Next Course

Duplex Diner announces renovation, new ownership

by Will O’Bryan
Published on June 23, 2011, 2:29am | Comments

A bar mitzvah marks a pivotal transition in a Jewish boy's life, ushering the 13-year-old into adulthood. Eric Hirshfield takes his own business baby's birthday seriously – if not a little cheekily – celebrating his 18th & U Duplex Diner's 13th anniversary with a ''bar mitzvah'' all its own.

Rather than just a cute way to celebrate 13 years of owning and operating an Adams Morgan anchor, a venue that helped revitalize the intersection of 18th and U Streets NW, catering to gay power players and low-key locals alike with perfect cocktails and homey meatloaf, this bar mitvah also celebrates a transition: Hirshfield is selling his restaurant.

''In hindsight, I had a very good entry strategy,'' Hirshfield says of opening the diner, at 2004 18th St. NW, out of a venue he walked past daily on his way to work in civil engineering on the Ronald Reagan Building. ''Once I got open, I never really had a strategy. For the past few years, I thought it might be good to have an exit strategy.''

That's where Kevin Lee comes in. He's a familiar face to Duplex regulars, having worked at the venue for a decade, primarily as a bartender. With a master's degree in economics and international relations, the idea of business ownership held some obvious appeal. So much so that he often mentioned the idea of opening a restaurant of his own to his partner, Holger Lee, who eventually offered an obvious fix: Why not approach Hirshfield to see if he would consider selling the business?

''I'd been down here flipping burgers and swilling drinks for a dozen years,'' Hirshfield explains. ''I said, 'Let's talk.'''

That talk has led to Hirshfield's exit, sort of, following the June 25 Bar Mitzah celebration, and Lee's ascension to owner. And while the two would prefer not to discuss the financial details, they're happy to talk about how smooth a transition this will be – even with the diner closed for four weeks for a renovation starting June 28.

''The diner gets a fair amount of wear and tear,'' explains Lee, who will be working with Hirshfield to execute the project. ''The place is in need of a little bit of sprucing up. There are obvious things like painting and patching. It's not going to be a completely different place. We want to keep the look and feel similar.''

That means, Lee promises, that regulars can still count on a Madonna-themed bathroom. The Asbury Park bathroom, however – a nod to Hirshfield's New Jersey roots – is set for a makeover, with a contest set to determine its new theme.

During the renovation, Lee promises that regulars will still get to enjoy a little Duplex fix as he offers roving installments of the diner – possibly called the ''Duplex Diner Road Trip'' – at nearby venues. First up is Thursday, June 30, at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, just across the street.

''We'll have the whole first floor to ourselves,'' Lee says. ''We'll have the same bartenders, faces people will recognize. Traditionally, the Duplex Diner and Eric have had a really good relationship with the neighbors, and we'd love to stay in touch with the crowd.''

As for Hirshfield, 42, he promises that his Duplex departure is not a retirement. Certainly he'll be taking time off, likely spending some weeks in Nicaragua, where he visits regularly. But he plans to get back in the swing of things acting as a sort of business guru, helping to get struggling enterprises off the ground, perhaps starting new ones, applying all he's learned with Duplex – where he'll continue to visit.

''You won't see me down there busing tables and seating people,'' Hirshfield stresses. ''You'll see me down there as a customer. Most customers down there act like they own the place anyway.''

For the full list of Duplex Diner ''Bar Mitvah'' events, June 23 to 27, as well as for updates and information about Duplex events during the renovation, visit the diner's page on Facebook or duplexdiner.com.