Vive L'Enfant!

L'Enfant Cafe co-owners Jim Ball and Christopher Lynch on a decade of whipping up playful passion -- and expanding the empire

Interview by Will O'Bryan
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on April 18, 2013, 10:14am | Comments

At the last turn of the century, Jim Ball, a New Jersey native, was working in PR and marketing, another dynamic transplant to Manhattan. Christopher Lynch, meanwhile, had left his North Carolina roots to work in the corporate world of Estee Lauder, first in D.C., then New York.

''He was a 'spritzer,''' Ball says, teasing the business-minded Lynch. It's a familiarity that comes not only from being business partners, but having once been romantic partners.

L'Enfant Cafe: Jim Ball and Christopher Lynch

L'Enfant Cafe: Jim Ball (right) and Christopher Lynch

(Photo by Todd Franson)

While the two eventually split, turns out they're masters of co-parenting. The kid in this equation is L'Enfant Cafe, turning 10 years old on April 25. In that decade, this neighborhood spot at the intersection where the worlds of Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan collide, on the corner of 18th Street and Florida Avenue NW, has boomed. Or La Boum'ed? After all, ''La Boum'' is the café's übersuccessful brunch party of music, mayhem and mimosas. Along with the two-year old La Boum, there's SpeakEasy, the newer evening of live entertainment. But the stalwart -- nearly as old as the café itself -- is L'Enfant's annual Bastille Day Bash.

It's not just fun and games, though. The grand beers of Europe are covered. Want to don that beret and kick back with a pastis on the café patio? No problem. Moules? Frites? Crepes? Oui, oui, oui!

From its prior iteration as a cat-themed coffee shop, L'Enfant Cafe has turned the tables – and shows no signs of slowing down. Rather, Ball and Lynch have set their sights on expansion.

While the café's namesake Pierre L'Enfant may have had a major hand in the designing the District, Ball and Lynch have their own designs, marked by a playfulness and passionate creativity. Whether for Dining Out for Life, for brunch or a boisson, these masters of the house would like to welcome you into their world – a bit of old Pierre, a dash of Willy Wonka, and maybe a sprinkling of the ''Green Fairy.'' Or was that Joey Arias?

METRO WEEKLY: How long did it take you to open L'Enfant Cafe?

JIM BALL: The start – from when we thought this would be a fun thing to do – was Valentine's Day, 2002. We sort of did it as a gift to each other. We got the lease in January 2003 and opened in April.

MW: And is the café specifically French? Belgian?

CHRISTOPHER LYNCH: I would say we're European. We don't say we're French or Belgian. Our customers tell us that. We just think of ourselves as being European.

MW: You're not diehard Francophiles?

BALL: No. People come in and say, ''This is the best Belgian café I've ever been to.'' Or, ''Where are you from in France?'' And I say, ''New Jersey.'' [Laughs.]

Jim Ball and Christopher Lynch at L'Enfant Cafe

Jim Ball (right) and Christopher Lynch at L'Enfant Cafe

(Photo by Todd Franson)

LYNCH: We've been to Paris, but we also lived in the East Village, which has a lot of small French bistros and cafés, just like in Paris. At the time, Bistro Du Coin was the only thing close, so we kind of came in and dove into a niche of being a European café with a patio.

BALL: There is a certain sense of fun about France. The thing a lot of Europeans do very well, but particularly in Paris, is the café. One of the sine qua nons about where we were going to locate this restaurant was that it had to have a patio. When we stumbled upon this little corner, it just screamed what we could do with a patio – and how cute the inside could be.

MW: With L'Enfant Cafe being a Valentine's Day gift, is there any lesson you might share with couples doing business together?

LYNCH: Yes. Don't do business together.

BALL: [Laughs.] Especially if he's Christopher.

LYNCH: There's a reason they say that. Probably about six months after we opened –

BALL: We'd been together probably three years by that point. We opened the doors and broke up six months afterwards. People say, ''Oh, the restaurant destroyed your relationship.'' It might've exposed some flaws in it. Conversely, it exposed the strengths of our friendship. That was nine-and-a-half years ago, and we're best friends, right?

LYNCH: Yes.

BALL: We know how the other thinks. We can have a dead-on fight, and two minutes later be back up. That might be part of the energy of the thing. I know what he's thinking, he knows how I'm going to react – well, a lot of the time. It's a very good partnership with a lot of trust, a lot of history. There were just a couple months of ugly.

