Feb 18, 2022 - News

D.C.'s nightlife and culture comeback

Patrons wait in line outside of a D.C. bar.

Bargoers wait in line in June 2021. Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After a tumultuous couple of years for the food, beverage, and entertainment industries, the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture’s new director, Solana Vander Nat, says a comeback is near.

“The reason I wanted this position is because I want to be part of the solution that revitalizes D.C.’s nightlife economy,” Vander Nat, who worked and owned a business in the industry before becoming D.C.’s ‘nightlife mayor,’ tells Axios. 

Driving the news: This week Mayor Bowser dropped D.C.’s vaccine mandate and announced that the mask mandate would end on March 1.

  • Critics of D.C.’s COVID safety rules said they were a hassle for business owners, staff, and patrons, and welcomed their end. But there’s also concern that some diners will not feel safe eating out and will opt to stay home.

Vander Nat understands both sides of the equation. She says her own mother isn’t comfortable eating indoors at restaurants. But Vander Nat also worked with business owners who had concerns about the mandates’ impact.

  • “…We had a great response when we put the requirement in place and now we are excited to work with businesses on this next stage of the response,” she said in response to the mandate being lifted.

Zoom in: Vander Nat says her first three months on the job have been spent getting to know business owners and building more relationships in the hospitality community. 

She acknowledges that the industry faces a mountain of challenges, from staffing to COVID to supply chain issues, but says she’s encouraged by dropping COVID numbers and by seeing busy restaurants and venues.

  • The director tells Axios she herself couldn’t get into two different Columbia Heights restaurants recently because they were both packed with patrons. (No, she doesn’t use her title to get into the city’s hot spots.)
  • “What my mentality has been, with many establishments and operators, is one day at a time, and we’ll continue to move forward together,” Vander Nat says of helping businesses navigate pandemic uncertainty

The director maintained neutrality during her conversation with Axios when asked about Initiative 82. She said she wants whatever is best for constituents. She went on to say that her office is “monitor(ing) the situation“ when it comes to some recent D.C. unionization efforts.

She also wouldn’t pick favorites when asked about her favorite restaurants and bars, but said she does like to go out often and enjoys trying new spots.

Catch up quick: The Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture is a big umbrella that covers the District’s restaurants, music and entertainment venues, bars, and clubs.

  • The office has held hiring fairs to help local entrepreneurs combat staffing shortages (with more planned for the future).

The Bridge Fund program, managed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, is another resource aimed toward financially supporting small businesses through grants.

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