Cervera Brings Life to Street in Need of Aid
When native Washingtonian Xavier Cervera returned home three years ago after living elsewhere for nearly 20 years, one of the first things that he noticed was the disappointing bar offerings on Capitol Hill.
At 45 years old, Cervera didn’t feel comfortable going to the intern haunts on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, the ones with $2 beers, a barrage of fake IDs and sticky floors. He craved a grown-up bar with friendly service where locals could mingle over good food.
“I wanted a small little neighborhood place where Congressional types and people my age could hang out,” says Cervera, now 48. “There wasn’t really anything — as far as bars go — where I felt comfortable going.”
Since he had owned some bars in Miami Beach, Fla., Cervera took it upon himself to create his own watering hole on the Hill. He found space on Eighth Street Southeast and set to work on what would become Lola’s Barracks Bar and Grill, named for his late mother.
The bar opened its doors nearly two years ago and was a hit from the start. Congressional staffers, journalists and other D.C. professionals flocked to this 40-seat bar to catch a baseball game or rehash the day’s news over a plate of sloppy joe sliders. In fact, Lola’s was so popular that Cervera and his staff were turning away upward of 100 would-be customers a night.
“The response was overwhelming,” he recalls.
Cervera has been snatching up real estate on Barracks Row ever since. He has three properties open on the street — Lola’s, Molly Malone’s and the Chesapeake Room — and a fourth is in the works. He says he was initially drawn to the neighborhood because of its friendly vibe.
“It’s a very familial neighborhood where most people know everyone,” he says.
Molly Malone’s was the second bar that Cervera opened, a year after Lola’s. The place was named for a 17th-century Irish woman who spent her days as a fishmonger and her evenings as a prostitute.
“I wanted to go with a woman’s name next to Lola’s so the two ladies would be next to each other,” Cervera says. Molly’s now plays host to many fundraisers and receptions. Cervera says the second-floor bar is rented out eight to 12 times a week.
After opening two bars, Cervera decided it was time for a restaurant. He called up his old friend Robert Wood — a chef in Savannah, Ga. — and together they opened a seafood haven, the Chesapeake Room. The restaurant, which opened last month, is located less than two blocks from Lola’s and offers ample outdoor seating on the corner of Eighth and E streets Southeast.
“I wanted to go more organic, sustainable and high-end on the food,” Cervera explains.
The restaurant was designed to have a local feel. Several giant oil paintings that depict scenes from the mid-Atlantic region decorate the eatery, including one of a sailboat on the Chesapeake and another of the horses at Assateague Island. The bathrooms feature photos by Aubrey Bodine, who spent 50 years shooting regional scenes for the Baltimore Sun.
The menu at the Chesapeake Room is decidedly more upscale than Cervera’s other properties and offers local dishes, such as smoked Virginia oysters and roasted rockfish.
While the food may vary, one thing that Cervera’s restaurants and bars all have in common is craftsmanship. Each space is filled with long, gorgeous wooden bars and tables.
“I design every aspect of every place,” Cervera says. He first began remodeling places 20 years ago in Miami Beach.
“I would buy old boutique buildings and turn them into boutique bars,” he says. He opened his first bar, Norman’s Tavern, at age 28.
Cervera is working on opening a fourth property on the strip, Senart’s Oyster House. The building currently houses the Capitol Hill Veterinary Clinic, but it was home to Senart’s back in the early 20th century. Barracks Row “was one of the primary corridors in D.C. and was known for oyster houses,” Cervera explains.
After the oyster house opens, Cervera will own more bars and restaurants than anyone else on Barracks Row. With the growth of his restaurants, Cervera is also hoping to see other establishments open.
“I think Barracks Row will soon become part of the scene where there’s a lot of respect for restaurants,” he says. “If you look at the last seven restaurants that opened, you’re looking at only a two-year period, so word is out.”