LYNCH: I think the passion for the business, developing what L'Enfant is, this unique little spot, that passion just kind of led us through that rough spot.

MW: What brought you to this – owning a café together – in the first place?

BALL: We both decided to change our lives to do something that was a dream for both of us.

LYNCH: I wanted a lifestyle change, and it had two criteria. One, I had to learn something new. I'd been in the same field for so long. Second, I wanted to work for myself. A passion for making it work drove us through the rough spots.

BALL: If we were fighting about something, having a heated little moment, one of us would say, ''Right now, are we honoring the dream?'' That was sort of defusing. It might not resolve it, but we'd go back to our separate corners, lick our wounds and start again the next day.

Then we got our cadence – retained our cadence, I should say, because we never lost it.

MW: I've spoken to some entrepreneurs who have told me that the exact nature of the business was irrelevant to their plan. The nature of a business is, after all, to make a profit. But that doesn't seem your primary motivation.

BALL: I think we did it to make people happy. Two of those people we wanted to make happy were ourselves.

I was doing corporate and having a good time with what I was doing, owned my own business. But you're somewhat restricted by the clients you have. I was doing some very large corporate clients that were somewhat conservative, not as playful as I wanted my life to be. I thought this would be fun, that we could do something fun, that it would stretch our creativity to see what we could do.

LYNCH: I sit with people at dinner and they just complain about their jobs. And I think to myself that there's not one day that I wake up and say, ''Gosh, I don't want to go to work.''

MW: I'm guessing you both have pretty grueling schedules with the café, though.

LYNCH: True, it is tiring. It is sometimes mentally and physically exhausting. But it's also challenging and exciting, as well. Those two elements keep you up, keep you going through it. I am not worn out after 10 years of doing this. I'm actually feeling more in a sweet spot than I did five years ago.

BALL: Because there are two of us – two men, one child, ''l'enfant'' – it's like two parents taking care of the kid. Mommy can take the night off once in a while, because Daddy's got Junior. We can hand off our load once in a while. Or the two of us can together kick out a solution for something one of us is stuck on.

MW: Why did you choose Washington? Why not Manhattan, where you were living at the time?

BALL: We thought about New York. It crystallized in my mind when I was here at Easter, at a friend's house, sitting outside and watching spring come so early. I saw all the flowers and trees and grass and sky – in Manhattan you don't really get to see spring appear so dramatically unless you go to one of the parks. I thought, ''Wow, what a pretty city. I could maybe live here.''

When I mentioned to Christopher, ''Hey, why don't we do this in D.C.?'' it was like I'd asked him to chop off his nuts. [Impersonating Lynch.] ''I just got out of there!''

MW: Once you settled on D.C., was it easy to pick a spot?

LYNCH: There is some sort of chakra at this intersection for me. I have owned two places, rented one or two places, now own a business all within a three-block radius of this intersection. There's something about this intersection that keeps drawing me here and won't let me leave.

BALL: The place kept calling to us. Eric Hirshfield at the Duplex Diner said, ''You really should talk to the guy next door.'' Things kept falling into place.

MW: Did you already know Eric?

LYNCH: No. We were dining there while we were down on a field visit to find a place. We just happened to have a burger at Duplex and asked our waiter, ''Do you know of any places?'' He said, ''Let me get the owner over,'' and the owner was Eric, who said, ''What about the place next door?'' From there, we looked at it from a different angle and saw a lot of potential -- corner location, patio, good neighborhood.

BALL: We don't consider ourselves competitors. We consider ourselves neighbors. If you need to borrow something, it's helpful. If they're crazy on a Thursday night, the staff might come over and use our restrooms, because there's a line there. We have that with the neighbors around us.

MW: There's a bit of text on your website that reads, ''D.C.'s Best Secret.'' But you guys pull in a crowd. Doesn't seem like much of a secret.

LYNCH: Well, it is to a lot of people. It's a very small, intimate space. We can only get so many people in here. That's part of the charm. The intimacy is something special here.

BALL: You can go into a quiet corner. But if you come in here alone, it's intimate enough that if you bang into somebody that is friendly…. We have a very friendly crowd.

LYNCH: It's so close, you're almost forced to talk to someone. It's kind of an interesting social experiment. It's really the café experience. Negative comments we get sometimes are really from people who don't understand it. ''Oh, the tables are too close together.''

BALL: ''That place is so crowded, no one goes there.''

LYNCH: ''The music is too loud.'' It's a person who really thinks Applebee's or a big-box restaurant -- that's their place. They're not used to a building that's 120 years old, and a European environment.

