors.
MW: What do you think of voluntary agreements?
ERIC: Well, I have to say that I have participated in the nightlife reform process that's been going on, vis a vis Mark Lee -- he was my entry into it. The voluntary agreement in its ideal sounds like it would work because it's two parties coming together and working out an agreement, but what happens to it is that it gets morphed into this blackmail-type document that the neighbors use. And I remember the neighborhood saying to me -- after I had gone to them and I thought they were my friends -- "Well you know that we're going to have to protest your license. It's nothing against you, it's just the only way that we can initiate a voluntary agreement." And these were people that I knew as supposed supporters.
I made the voluntary agreement work for me, but other business owners aren't so fortunate. And that's where the voluntary agreement becomes a vehicle for the neighbors to strong arm you. Don't get me wrong, it has the best of intentions. But put in the wrong hands, it's dangerous.
MW: What do you think the solution is?
ERIC: A voluntary agreement should not be a preemptive measure. And there needs to be some sort of sunset provision. After a year or two of certain items not applying, we need to remove them from the license. I still have provisions in there saying I need to have a double front door entryway, two front doors, with like an air lock to prevent noise. Now the noise never presented itself, so I didn't put one in and nobody complained. But I'm in violation of my liquor license. If some hard-nose tough ass wanted to cause me trouble, they could. And you can print this -- you're not exposing me because one of the things that I did when I went to testify at the reform hearings was to read out my voluntary agreement. And then I said, "I confess. I'm in violation of all these items." One by one I started checking them off. "I do not have a double door entryway. There have been times when we've had dancing in here. We keep our window open after midnight. We take our trash out at three in the morning." All these I'm in violation of." Seven years later, it's all still there. A voluntary agreement should be to solve a problem that exists, not that could exist.
Even good operators who are abiding all the rules and the neighborhood embraces them, are stuck with these voluntary agreements that were preemptively drawn up. The neighborhood comes out and just socks it to you. It's not a voluntary agreement anymore, it's a mandatory agreement. Everybody has to have one. It really discourages businesses. It's a horrible environment.
MW: I wouldn't necessarily call this a gay restaurant or a gay bar. However, it is known for attracting a strongly gay clientele.
ERIC: We say we're a straight-friendly restaurant.
MW: How did that happen? What is it that cultivated such a gay following here?
ERIC: I think it's a reflection of the Diner's personalities -- its owner and employees and people, its heart and soul. I'm gay. And my friends are gay. And a good number -- thirty, forty, maybe fifty percent of my staff is gay. At times it's been higher, at times it's been lower. And we've always just had a very familiar relationship between friends and staff and customers and former staff. There's no separation between whether you're a friend, a customer, a staff member, a neighbor.
MW: Did you notice a tipping point?
ERIC: When we opened it was a very even mix of gay and straight. And as the years went by, it became more gay, again as a reflection of the personalities of the diner. It wasn't a calculated move on anybody's part. It wasn't a decision. It was more just a result of who we are.
MW: How do you think your staff sees you?
ERIC: How do they see me? That's a tough question. I think they see me as a fair manager that gives them a lot of room. They're autonomous, they can make their own decisions, but then at any given point I will, if I don't like the decisions that I've given them the authority to make, come in and correct them. You know, like any employee/employer relationship, it can at time be tenuous or stressed, but at the end of the shift, at the end of the night, at the end of the week, we always clear the air and move to a higher place, a higher relationship. So we keep building bonds through that.
And that's why people have been here four or five years. In this business it's all about heat of the moment -- the kitchen's on fire, the customers are screaming, the glasses are breaking. Too crowded, too loud. And all this is going on and you have these quick interactions: "Get this! I need that! Don't! Quick! Grab this!" And you'll be curt and angry with each other in the heat of the moment, but then at the end of the night, there's positive closure. That's what builds the bonds.
MW: How do you think your customers see you?
ERIC: First and foremost as their host. I'm just making sure that everybody is attended to and is happy and is recognized The restaurant business is like a show every night. And you have your actors and your audience, and so my job is to direct it all.
MW: Many highly visible restaurateurs are very loud, gregarious, larger than life. That's not you. You're very laid back, down to earth.
ERIC: But at the same time the restaurant business imposes those characteristics on you. In hosting I want to see everything that's going on and see everybody I know, all the interactions going on. The restaurant business does that. It'll take any introverted person and make them extraverted.
MW: You're Jewish.
MW: So why a diner not a deli? This town needs a real deli. Krupin's has gone into the toilet and don't even get me started on Stacks.
ERIC: Delis are just too difficult in this day and age to run and keep the quality up. If you're a deli you have to be true to the deli and you have to have the best pastrami and corned beef. I have a tiny kitchen and if it came to having all those Jewish ingredients and Jewish specialties, I couldn't execute it. I'd love to have one, but…
MW: At least you have pickles. Love those pickles.
ERIC: They're my gesture to the deli cuisine.
MW: You've become known for your fishbowl-sized martinis.
ERIC: There's a big controversy because we've changed our martini glass. It's the same glass, just without the stem. It has the bowl and the base, just no stem. And everybody was in an uproar for the first week or two but now people have gotten used to it.
MW: Why the change?
ERIC: The other ones just were too delicate, too fragile. They would break too easily. As well, when it would get so crowded, it was tough to maneuver the crowd when you're holding this long-stemmed glass. Now you just hold the ball.
MW: How apropos. Do you have a favorite dish on your menu?
ERIC: Probably the pork chops. Some nice Jewish boy, huh? Pork chops are great. The tuna is a favorite. The meat loaf -- I still love the meat loaf.
MW: Do you eat here every night?
MW: Do you cook for yourself at all?
ERIC: No. My refrigerator is empty. This is my kitchen, my place of dinner.
MW: Let's talk about Dining Out for Life.
ERIC: It's a great night. Our busiest, by far. It's an extremely fun night, for both customers and staff and everybody. We encourage fast turn around that night. And we can even go and say to a table, "You know people are waiting, and a way you can donate more is by leaving." Because actually if we don't turn tables it's less money that I have to donate. I'm donating everything -- profit as well, so it's really coming from a genuine place when we want to turn tables.
MW: So your advice for our readers who choose to eat at Duplex next Thursday night?
ERIC: Eat a lot, drink a lot. And run.
The 18th & U Duplex Diner, at 2004 18th Street NW, will be donating 100% of its receipts to Dining Out for Life, which helps to support Food & Friends. For a list of the more than 130 participating area restaurants and their donation percentages, see our complete guide to Dining Out for Life on page 35, visit www.foodandfriends.org or call 202-582-DINE.