Phyllis Skipwith works behind the counter at Horace and Dickies, a takeout place near H Street owned by Dickie Shannon.
Long before H Street Northeast was defined by dance and theater companies, high-end residential development, music clubs and gastro pubs, Dickie Shannon opened Horace and Dickie’s, a takeout spot specializing in fried fish that became a local landmark.
About 22 years later, the menu is still simple and dirt cheap. The jumbo fish sandwich is $5.80. The six-piece fish plate with two sides is $9.40. The crab cake is $8. There’s more fried stuff — chicken, catfish, croaker.
None of it is particularly healthy, and the fare defies foodie trends that fetishize local ingredients.
“I get the whiting from Argentina, the sea trout from Uruguay, the croaker from Uruguay,” Shannon said.
But there’s always a line, and that’s just the way Shannon likes things as he contemplates the future of the neighborhood and his business.
“I’m 75. I’m still working. I enjoy what I’m doing. I see different people every day,” he said in a recent interview.
The H Street area, also called the Atlas District after the refurbished theater that now houses a live drama and performing arts center, has boomed in the past 10 years, revamping a commercial corridor that was ravaged by the 1968 riots.
“It was literally overnight. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Karina Ricks, a principal at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, a transportation consulting firm.
She helped lead the city’s redevelopment efforts when she was at the D.C. Office of Planning from 2000 to 2005. “Change happened so fast, which is remarkable for planners to see,” she said. Ricks explained that the surrounding neighborhood organizations brought a simple message to city planners in 2000: “We need you to fix H Street.”
The city’s H Street revitalization plan really got moving in 2002. The area continues to grow, as anyone looking for a parking space or a reservation at Granville Moore’s can attest.
It’s hard to imagine, in an area that now boasts such development, how different it once was.
“When I was first elected six years ago, H Street was characterized by chaos and disorder,” said D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who represents the area. “It was known to be not safe. It used to be you parked on the sidewalk of Horace and Dickie’s, then went inside and ordered your food.”
Shannon opened shop in May 1990. In the years before that, the area just to the north of H Street, Trinidad, was the base of operations for Rayful Edmond, who introduced crack cocaine to the city and ran his criminal enterprise out of the neighborhood.
According to a report on D.C. crime in the 1990s from the Institute for Public Safety and Justice at the University of the District of Columbia, the community adjoining Horace and Dickie’s “was euphemistically called ‘Little Saigon’ by people in the neighborhood because of the inadequate street lighting, abandoned vehicles, deteriorated housing and small businesses, a large number of liquor stores, and poor infrastructure of public schools.”
But Shannon held on and built a loyal customer base.
And even with the expansion — some would say saturation — of food outlets in the area, Horace and Dickie’s has thrived, according to Shannon, who is considering expanding his business.
“It’s gotten better because of the mix of people. I get a good mixture of faces coming in,” he said. He would like, at a minimum, to set up outdoor seating, but he has gotten a slow response from the city. “I first asked permission about a year ago. Haven’t heard anything. Time to call them again,” he said.
‘A Lot of Exposure’
This isn’t Shannon’s first foray in the restaurant business. In 1959, he took over the operations of an establishment in his hometown of Atlantic City, N.J., a surf-and-turf joint called Margaret’s, which he ran until 1963.
At that point, he was thinking about a move, as the seaside getaway town had fallen on hard times. He made the move to Washington soon after. For several years, he worked for a Navy contractor, Maxima Corp.
Along the way, he operated another business, a women’s clothing boutique near Eastern Market. Then, in 1989, he and a friend, Charles “Horace” Forman, decided to go into business together and set up their takeout place on 12th Street Northeast.
“Horace was a friend of mine. He was a sportsman, a number-backer before they made numbers legal here,” Shannon said, referring to the D.C. Lottery. Despite Horace’s name being prominently displayed to this day, the partnership in the business didn’t last long.
“I bought him out after six weeks,” Shannon said. “He said, ‘This is too much work, and I’m too old.’” They remained friends, and Shannon stuck with the business name.
One thing that definitely helped Shannon keep pace with some of the changes in the area: The Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” episode in 2009, when host Adam Richman enthusiastically embraced the jumbo fish sandwich and chewed up the scenery as best he could for his gourmand-heavy viewership.
Since the episode aired on Oct. 21, 2009, Shannon said, there has been an uptick in foodie tourists that he otherwise rarely got.
“Oh, Adam,” Shannon said with a chuckle.
“A lot of people will come in, say, ‘We’re in town from California, and we just had to come.’ ... It’s given us a lot of exposure. That’s been a plus,” he said.
There have been other updates. You can follow Horace and Dickie’s on Twitter. The menu, behind the counter and cash register, is now digital. Shannon installed it last summer, and he plans to eventually provide some multimedia feeds on it so that people don’t get too antsy while they’re waiting in line.
“I want to put a feed for news, one for sports,” he said.
Overall, though, Horace and Dickie’s is still a throwback. And regardless of the direction the neighborhood takes, Shannon plans on being around for a while.
“I don’t have to do this; I do this because I like it,” he said.
He’s concerned about the fabric of the neighborhood and unintended consequences of runaway growth.
“A lot of people in the neighborhood, they’ll either be taxed out or moved to sell,” he said. “The biggest difference between 1990 and now is the gentrification. ... Property values have just skyrocketed. It doesn’t seem like the housing bubble burst affected property values here at all. I don’t think it’s sustainable.”
So in a city defined in part by change — in occupants of the Capitol and White House, especially — Horace and Dickie’s is a place of constancy for a transient city.
“It’s not in exactly the same category, but it’s similar to Ben’s Chili Bowl,” Wells said, pointing out that both establishments held on in rough times.
For Ben’s, it was the riots. For Horace and Dickie’s, it was hangover from the crack epidemic and a long winter of neglect that followed.
Unprompted, Ricks also compared Shannon’s establishment to the venerable U Street institution. “He’s sort of the Ben’s Chili Bowl of H Street,” she said.
Both places certainly have their claim to a good local dish, although Shannon discounts that thesis.
“D.C. food is a variety of food. I don’t think there is any such thing” as a local specialty, he said.
But get enough tourists from California, and people might start identifying the fried whiting sandwich as quintessentially D.C.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.