BALL: You kind of get that when they walk in the door and say, ''Why, oh why, do they have a disco ball hanging from the ceiling?'' ''Why does the owner have a tambourine in his hand?'' [Walks to a corner of the dining and retrieves two tambourines.] Not only do we have one, but two.

We're really – Christopher has coined the phrase – one of the best people-watching corners in D.C. We're an intersection of five streets here, but we're not a big circle. We're the gateway to Adams Morgan. Sit on this corner in good weather, you'll normally hear, ''Hey, there'' or ''Hey, girl!'' The next thing you know, chairs are coming over, a table of two evolves into a table of eight. It's really a fun, social experience to sit out there.

Jim Ball and Christopher Lynch at L'Enfant Cafe

Jim Ball (right) and Christopher Lynch at L'Enfant Cafe

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: I would guess that on, say, a Tuesday night, it's pretty calm, that you'd pull in a lot of neighborhood regulars. It can't always be La Boum.

LYNCH: It's a living room for a lot of the neighbors, really. This bar becomes their entertainment. Repeat customers really make this business what it is. They're our bread and butter. We have people who come in five nights a week.

BALL: I love when our busboys – who are full members of our staff – walk out onto the patio and say, ''Hello, Donovan. How's work?'' Or, ''Hi, Kitty.'' I don't know if at a lot of restaurants the busboys know the customers' names. People will walk in and be greeted by the busboy, the owner, the bartender and three of the servers.

That welcome is catalytic for people who are new to the restaurant. I don't want to say we're clique-y, because we're not. But there's a catalytic exchange.

There's something about this corner, the patio, the staff, the approachability of the menu that makes me very proud. I would hang out here. I had company last weekend. It was Saturday, a beautiful day, and I said, ''I want to go to a fun café and hang out on the patio. But I'm not going to go work.'' After thinking about it, we came here, but I said, ''I'm not here!'' We sat there and had a great time. I thought, ''This is a fun restaurant.'' And I own it.

LYNCH: We had a spontaneous guitar player on the patio.

BALL: We had a burlesque dancer inside. We had children on scooters. We had neighbors singing. We had people dancing on chairs inside, and we had eggs Benedict and mimosas going on the patio. I said, ''Could we add just one more thing to the equation?'' And I think we did.

LYNCH: Could you say this is the European version of Cheers?

BALL: I'd say it's Cirque du Soleil meets a croissant. [Laughs.]

MW: Vibrant as it may be, I don't imagine you envisioned dancing on the bar.

LYNCH: No, I did not.

BALL: We sort of envisioned ourselves dancing on this bar from the moment we opened. The bar is the width of our two feet. Truly, as soon as we put this bar in, the first thing we did was get up on it to see if it was sturdy enough to dance on it.

For the vision of L'Enfant Cafe, we took elements we liked from different places and we wanted to put them all in the bucket. We got the beer we liked from one restaurant. We took the patios from the French restaurants. We took the craziness from – that was kind of from our parties. And we came up with this. We storyboarded it, even before we had a place. We put these boards up, cut out from books, magazines, whatever, to get a visual feel, the texture of the place. We came up with three boards – I think we still have them somewhere. We looked at 'em about six years into it and thought, ''My God, everything we put on the boards, we put in here.'' From the bowls to the napkins, to the chairs on the patio, the flowers outside.

LYNCH: That's the same thing that happened with La Boum. We used visual boards, put everything up there that you want it to be. We were cleaning out the office the other day and we pulled 'em out. Everything was on them – check, check, check, check.

MW: So, what was on those boards?

LYNCH: An enhanced menu.

BALL: People dancing on chairs.

LYNCH: Lots of Champagne.

BALL: People eating eggs Benedict. ''Fun.''

LYNCH: ''Booked up/Hard to get into'' was actually written on the board. You wouldn't expect this tiny, little jewel-box-sized café to be having a brunch that's sold out for four months in advance, burlesque performers on a Saturday afternoon.

There was even a picture of Lady Bunny as a DJ. Lo and behold, a year later – though it wasn't for La Boum – Lady Bunny was performing in our restaurant. It's a little bit more than coincidence. It's putting something out there and it just kind of happens.

BALL: We had the words on the boards: ''Fun.'' ''Joyous.'' ''Happy.'' It's really great to have all your dreams come true, and it's fun to have someone to make them come true with. One of the surprises for me opening a restaurant is all the great people you meet coming through the door. They've made this ride even more fun. It's like, ''Who's playing with us tonight?''

MW: Sometimes you know in advance, like when you have someone scheduled for SpeakEasy.

LYNCH: SpeakEasy came about because Jim and I used to go to Bar d'O in New York City. That's where Joey Arias, Sherry Vine, Flotilla [DeBarge] and Raven O all got their start.

BALL: The nice thing about SpeakEasy is the room is the stage.

MW: There certainly is no fourth wall.

BALL: That's the type of theater we do as the restaurant. This is the show.

LYNCH: This is very much like Bar d'O was. Same size, same look, same feel. When Joey walked into the room, he got it. Instantly. They all got it.

BALL: One of Joey's jokes is, ''I just got back from playing Central Park for 10,000 people. And here I am. At L'Enfant.'' ''I just did Carnegie Hall with my jazz band. And here I am. At L'Enfant.'' And then he spits his gum on the table. He's turned down contracts in other cities because he's booked here with us. He's become a friend, as a matter of fact.

MW: You've also got the Bastille Day Bash. Is that the biggest Bastille Day celebration in D.C.?

LYNCH: In North and South America, probably. It started as a patio party, that was it. It organically grew, every year, doubled in size to the point where the ''French Maid Race,'' there were 600 people watching this, blocking traffic for 10 minutes.

BALL: I think I bought 900 linear feet of fencing to box the party in. Now we're up to 4,000 feet. The second year, we had lines around the block to get in.

MW: What role has L'Enfant Cafe had in changing D.C., or maybe just this corner, over the past decade?

LYNCH: We've put our foot out there and helped push the envelope a little bit. I once had someone tell me, an editor of a big magazine here in town, when I was thinking of doing the La Boum concept, ''Oh, it will never happen. In D.C., it will never work.'' Well, you know what? That only makes me want to try even harder, because it's a challenge.

BALL: I think people are people, and given the right invitation to come play, those who want to will show up and play. Maybe what was lacking [in D.C.] was the invitation. We just wrote the invitation, and people said, ''Yeah, I'll go to that party.'' I don't think it's because D.C. people are more or less conservative than New Yorkers. I think it's just having the invitation.

MW: How do you top all of this to mark your 10-year anniversary?

BALL: The announcement is that we're going to open for lunch, Monday through Friday. It's a factor of how the neighborhood has changed for the better. That's a pretty big announcement for us.

Christopher and I want it to be done right, so we are going to be server and bartender as a team during lunch. That should be a floor show itself. We'll see how long that survives. [Laughs.]

LYNCH: We will briefly mention that in this 10th year we're working on a new venue. It won't be a ''L'Enfant brand,'' but it will be a ''L'Enfant brain.'' It's not inked, but it may possibly happen in the fall as a large venue on H Street NE. It will contain two venues within one venue. One is a theater, much like a [Café] Carlyle meets the Kit Kat Club. The other will be a dance hall. Just as we brought dining to a different place in D.C. – dinner theater, so to speak – this will be a nightclub taken up to a Las Vegas style. We won't do anything that doesn't excite us, so it will be Vegas-Cirque do Soleil style.

BALL: We're going to dig up Pierre L'Enfant and bring some drama to H Street.

LYNCH: It's still a concept, but we've got the boards out. Every time we get the boards out, we've put it together.

BALL: Keep your eyes open for an announcement. The news here for L'Enfant is we've been known for lots of fun parties, for the nice patio, a decent menu. We brought in a new chef to make the menu more dynamic – though still approachable, cost-wise. We've enhanced our patio with an awning, really beautiful furniture. And for the Bastille Day Bash, happily we are once again partnering with US Airways to offer as the grand door prize two roundtrip tickets to Paris, maybe more.

We are fundamentally, at our heart, a café for the drinking and dining experience. Then we have these events to enhance the experience, to put a fresh face on the experience. It's dinner and show – which could be Joey Arias, people dancing on the chairs, or people walking on the street. We are a mom-and-pop shop. It's our investment, our sweat, our personality – hopefully. You're sort of in our house, and you're welcome to be. It's an honor, and we're happy to do it.

L'Enfant Cafe & Bar is participating in Dining Out for Life, Thursday, April 25, as a 50 percent donor. L'Enfant Cafe is located at 2000 18th St. NW. For more information, call 202-319-1800 or visit lenfantcafe.com.

Watch a video of L'Enfant's chef Leo Morales prepare pan-seared trout and eggplant ratatouille at MetroWeekly.com/foodwise.


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